We are all in the city now

As urban narratives continue to speak the truth about where our citiesare headed, they might manage to ring warning bells in time, and in doing soimpel our cities to turn genuinely ‘fair’ and ‘smart’ before it’s too late


Illustration by Pavitr Rastogi
Illustration by Pavitr Rastogi

In Nagaraj Manjule’s Sairat, a new film in Marathi which is tasting blockbuster success—a love story between two people from different castes—the binary of the hinterland as innocent and “good” and the metropolis as corrupt and “evil” is buried with finesse. You might even say that the time of the city narrative is finally here, even as India (like the rest of world) gets a taste of an overawing urbanism—unprecedented, impressive and deadly.

In Bombay cinema, our best-known and most-exported popular culture industry, the city has become a character in the true sense of the word. Gone are the Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan song interludes where the city takes centre-stage for a few minutes before receding into the blurry images at the back, and the fascination with the nation versus the city. Indeed, films like Dilli 6 and Bombay Velvet used the locales, topography and life stories of its citizens to tell us about the cities themselves.

If the New Wave cinema of the 1980s brought the countryside alive for cine-watchers as a “real” space, where evil may reside, and which is not all “golden age bowls of wheat and rice,” New Age cinema which began as a fringe two decades ago and is now looked upon as the better Bollywood busted the myth once and for all about our cities being sites of progress and opportunity. The gangster film played its part in this de-pedestalization. With Satya, and later Company, and a slew of such films that followed, the camera came out of NRI living rooms, and rested lovingly on filthy alleyways and paan-stained walls, even as they were smeared with blood, spit and the choicest of Hindi abuses. With the gritty, realistic genre of film taking hold of the imagination of a certain section of moviegoers, the oeuvre of Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, and more recently films like Kanu Behal’s Titli brought home urban realities, which middle-class India is without doubt part of but would rather not admit to. Urban subculture, and not just the gangster kind, was at last finding its niche in Indian cinema. What’s more, these cine-narratives made evident the links between this urban subculture and the hinterland as shown in films such as Highway and NH10.

It was a matter of time before a new generation of filmmakers began to focus their lenses on the nooks and crannies of what lay between the metropolis and the hinterland, “tier-2 towns”, i.e., another middle-class consumer jungle where homes, malls, street-corners and educational institutions brim with the aspirational longing that finds visualisation in films such as Manorama Six Feet Under, Tanu weds Manu and Dum Laga ke Haisha.

Migrant and unprivileged urban realities have also been the subject of Indian literature since the 1970s, with the rise of the left-leaning student movement, worker movement and Naxal rebellion.

Perhaps one of the most searing and early portrayals of this genre was Basanti by Bhisham Sahni, which tells the story of the ruthless exploitation of a young Rajasthani migrant basti girl by the city and its inhabitants. More recently, the opening scene of Dilli ki Deewarein by Uday Prakash paints another familiar picture, one of derelict city dwellers, who have lost home and hearth and become part of the immense, mobile, informal swathe of population sleeping on street corners by day and performing sex work or injecting themselves with drugs by night.

In her memoir of living as an aravani (transgender) in Tamil Nadu, first as a sex-worker and then a social activist having to deal with violence at the hands of her clients, the police and sometimes even her “guru”, A. Revathi familiarizes her readers with another urban migrant voice, that of the hijra. Revathi’s recording of other aravani life stories and the violence and marginalization they live with, in Our Lives, Our Words takes the story further.

But what of the disempowered within the respectable Indian urban middle class? Ratika Kapur’s unusual novel, The Private Life of Mrs Kapur, is about a middle-class woman with an absent husband who takes the metro to work every day, looks after her aged parents-in-law and child, and dares to dream of transgression. I read it as an ode to that most disempowered Indian urbanite, the middle-class married woman who has to bear the burden of earning a supplementary income, performing domestic chores and parental duties, and act as caregiver to all family members. It is also an ode to the fragile respectability of families living in 800 square-feet 2-bedroom apartments, with family album memories of large homes no longer owned by them.

We return to the not-so-respectable corridors of the city’s red-light district in Mayank Austen Soofi’s No One Can Love You More. As the inhabitants of a kotha (establishment) in the district talk to Soofi, we get to watch them through the peephole.

The income is probably better than if they went in for a kosher job, dignity is in short supply, and after a certain age if you haven’t managed to wrest control of one of the kothas, you wither away silently. The city emerges stark and sooty, and everything blurs for a while, even as you shift your gaze.

Soofi’s Instagram series, which I call “Seen Somewhere in Delhi,” compels one to bring one’s gaze back to the image. Soofi superimposes captions and labels from Parisian streets and Victorian novels onto his uploaded photos, infusing the decrepit interiors and streets of one’s own city with a sense of the “elsewhere”, and yet they fix you with a stare that says, “You are right here.”

The hit Bengali film of 2012 Bhooter Bhabishyat (The Future of Past) is about the spirits that inhabit a magnificent old North Calcutta house. As the old houses of historic Calcutta both in the north and south of the city begin to make way for malls, condominiums and commercial spaces, the spirits living in one such house which has survived demolition till now think of an ingenious way of keeping the bulldozers away. A satire on our present via what has gone before, the film makes a powerful comment on the socio-economics of the city. At the same time, the Dystopic city of the future is convulsed in water wars in Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel, All Quiet in Vikaspuri.

A satire in graphic form about the double standards of the rich denizens of the capital awash in their excessive sense of entitlement, even as the marginalised of the city perish, the book has a prophetic feel to it. Perhaps what we will get next is a Mad Max series set in a post-apocalyptic Thar desert that has overrun the Indo-Gangetic basin and rendered it into a wasteland.

As city narratives come of age, they reflect the urbanism that assails us. As they continue to speak the truth about where our cities are headed, they might manage to ring warning bells in time, and in doing so impel our cities to turn genuinely “fair” and “smart” before it’s too late.

Arpita Das runs the independent publishing house Yoda Press, and leads the Word Lab at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. She writes on books, publishing, gender and popular culture.

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