Excellent documentary on Sunday

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The Times of India April 26, 1985

Once in a while, a documentary does just what it sets out to do. It gives us an assortment of observations which in the aggregate ring true.

Nothing is invented in “Hamara Shaher” (English title: “Bombay Our City”), produced, edited and directed by Anand Patwardhan. There is not a word in it which was not actually spoken by the slum-dwellers of Bombay or the power-wielders bent on demolishing their precarious homes.

The result is an extremely strong document which provides a historical background and puts the events of the last few years in an intelligible framework. We feel helpless witnessing the plight of the uprooted; we wish there could be a solution; and the fact that there isn’t one demoralises us. The viewer feels utterly powerless.

The film does not claim to be objective. If it did, it would turn into another of those essays of confusion, like the T.V. or the Films Division specials that balance everything out till they get a collection of disparate facts and platitudes that are considered “responsible journalism”.

What “Hamara Shaher” does in a span of 82 minutes is to present the slum demolition issue as Patwardhan sees it. And his interpretation is always bullyingly persuasive. He has gone through what must have been an enormous effort to assemble the film so that the words of the dishoused shake your insides while the commissioners, municipal ward officers and the mayor strike us as callous when they’re not downright cruel. The two sides provide Patwardhan’s polemic without any additional narration. If any extra comment is made, it’s through a street theatre troupe, belting our simple but scathing songs about the exploitation of the poor. Emotionally, this device feeds our current self-hatred.

Indeed, the most powerful sequences turn out to be the on-the-spot interviews with slum-dwellers. A skeleton of a woman cries before the camera, “Don’t come and take our photographs.” A mother points at her brood, wondering where they will live or where they can find a scrap of food. A lame craftsman says he can’t get a job because he’s handicapped. The monsoon has begun, he adds, and it will be possible only to camp at the railway station. A couple of food vendors report that on some days business is so bad that they have to go around selling packets of rat poison; anything will do as long as they can survive in the city.

Half the city’s population, numbering four million, came to the promised land only to be slapped on the face and get caught in an inescapable trap. The conditions back home weren’t any better. If some take to crime, they are branded as killers and devils. What drove them to crime isn’t analysed at all. An upper-class prima donna (appropriately photographed in a tight close-up), pines for the halcyon British colonial dayswhen only a few tongas and pedestrians trotted past Victoria Terminus.

An industrialist compares slum folk with American slaves who didn’t want to give up bondage. At an advertising club meeting, people joke facetiously about the need to train the gentile in martial arts in order to combat the slum menace.

No doubt, some of Patwardhan’s points are simplistic. He tends to cut far too often from the squalor to five-star hotels, video-game parlours and jazz yatras. In essence, that’s the standard contrast of slum and skyscraper. However, he shows the contradictions with rigour and exposes the wasteful and flashy props of city life so incisively that we reflect on the fake neon-lit and glittering environment around us.

Quite clearly, “Hamara Shaher” is the best documentary ever made in India. It doesn’t take the easy way out by merely lambasting the government. Instead, it questions our complacent attitudes. If a municipal worker tears down a hut, it isn’t for sadistic pleasure. He does it because he cannot find any other job. If a policeman is abrasive, it’s his uniform that has made him power-crazy. Patwardhan understands that. Previously, he had made the forceful documentaries, “Waves of Revolution”, “Prisoners of Conscience” and “A Time to Rise”. This time with the assistance of Ranjan Palit, the immensely-gifted Pune Film Institute graduate, he again uses the camera to catch life on the lam.

” Hamara Shaher”, which took two and a half years to complete, has only been seen by preview audiences. The situation is typical of serious documentaries. It should get much wider exposure. We need it as much as it needs an audience.