Beautifully flawed


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A Scene from Anand Patwardhan’s – Hamara Shahar

By S. Shankar Menon
Financial Express July 7, 1985

A member of the U.P.M.C. (Upper Middle Class) with guilt becomes a sentimental socialist. A sentimental socialist with an excess of guilt, becomes a proto-Marxist and is dangerous. A sentimental socialist with talent becomes excessively dangerous. Anand Patwardhan’s film on demolition of slums in Bombay ‘Hamara Shaher’ showed and discussed at the British Council on 3rd July ’85 can perhaps best be understood against this background.

For an hour and twenty minutes, the film stuns with its pitiless documentary of those evicted from the pavement and other illegally occupied parts of this city. The camera is never a voyeur, it merely happens to be around when the terrible destruction is done by the Bombay Municipal Corporation.
It is a very beautiful and elegant camera catching the mystery of the coal fire on a murky evening on the streets without romanticising the poor of their terrible lot. The poor for perhaps the first time in Indian cinema have a face, a shape, a voice which is uniquely theirs. There is poetry of a pure and unsullied form in their simple statements of anger, their physical ugliness has a moral truth and simplicity which is transcended by their stories. This is documentary as the best form of art.
Anand Patwardhan is everywhere on the long road to eviction of the poor from the streets of this city. He goes into areas and textures of the poorest of the poor as no camera has ever gone before, with such consistency. Condescension is totally absent, the questioner at best nudges the train of thought of a householder who has his meagre belongings scattered and must, inevitably, without choice, start all over again, tying rope to bamboo, putting up her sari, as one woman said, as the only cover she could have.
Tears welled strong and thick among the U.P.M.C. auditorium at the British Council. There was uneasy laughter when against the backdrop of the slum demolitions, there were yacht races in the harbour, waltzes struck up against photographs of a serene old Bombay more than half a century ago and the rich celebrating their tribal rites at the Yacht Club under the colonial flag. Begum Latif giving away the glittering prizes, stood under the tindals on the balcony as they craned for a view of what, it seemed to say, actually belonged to them but where they were not even invited.

All along in the film, the rich are effete, the poor are real. Sukthankar sits in his enormous Municipal Commissioner Bungalow talking of evicting pre 1976 hordes when the camera shows his fluffy dog sauntering along and then lingers on the lawns and the huge windows and facade of the colonial mansion. In discussion after the film; Anand Patwardhan says he likes and respects Sukhtankar. The former Municipal Commissioner will have a difficult time surviving such affection and admiration.

The Bombay Chamber of Commerce felicitation of Ward Officer D. A. Pinto, becomes another parody of the Establishment’s unseeing hatred of the poor and the weak. The Ad Club discussion with Ribeiro, Sukhtankar and Pasricha and the banners for a new Bombay that came up, is also time for a look through the plush corridors of Oberoi Towers which the poor have helped to build and which ejects them the moment their usefulness is over. If you are a member of the U.P.M.C. with extreme guilt and Anand Patwardhan said he was this during discussion, all this is predictable. The fat housewives and superficial foreigners who know of the poor only through their servants, even as Darryl De Monte of P.U.C.L. (whose identity is not revealed) harangues them, is another comfortable Aunt Sally for all those ready coconuts to be thrown at. S. P. Godrej parodies himself without undue effort. He is shown sitting on the cool, elegant terrace of Godrej office even as the run-stealers flicker to and fro on a Marine Drive cricket ground. He talks of among other issues of that usual U.P.M.C. failing, of what foreigners will think. What We Think or Do Not, seems to be of comparatively little consequence.

Anand Patwardhan’s beautiful film will certainly make Everyone Think. Very few in any cinema house, even the average industrial worker, have a clear idea of how migrant labour is so totally without any kind of physical and mental sustenance. The ragpickers, the beggars, physically deformed are all seen in the true elements as Kazantzakis figures, larger than their several lives, because as the camera and sound tells us time and again, without emotion, they have overcome, or at least, will transcend.

This will best happen when the rich, the corrupt, the builder, the whole miserable establishment is overthrown. The film is fatally flawed in its political confusion. A blind street singing group is the ‘Sutradhar’ who provides the refrain for what is wrong. As Marxist dogma this is obvious, but this is much too superficial. As much on the surface as the hedonistic self-seeking stupidities of the rich at play in casual disregard of a real and total problem.

As architect Charles Correa validly pointed out at the discussion that followed the film. Several (though he did not include himself. Some rich are even modest) have broken their heads over decades trying to rescue Bombay. If the auditorium where they sat, he asked Anand Patwardhan, held 3,000 or 30,000 instead of the 300 it can hold, what then? Why should the camera and the film make Sukhtankar the obvious villain? What of those who make policy, not those who merely execute them! The part in the film of the local MLA and his young colleagues coming to the slums after the Supreme Court stay on the demolitions is excellent satire but too early in the film. As a polemic, said Correa, the film is undesirably strong. What about truth? Anand Patwardhan replied that he wished to show a whole unfeeling class. Policy makers belong to this tribe. They, the police, the builders, (who are the only smart ones in that they refused to be interviewed) are all tarred by the same brush. That the policy makers are mainly elected time and again by the poor seemed irrelevant in the film.

As did, some rather obvious pieces of dishonesty. The Municipal Commissioner asks for ration cards and other evidence of pre-1976 occupation. These are collected, but what happened is conveniently forgotten. An evicted hawker (who looks thoroughly dishonest if it is admitted that the poor can look as dishonest as the rich) brandishes a licence from the B.M.C. even as his goods are taken away. What this licence entitles him to is not even thought of. Does it entitle him to sell on the pavement or somewhere else?

The Indian Constitution as engraved in marble outside the new Council Hall, stops the camera. It is a powerful moment. Is there something to be said for the Legislative and the Judiciary, other than for the Executive as is made out. The Supreme Court Stay on demolitions is all that is mentioned. A look at paintings of the Gokhales and Tilaks in the Bombay Chamber of Commerce Hall is according to the film maker in discussion, to represent the political heritage as it was and the film of what it has come to. Why incidentally was Durga Bhagwat not interviewed? Couldn’t a single sympathetic statement be recorded from the rich? Or were they left out deliberately not to spoil a good film? Is there not one rich person in this city who is not an unfeeling idiot?

Naivety in the crunch, abounds.Yet there are children in the slum, learning elementary lessons of the need for food and sleep when there is little chance in their lives that there will be the proper mix of either. When the waters of copious monsoon flood the slums, a lame beggar hops across on a stick. These and many others are what will linger with us, the raised voices in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil that strikes at our comfort and our so-called compassion.

Anand Patwardhan’s film is to be showed on Channel 4 of B.B.C.T.V. and in London. That it has a censor certificate is a great tribute to what the Censor Board has become of late. The film should be shown to all in authority, high or low, the elected, the selected, the clerk, the entrepreneur, the singer and dancer. It has a vision and a purpose, the maker has talent and art. It will provoke a lot of thought and comment. This is also its aim. What its many flaws are, can emerge only after it is seeq widely and the dark side of the mirror held up for debate and dissent.

It is equally possible that a similar film can be made from the point of view of the rich. Of how they have built a beautiful city by the sea with imagination and hard work, of how the city has given the world beauty, brains and talent and riches and how the Datta Samants and others of his ilk are vicious and destructive. A half-smile here, a concealed gesture there (the rich is particularly good at these) and the poor can be made to look extremely silly. In fact Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s otherwise splendid ‘Face to Face’ has the same defects. The establishment is all jack-boots, batons and khaki, smashing the trade-union workers with barely any provocation. It is only when the ultimate martyr becomes a lazy drunkard that the film is fleshed out in more than one black and white dimension.

Except that was only a half-truth. Like Anand Patwardhan’s film. For the full-truth we will have to wait for another film. Meanwhile this film, is more than half-way there.