City life on celluloid

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 04/10/2014
The second Urban Lens film festival in Bangalore dwelt on how the poor create space for themselves, and offered insights into urban development.
VIKRAM JOHRI found a sprawling panorama with films exploring city life, nostalgia for home, and longings for space. PIX: A scene from “Dear Mandela”

At Urban Lens, the film festival organised at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Human Settlements, documentaries by a host of filmmakers were screened. From classics such as Deepa Dhanraj's Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko (about communal violence in Hyderabad) to fresher talents discussed below, the festival, only in its second edition, proved to be a feast for both connoisseurs and students of urban development. 

Speaking of her animation short, Printed Rainbow, which was screened on Day 2 of the festival, Gitanjali Rao elaborated on her process of filmmaking. The film is about an old woman, modelled on Rao's mother, who is deeply disenchanted with her big city life. She lives, presumably alone but for a cat, in a Mumbai high-rise and longs for the freedom of open spaces and what, one imagines, is a past spent in more verdant surroundings.

Rao, who grew up in Mumbai, spoke of having no "native" place to return to as a child, and of feeding her imagination with visions of the charmed rustic life culled from the stories of her classmates who visited smaller towns and cities for their vacations.

"The film was, for me, a nostalgia of imagination, not of memory," she said, adding that she wanted to capture her longing for an imagined land that she herself never had access to.

The film, which runs to a crisp 15 minutes, records the old woman's slide into fantasy land whenever she opens a box in which she keeps matchboxes with tiny posters on them. There are elephants, palaces, trucks - each image opening up a world of exotic wonder into which the woman slides effortlessly. For anyone who has grown up in a small town and truly appreciates how open space can influence one's conception of city life, Printed Rainbow beautifully evokes that experience.

In the discussion that followed the screening of her Chandigarh film, Tracing Bylanes, Surabhi Sharma explained why she wanted to look at a city planned to meticulous detail by Le Corbusier differently. "Unlike other places that have changed beyond recognition, Chandigarh is stuck in its unchanged-ness, something that motivates even the government because of the city's application to become a World Heritage site," said Sharma.

A scene from Gitanjali Rao's Printed Rainbow

Sharma's camera captures this "unchanged-ness" and inverts the received wisdom of Chandigarh being a marvel of urban planning. There is a sequence in which a barber has made a place for himself on the "grid" - Chandigarh's term for the master plan. In any other city this would be deemed encroachment, but Sharma shows how this and other instances of people "reclaiming" the city allows it to breathe and not become a fossilised museum.

A love for the city also shows through Sandhya Kumar's Memory of a Light. The film takes us through the last days of the current occupants of 56, St Mark's Road, an iconic address in Bangalore. (In the discussion that followed the screening, Deepa Dhanraj, a lifelong Bangalorean, revealed that this was the house where U.R. Ananthamurthy's Samskara germinated and where George Fernandes hid during the Emergency.)

Speaking to the energy of those who have not only lived in but visited or passed through a space, the film is a beautifully executed paean to places we have occupied and which we never truly escape.

The international segment of the festival comprised works such as Dara Kell and Christopher Nizza's Dear Mandela and Andreas Dalsgaard's Cities on Speed: Bogota. The former captures the birth and growth of the Abahlali, a movement of the shack dwellers who protested against the 2007 Slums Act of the South African government. The film takes us to Kennedy Road, an area of Durban that became the site of protests and police action after shacks located there were demolished. 

The film is particularly striking because it captures a slice of the common man’s disillusionment’s with the African National Congress. The elders of Abahlali cannot bring themselves to accept that the party of Nelson Mandela is out to evict them under the rubric of law. The youngsters, having grown up in post-apartheid South Africa, only see corruption and abuse of power.

The Abahlali fought a long battle for the right to decent housing and finally won a court case that struck down a section of the Slums Act that gave the government unparallelled powers to demolish and evict shack dwellers. Together with Cities on Speed: Bogota, the film explores what development entails and how urban growth can create pockets of deprivation that militate against ideals of egalitarianism. 

The Bogota film captures the three-year reign of mayor Enrique Penalosa which transformed the city from a den of crime and poverty to one whose murder rate fell below that of Washington DC.

In a message that would ring true from Mumbai to Mexico City, Penalosa instituted a transportation system whose nub was public transport. Penalosa has long advocated the street as a place for pedestrians, not cars. Called Trans Milenio, the mass transit system created a ring around Bogota, passing through all areas, rich and poor, and altering the urban landscape for the better. 

Power struggles are also the theme of Priya Sen’s Noon Day Dispensary, which captures a confrontation between the doctor on duty at the government dispensary and the residents of Savda-Ghevra, a resettlement colony in Delhi.

To the doctor these people are slum dwellers who have gotten lucky. To the residents the dispensary is a marker of their new-found dignity. The confrontation arises from the different expectations built into a nondescript government structure that has now acquired renewed meaning because it represents the broader fight for justice and the decent life.

The city is not merely a place for commerce. Cultural landmarks, both present and past, also make the city. In this regard, the question of the city’s ability to give voice to the culturally marginalized becomes pertinent. If the city is unable to provide a sustaining livelihood to artisans, can it at least provide them a voice?

Rajula Shah’s Sabad Nirantar, an enchanting meditation on the pervasiveness of Kabir’s poetry in the day-to-day life of the Malwa region that abuts Indore, sought to address this question. Shah revealed in the post-screening discussion that her main interest was, however, not in performance art: “I wanted people for whom Kabir’s poetry is a part and parcel of daily life. People who have other jobs and other lives, yet are steeped in the oral tradition. I knew such people existed.”

Sabad Nirantar, which translates to “Word within the Word”, takes us to a tiller’s land, a sweetmeat seller’s shop and an old woman’s house as these men and women regale Shah with their knowledge of and comfort with the Bhakti tradition. It takes a certain viewer to relish the film which showcases an India we tend to overlook. It is to Shah’s credit that she brings out the richness that hides below the surface of what the traditional media focus on, a richness all the more wonderful for its continued historical relevance. 

That the film was showcased at a festival devoted to the urban indicates that there is space enough for voices from the hinterland to reach the mainstream.

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