“In childhood when we would play thieves and police, I would always be the thief. Being a thief must have become a habit, and now I’ve become a real one!”
—Azad Jalaluddin, pickpocket
On the hot and crowded streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), three thousand pickpockets ply their trade every day, three hundred of them circulating through police custody at any given time. JOURNALS OF A WILY SCHOOL takes viewers inside the world of these petty thieves and the detectives who doggedly pursue them, day in and day out.
With unprecedented access, first-time director Sudeshna Bose follows a young and talented pickpocket named Azad Jalaluddin, revealing in cinema verité style the many layers of his life. The eldest of five children, the 22-year-old lives with his family. While his sisters go to school and his father works in the wholesale fish trade, Azad spends his days picking pockets, using drugs and binging on Bollywood films. His mystified father voices frustration over the wayward son who fancies himself a don and compares himself to the stars of the big screen.
Azad speaks candidly about his profession, seemingly delighted to have a film crew following him about his day. He happily shares the tricks of his trade, which in Kolkata have been elevated to an art form.
To hone his craft, Azad attends an unusual school where a master pickpocket leads his attentive disciples through a series of challenges. In one, they must reach their hands into a bucket of water and retrieve a coin without creating ripples. In another, the students must carefully use a razor blade to slit a cloth wrapped around a melon, without cutting the melon’s smooth skin.
Although a thief, Azad maintains an ethical stance in certain areas. As a matter of course, he returns wallets to their rightful owners—usually by mail—after he has pilfered all cash and valuables. Following a particularly lucrative haul, he returns some small change to the wallet so its owner can buy cigarettes. “Have to help the poor guy,” he says.
But Azad’s ethics are put to the test when he inevitably lands himself in jail. Police detective Bidhan Saha, a hard-nosed cop with a fatherly bent, takes Azad under his wing, offering him a pardon and a salary if he will turn in his fellow thieves. The detective is convinced of Azad’s promise and works diligently to build rapport, visiting his home and even taking him on a beach vacation. Given a second chance and the hope for redemption, what choice will Azad make? Collaboration or incarceration? Loyalty or self-interest? Respectability or the lure of the city streets?
As it follows Azad’s dilemma, the film offers a fascinating look into crime and criminal justice in a city recognized the world over for its intense poverty. The former home of Mother Teresa, Kolkata—like much of India—is also a city in transition: a teeming metropolis with a growing economy and a burgeoning middle class. With more capital in the city, the stakes for those on both sides of the law are set ever higher.
JOURNALS OF A WILY SCHOOL is a classic tale of cops and robbers, set in changing and paradoxical times—for even as the ancient city creeps towards modernity, many of its inhabitants, like Azad, will remain caught in the age-old struggle to survive.
In August 2009, the film’s producer, Debu Bhattacharyya, reported that Azad had returned to his life as a pickpocket, noting that, despite the hardships, “He says that this is where his heart lies.” Police detective Bidhan Saha was continuing his work and expanding his networks of informants to address issues of national security.