City Films reflecting comtemporary life

Nov 13, 2011 (Calcutta Tube / IBNS): Indian filmmakers, mainstream and off-beat, have often made the city the central protagonist of a film unwittingly or by conscious choice. How do cities figure in these films? A look at some films, particularly with Mumbai as the backdrop……

New York based Arjun Appadurai,  a contemporary social-cultural anthropologist focusing on modernity and globalization  has written about ethnoscapes (spaces produced through inflow of people such as immigrants, refugees, etc.) technoscapes (inflow of technology, etc.), finanscapes (flow of global capital, commodities, etc.), mediascapes (the repertoires of images and information) and ideoscapes (ideological shifts connected to Western world views). These are different ways of looking at the global cultural flows strongly influenced by perspectives.

Film scholar Madhuja Mukherjee adds that it is also important to study the cityscape or the structural changes that occur when immigration happens, or the physical shifts that take place (with globalization of the economy and the culture) when flyovers, multi-storied buildings, or shopping malls are built by doing away with the existing habitat of the original residents – old houses, parks, water bodies, etc.

Or, when neon signs, digital bill boards are erected like patchworks in the blue sky. Suddenly, the familiar spaces, the narrow lanes and by-lanes, the grocer’s shop across the road, the old house built by ancestors are practically devoured by other geometric structures that invest the city with a kind of socio-political rebirth born out of the ‘scapes’ described by Annadurai.

The nostalgia is tempered with a sense of history. This applies to all the metro cities in India and even some of the smaller towns that have frequently formed the backdrop of Indian films.

Mumbai finds beautiful reflection in several films of the 1970s and 1980s. Three brilliant examples are Kamla Ki Maut (1989) by Basu Chatterjee, Katha (1982) by Sai Paranjpye and Gharonda(1977) produced and directed by Bhimsain Khurana. Kamla Ki Maut is set in a Mumbai chawl revealing the underbelly of the city through an introspective journey by one of its members when a young woman commits suicide. Katha is placed in a different, cosmopolitan chawl and locates the hare-and-tortoise fable in reverse through Paranjpye’s typical signature of satire punched with humor and froth.

Bhimsain’s Gharonda explores the concept of the ordinary man’s desire to have a house of his own within the city he lives in and how this can lead to an erosion of moral values he has believed in all his life. The camera follows the characters through the city as they wander across in search of their dream – a metaphorical ‘nest’.

Since 2000, beginning with Mani Ratnam’s Bombay a city genre of films have set a trend for  mainstream films that focus exclusively on urban metro life against a volatile and explosive environment in a constant state of flux; powerful political connotations are woven intelligently, almost naturally into the  commercial script.

Bombay points out that when a riot takes place, it does not discriminate its victims on the basis of their religious faith.

Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 sheds light on how the media is manipulated by celebrities and event managers to ‘manufacture’ news that sells rather than news that informs and educates. His Chandni Bar is a study of the nexus between the Mumbai underworld, the pimps and the bar owners who conspire to exploit bar girls under the pretence of giving them a livelihood.

Traffic Signal is an exploration of life lived on the fringes of Mumbai’s innumerable traffic signals. Beneath the surface lies a thriving industry that draws capital from people waiting at traffic signals. Men, women and children are thrown together through destiny and hunger. Among these are beggars of varied shades and hues.

Then there are the street urchins to rush in with a duster to wipe the glass on the dashboards of cars, drug addicts, flower and fruit sellers, young boys selling pirated bestsellers, etc. and of course, coarse-tongued prostitutes who line the traffic signals at many points dot the film’s tapestry. Though critics bashed the film and it did not do well in box office like a Page 3 or Chandni Bar, it is the least ‘pretentious’ of  Bhandarkar’s films and ironically. His talent lies in discovering the underbelly of a mega metro like Mumbai and laying it bare for his audience.

Life in a Metro deals with the essence of a city life and the rat race in the urban concrete jungle. “The film brings to reel life the concept of a real city in modern times,” says Anurag Basu, who directed this film. Life here is a roller-coaster ride of emotions that run a race against each other, against time, against people who may or may not be your near and dear ones.

There seems to be no stopping of Indian cities growing – vertically, horizontally, financially. This also means increasing distances between people. Does the film  make a political statement? Yes, it does through the collage it presents of lives of a few Mumbaikars trapped within a complex world of one-upmanship within the ambience of shopping malls, its bright lights darkening the slums of Dharavi or the Worli chawls.

It is escapist entertainment, true. But it does weave in a political message about the negative side of a materialistic world where emotions fade out as money and matter come in.

Rajendra Gupta’s Aamir evokes suspense from beginning to end. For the first time in Indian cinema, you see a single hero running for his life through the dingy lanes of Dongri, Bhendi Bazar, Byculla, Saat Rasta in Mumbai right through the film. You see a film that has no heroine, no romance, no item numbers, no sex, not even cameos
and characters, and hardly any fight scenes.

Yet, you can feel Aamir’s rising emotions seeping into you, running a shiver down your spine, so tangible is the sense of fear the film evokes. The film, shot almost in real time, has a narrative span of five hours. That is the deadline Khan, the head of some unnamed terrorist gang ruled by Muslim fundamentalists gives Aamir to see his family freed and alive. Gupta shoots it almost in real time, and puts it into a zip file to condense it to around 95 minutes, thus enhancing the fear and the chill with every passing minute.

Aamir uses fear to raise awareness about the tragic futility of fundamentalism based on terrorism. It is a commercial film but it is also a political film and a thriller.

The city, in its modern labyrinthine form, offers the ideal environment for a film that combines several genres in one without confusion. It can tell not one, but several stories of different people who may or may not meet at any point, yet, are affected by the
city they live in, albeit in different ways. Can they cope with the stress and the strain the city places them under? Do they cope? How and in what manner? These questions are raised, and a few answered as well, in Nishikant Kamath’s Mumbai Meri Jaan. The Mumbaikars have the rare talent of absorbing everything – good, bad, ugly and
indifferent. Whether they absorb by swallowing, or chewing, or by lingering over it and savouring it in a leisurely fashion, is beside the point. They are like sponges if they are softhearted and shock absorbers if they are tough. Toughness comes almost naturally to the Mumbaikar. Mumbai Meri Jaan brings this alive on celluloid.

The most recent film to offer a multi-layered image of contemporary Mumbai is Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat (2011). It is about four lives that randomly connect in Mumbai. There are fleeting moments of happiness and pain and the eventual realization that the journey never ends.

The struggle to survive and to connect is eternal. Does the city shape these lives and their destinies? Or do these four men and women influence the changing character of the city? One is a reclusive artist, arrogant and non-committal. One is a handsome young dhobi who dreams of making it as an actor. One is an NRI investment banker who wishes to switch lanes to become a photographer/filmmaker. The fourth, the most interesting among them who sort of brings them together is Yasmin, a young housewife who committed suicide. Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray constructs a rich and intimate portrait of locations that are foreign to the mass urban audience even in Mumbai. Sometimes the locations take over and the characters become secondary. Sometimes, it is the other way round.

Cinema is a potent medium for defining the way we think about cities whether it is the futuristic cityscape of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the realism of Rosellini’s war-torn Rome Open City. The city in cinema offers both a real and imaginary space. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) is one of cinema’s most hauntingly beautiful city symphonies that transcends concrete barriers to explore a Berlin of the imagination. Cinema expresses dystopias of urbanism rather than utopias, which echo the current preoccupations of urban development.

– Shoma A. Chatterji

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award winning film critic)

– Trans World Features (TWF)

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