India’s movie mania has drained some glitz from the once burgeoning circus biz, but groups like Great Rayman Circus still provide the only live glamour some villages ever see. When Starkiss‘s Dutch documentarians Chris Relleke and Jascha de Wilde venture inside the big top, they find a last refuge for the country’s disabled—dwarf clowns tell of hometown horrors that drove them to Rayman. But the focus here is on Rayman’s child and teenage showgirls, who function explicitly as acrobats and implicitly as objects of desire. Unlike the J.Lo’d Bollywood starlets shimmying through celluloid fantasies of mobility, these girls appear in the flesh, entertaining ecstatic children, veiled mothers, leering dads. Their grueling routines—the “starkiss” involves biting a piece of canvas attached to a rope, then being spun at ceiling level—inspire as much lust and scorn as awe.
De facto slaves, most are sold into the trade by poor Nepalese families. We’re told by a chatty middle manager how the exchange goes down: He approaches debtors, offers them enough cash to fix the roof, and then smuggles their daughters across the border. Living in a corrugated corral and emerging only to perform, the girls work for years to “pay back” their captors. Unlike children trafficked to Mumbai’s “cages” (the subject of Andrew Levine’s recent doc The Day My God Died), they aren’t victims of continuous rape, but are similarly stigmatized, having no easy passage from circus life back into conservative society.
While the filmmakers’ privileged access to the circus may have resulted in interviewees stressing loneliness rather than abuse, their pain is clear. One teen describes her romance with a male performer she only can see in fleeting moments before her act. An older girl describes teaching the kids what little writing she knows. And even the youngest worry about what will happen when they outgrow the act, rightly fearing that sex work and menial labor are more likely than marriage.