For those who are keen on a socially-oriented cinema, Dharavi, city of dreams, by Sudhir Mishra, gives a great insight in the life of those "Backward class" workers who fend it off in the Mumbai slum. It focuses on Rajkaran, a taxi-driver who decides to rise a little above his status of labourer to that of a (small) factory owner, and will have to pay for this transgression. We are confronted to his rise and fall, and what it takes to risk that in the context of the mafia-controlled interests of the slum. He has to consent to a certain amount of self-debasement, and stretch his family and friends' relationships to the limit in order to achieve his aim. But these ties are fragile, and quickly break, leaving him on his own once again to dream and, like the tide, to rise again towards the shores of property and self-reliance.
The violence and fear that pervade this hard life are very well blended with an ironic perspective that softens it somewhat: even if the gang lords are powerful and feared, the individual can nevertheless hope to find the loopholes that will enable him one day to reach his goal... But the cost in terms of self-respect is hard to pay, and leaves a sour taste. But the battle between deterministic fate and individual hope is fought under a grey sky... What can change things in India's urban jungles? Political action? Economic development? Global influence? It's difficult to get rid of the impression that, for a long time to come, the road towards that better future will have to be paved with many more corpses of innocent slaves of a feudal system which, like a cancer, self-duplicates itself and runs on the eternal laws of the strongest.
(These two paragraphs are a review which I submitted to Jaman.com, where the film can be downloaded for $4.99)
The film begins with the projection of an Anil Kapoor movie, which the hero is watching, and in which we can see this “uncrowned king of the slum” challenge the slumlords to the tune of: “No one understands that it is the oppressed that shall one day shape the world”. And he shoots them down. But soon the screen bursts into flames, and a gang war erupts, amid shrieks and blood. So we are left with the question: does the film stand as a prophecy, vindicating the rights of the oppressed, and their ultimate victory? Or is it saying that the masses are fed with dreams which end up in violence and ashes? Remember what the Roman emperors practised: as long as the people have bread and games, they will remain quiet. Is Bollywood opium for the masses? If people dream (Dharavi is "the city of dreams"), will they be content with the little they have? I believe the film addresses these questions. Rajkaran’s “dream” of material success in the film is so far from realization that it is tantamount to what films do for much of the population, perhaps: maintain it in the illusion that freedom, prosperity and culture are on the same level as beauty and love: inaccessible as Bollywood stardom.
Indeed if films are so popular in India still today, and if most of them - I might be wrong, but I doubt it – are non-subversive films, escapist films, then aren’t spectators comforted in the delusion that there are two worlds, the one in which they live, where it’s so hard to make ends meet, where one has to bow to injustice and oppression, and the other one, made of wealth, power, influence etc, shown on the silver screen? And the representations of heroes, of the righter of wrong (1) such as the Anil Kapoor character that we see in the beginning of Dharavi, this representation might be the worst oppression of all, because it fuels a hope (in the shape of revenge), which is only virtual, only a fantasy. We could easily take up the Marxist metaphor here.
Sudhir Mishra in Dharavi doesn’t avoid reality, he doesn’t hide it. Something which Mani Ratnam has in fact been accused of doing (check this link). Naturally, educating the masses is a long and arduous process which will very often have to be channelled through other social classes than those targeted. How many tired and half-drunk workers will want to pay even a little to watch what they already know about? And especially if it isn’t beautified by flashing rhetorics and spectacular revengeful action? Dharavi doesn’t go that way… It explores the social problem through real art, in a question-like way, and might even choose (paradoxically) the inefficiency of art, its ambiguous “meta” dimension, by which it refers to reality in a symbolical way, and therefore can be said to be less operational than political action. But certainly the film creates a lasting effect, and this effect is its own success.
One last word about the actors in Dharavi…Om Puri (Rajkaran) and Shabana Azmi (his wife, Kumud), are utterly believable. He’s as angry as he’s soulful, and she’s as proud as she’s elegant. Two great characters facing each other, with their freedom, their hopes, their pain, their burning eyes.
(1) Have some of you seen the tamil movie Padaiyappa ? Here’s a righter of wrongs if there was any!