“Seven Islands and a Metro” and “Bombay: Our City”
The United Nations reported in 2009 that by the year 2030, 41% of the population of India will reside in urban areas. Mumbai is one of one of the 20 largest cities in the world with a population of 2.21 billion in 2011. With almost twice the growth overall of the urban population, urban area slums are growing the most quickly (Reliancefoundation.org 2014). These types of housing conditions created by rapid population growth result in numerous problems: poor health conditions and more diseases, increased crime, lessened access to civic agencies, environmental degradation, increase in slum housing, and overcrowding. It is to the advantage of all the citizens of the city to address these issues, but as seen in two documentaries, “Seven Islands and a Metro” and “Bombay, Our City”, progress is slow if at all.
Seven Islands and a Metro
One of few female filmmakers, Madhusree Dutta is drawn toward the life of those living in urban areas. As a voice for feminism and the urban poor, she keeps true to her subject in the film “Seven Islands and a Metro” released in 2006. The city is Mumbai.
The opening scenes of “Seven Islands and a Metro” show a contrast between the shining buildings and the urban squalor of the streets. The viewer becomes quickly aware of floating, drowning, discarded working permits. The working class people are also drowning and discarded. The growth of Mumbai has united the seven islands with ports and commerce into one large city. There is contrast shown with men plying their trade from dilapidated bicycles at night while a caravan of cement trucks travel the overpass. Their destination is construction of new buildings the poor of the city will never enter.
The film does not have purely a documentary form; symbolism of some of the shots and the narration by the poet brings creativity to the audience. There are beautiful scenes interspersed with slums and poverty. The poet lolling with a flask in a raincoat jolts the senses from immersion in depression. He emphasizes that identification papers are the most important item a person has, even more important than clothes. He reclines in a boat on waves, lamenting the demand to pay heed to the poor. Tall and dressed in immaculate white clothing, the poet stands apart from workers in line being asked the same questions in multiple languages. He is visible, while they are not. The white sets the poet apart from the crowd, and his robe seems out of place in the dim city light. He is strategically placed-- it’s a carefully-planned shot-- to be directly at odds with the poor and the working class individuals in the shot.
Issues of working class women in India are presented, from assembly lines to dancing girls. Thousands of women were left unemployed when the government passed legislation against bar dancing. A hawker for a movie theatre said entertainment wasn’t the same without them, and they didn’t cause any trouble. Women are almost a last resort for employment, used only when unskilled and cheap labor is needed. But they are not the only exploited workers. Men turned away from the camera are dwarfed by a giant, colorful athletic shoe. Deepak writes, “Seven islands is about some of the different Bombays that exist for its 15 million inhabitants and for thousands coming here every day in search of a living. Each of them sings their song.Like the persons who hang at the top of the sky scrapers and clean glass for a living. “I like it up here, there is a kind of peace here”, one of them says.Like the hundreds of I.D.cards with their pictures, and people standing in queues, answering questions about themselves – name, place of birth, father’s name – in English, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu” (Deepak). The director seems to be doing his best to produce a true impression of what it’s like in the city: gritty and dirty, with a strange sense of community. It’s unclear if the director is using a filter or if this is just the air; shimmering and silvery, full of dust and grit.
A distinct feeling of a sea of people are all individuals. The window cleaner talks about the peace he feels high in the air that is never present down below. The man who came to the city to meet a friend for a job and couldn’t find him accepts a position tearing down the homes of people like him. It makes him fearful and sad. Another man who was afraid to ask directions buys tobacco to look intimidating. There is the recurring theme of money, and the lack of it. The dancing girl took the money she made and returned to her village, only to return. The tea seller is ashamed of his profession, but spends more on one meal than a day’s wages at his old home. The stunt woman saying she made more money as a stand-in than as an actress, so she performed the more dangerous work for the money. She says she wanted to be a star, but could only be a faceless entity on the screen. She is designed by the producer to appear to be everyone; she could be someone’s mother or child, grandmother or aunt. The poor are, to many, faceless-- and this is what the director is trying to portray.
There are glimpses of fantasies for them that raise them from their existence. Television programs always show beautiful women singing and dancing. The bar girl is shown who loved to put on makeup and lovely clothing to become more than she is for just awhile, even though it gave her a bad reputation. The audience feels each person knows they will be able to survive, if not succeed, while others will not.
Discrimination in the form of caste is another plight. A young man is forced to leave his girlfriend because they were from different castes. She killed herself and he still mourns her death. Interviews with people who spoke of caste rather than people’s names were fearful of immigrants taking jobs and housing. A rally with hundreds of women loudly protests the presence of a specific cast, threatened by their numbers. Industrialization has broken down the caste system and left suspicion and resentment present for anyone coming into the city from outside areas. They are even referred to by their city rather than their caste.
Bombay: Our City
The 1985 documentary “Bombay: Our City” was filmed by Indian activist Anand Patwardhan. From the first scene, a song begins that continues through the movie, emphasizing the plight of the poor, subject to political corruption and daily struggles to survive. Initially, sections of the city are shown with highways, clean streets, and new buildings. Yet the background sounds are revealed as demolishment of a camping area for the poor. The police tear down their huts, break their belongings, and chase them away. Like many cities with fast, uncontrolled growth, there seems to be a vanishing middle class. The population of Bombay consists primarily of the rich and the destitute. What little middle-class exists relies on the wealthy for income in service employment. Even members of the police force teeter on the edge of poverty, frequently living in housing without electricity or running water.
Patwardhan lets the words of the residents of Bombay speak for themselves. Slum dwellers, industrialists, middle-class citizens, and city officials are represented. Their words resonate with unique perspectives of the issues. However, there appears to be some bias in the gratuitous scenes of yachts and parties. A documentary is required to show the situation without slanting the information; otherwise, it loses its credibility.
In one scene, a commissioner speaks about the need for the poor to return to the rural areas they left when they came to Bombay. When they move onto vacant property, they are called trespassers. He criticizes them for trying to find a place to live, while the camera shows his luxurious home. This continues to happen throughout the documentary, scenes alternating between those of poverty and those of prosperity. The blatant callousness of the wealthy of the city toward the poor is shown over and over. One person evicted before the destruction of his tent states that the people in power are not removing poverty, they are removing the poor. This is a strangely prophetic and impactful statement; and the speaker does not even seem to understand the impact of what he has said.
At the beginning of the film, the director of the documentary interviews a man in a military-style uniform-- the Municipal Commissioner for Bombay. He is overweight, and speaks English; both signs that he is part of the privileged class. In direct opposition to the video of the slums that had just flashed across the screen, the Municipal Commissioner sits in a bungalow surrounded by the chirping of birds and the shade of trees. There is a real feeling of privilege and wealth, almost as though his position is a throwback to the days of British rule. The Commissioner discusses coolly influx of people into Bombay, and the importance of tearing down the slums. His voice is superimposed over shots of the manor house, called the “bungalow,” demonstrating just how out of touch he is with the people that he is trying to displace.
The hand-held camera is shaky, and while perhaps not a conscious choice-- perhaps this was all the director had available-- it adds to the believability of the scene. There is little sense that heavy editing has been done to change the way the film appears to the viewer; instead, the camera work gives the sense that the film has been merely cut together and presented to the viewer without comment by the documentary maker.
Patwardhan and Dutta portray the plight of the urban poor. People come from the country with promises of prosperity, only to find a different kind of struggle than before. Dutta shows a young woman looking for an apartment and is told there is only water once a day. Americans would find this appalling; she accepts it without comment. Patwardhan portrays a construction worker building lavish homes for the wealthy while the huts of his neighbors are destroyed in an effort to drive them from the over-populated city.
In fact, the issue of demolishment was addressed in both films in the same way. The pitiful huts are the only homes the poor can afford in the city. In each documentary, the destruction is performed by men who are doing the task for the money, even though they also have lived or are living in the same situation. A man in Dutta’s film states he even tore down his own house at one time. In Property in Question (Verdery and Humphrey 2004), the author described watching the dismay of the residents as their homes were destroyed. When she talked with friends about it, she was stunned that each person defended the destruction. It was needed to clean up public areas. They were illegal and dangerous. Pedestrians could not get by on the sidewalks. Politicians did not even bother to defend their actions.
Both films display street entertainment. Butta has a young lady on a tightrope in an open area surrounded by an appreciative crowd. Patwardhan presents the band singing the protest song giving street performances, too. For the poor, and in eras gone by, this is the only type of entertainment open to them. And, also like other times, they are informed of their oppression and pulled into a feeling of group suffering. Interviews show irate outbursts of indignation. Anger, fear, resentment, and despair are apparent throughout each film.
There are unexpected moments of macabre humor in each documentary. Patwardhan films a man with GI distress, desperate at a broken public toilet. An unexpected visit from a politician tells him that if he is elected again, he will put water in the pipes he installed last term. Butta allows a woman to rant about the government regulating everything in her life. She states that next they will tell her she cannot have children. A voice off-camera reminds her she is allowed to have two babies. The woman shouts that next they will not be able to have children, to have sex, or even to get married!
There are differences between “Seven Islands and a Metro” and “Bombay: Our City”. For instance, Dutta takes more license with symbolism than Patwardhan, and he brings in music as more of an element of contrast. However, the themes and content are alike. The audience has the impression at times Dutta has set up a scene, it looks so proportional. And yet, the lighting and lack of background music gives the impression you are standing next to the people talking. Strangely her film ends with music over the credits almost like a merry-go-round.
There is a similar feeling to Bombay: Our City, as though Dutta is paying homage to the documentary. Patwardhan released his documentary in 1985, almost 30 years ago. Dutta released hers eight years ago in 2006. Since then the population of Bombay has continued to grow without any apparent changes in the treatment of the poor. For a period of time, a “mafia-like” element came into power but has since been largely eliminated. Despite enthusiastic reviews of each documentary, it appears there has been little change in the plight of the slum dwellers of Bombay. The camera jumps and skips in the way that many older cameras do; there is despair in the faces of many of the workers that the camera pans past. The camera skips to a man singing a song playing an Indian instrument, and then jumps immediately to a high-end shopping mall, panning over silver and high-end luxury goods while Tchaikovsky plays in the background. This is an incredibly powerful cinematic trick; the contrast makes for a clear distinction between the haves and the have nots, the color of the rich and the blandness of the lives of the poor.
Patwardhan is unique in that he seems to allow the documentary to take shape around him, rather than influencing the direction of the film. Of course, this may be clever editing; the good documentary-maker rarely lets himself be seen in the film, although his or her editing may reflect an artistic or political goal. This does not seem to be the case in Bombay: Our City, however, as the people of the film seem to influence and drive the forward momentum of the documentary more than anything else. Indeed, although without a clear political goal, Patwardhan still faced significant censorship from the Indian government as a result of the creation of this film. It portrays the poverty in India very clearly, and without apology; as a result, the Indian government tried to ban the film. Patwardhan fought long and hard to ensure that the film could be shown on Indian television; even after a long fight, it was years before the government conceded to his requests.
One of the driving themes of the documentary itself is how difficult it is to rise above the class of one’s birth in India. There are a number of scenes in the film in which people are trying to better the slums-- for instance, in one scene, social workers are running a school for small children out of a garage-- and the government continuously steps in and tries to undermine all the actions that the social workers are taking to educate the children. India is still fighting off the remnants of the caste system, and this becomes very apparent, especially throughout the course of the film as the viewer sees the government step in, time and time again, to ensure that children and adults from the slums cannot better themselves. For an international audience, this can be very difficult to watch; actively keeping people from bettering their lives, from an outside perspective, seems unnecessarily cruel. Indeed, the Indian government disliked the message sent by this film enough to refuse to allow it to be show on Indian television; even the Indian people are likely to be mostly unaware of the bulk of the issue.
For whom do filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan and Madhusree Dutta create their documentaries? Not the subjects involved, because they can’t afford a ticket to a theatre. If they could, they would go to movies that make them laugh and forget their worries, like the clip in “Seven Islands and a Metro” showing the dancing girl greeted with cat calls from the audience. Do the filmmakers think the presentations will spur social reform? Patwardhan considered not accepting an award for “Bombay: Our City” because he knew the slums were unchanged. At one point in the film, a woman berates him for using the pictures he was taken to make himself famous. She asked him what he was going to do about what he was seeing. He didn’t respond to her.
However, change may be on the horizon. The Guardian (2014) reported this year that the Mumbai Development Plan scheduled from 2014-2034 include the development of low-income housing in the planning process. Previously, the poor had no representation during the development of the plan. But the work of activists, probably inspired by documentaries such as “Seven Islands and a Metro” and ”Bombay: Our City”, arranged for input by slum dwellers. Consequently, the current plan focuses on large areas of the city lost to slums and commercialization. The architect of the plan, PK Das, is organizing the poor residents of the slums and supports better living conditions for them. Through the use of mapping systems, he has shown more than 50% of the residents of Bombay live in the slum areas. After 15 years of activism, the Mumbai Development Plan may be the largest achievement of the individuals involved in the Open Mumbai project (Ameliacrouch.com).
The documentaries of Anand Patwardhan and Madhusree Dutta are dramatic. Perhaps the films were not just for people who might affect social change in India. Maybe they were not for any group of people at all. Perhaps they were for you and me and every person who watches them. We should consider what we can do in our daily lives to help even one person improve his life. A smile, the offer of assistance, or a referral to an agency for help may be an one action that can make all the difference to someone who is struggling. Whether the audience lives in India or the United States or any other country in the world, there are people who need help. Madhusree Dutta and Anand Patwardhan want you to see them.
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