A Subaltern Guide To Filmmaking

This article appears in Daily News & Analysis on the 17th of June, 2012

I had gone to watch Shanghai with the residents of Bheem Chhayya, Chedda Nagar, Annabhau Sathe Nagar, and Sion Koliwada, with the same people who’d stand before bulldozers, who’d organize protest after protest, who’d be beaten by the police – to whom state repression and structural violence is an almost everyday reality, to whom the word ‘Shanghai’ itself has been oppressive to the bone, shattering home after home, with the memory of the 80,000 homes that disappeared one day alone in Mumbai, not far away from their memory.

After the film, when I ask if the film deals with the issues of the working classes and the protestors who face the brunt of state violence, of ‘development’ and bulldozers: The answer is a unanimous no.

They felt that it wasn’t just that there was absolutely no tension in the beginning, tension characteristic to state-people conflict in development projects – protests, evictions, police firings, the day to day violence of state functionaries, especially the police. It wasn’t just that the character of Dr.Ahmedi was as uninspiring as a doorknob, or that there were no working class organizers or ‘andolan saathis’, who are predominately responsible for strengthening every people’s movement and struggle, and who’re the first to be brutally attacked or killed. Or that there was no mention of how the mainstream media is co-opted into the fantasy of Shanghai, or that the daily trials and vulnerabilities of working class (except one character) and informal labourers is absolutely invisible. The filmmakers of Shanghai, are guilty of having done exactly what the state would want to do to resistance and people’s movements in the slums – they bulldozed them out of the film.

Development projects, have a very political purpose, not only to hand over prime real estate land to private parties, but to remove every possible centre of dissent and political activity that is always incipient in the slums and working class neighbourhoods. The film, by portraying only the hypocrisies and the futilities of a middle and upper class characters, whose so-called good intentions and attempts for justice are constantly thwarted by ‘the system’, betray the one place where inspiration is found: the protest in the people’s movement, when the hungry go on hunger strike.

Thus, all of those who once stood before bulldozers, would not send anyone to go watch the film. A sentiment repeated by all of them – from Annabhau Sathe Nagar to Sion Koliwada.

‘They showed in the film, that the public is not agitating, that they’re only a few angry people who’re fighting for rights and dying,’ Says Santosh Thorat of Annabhau Sathe Nagar, who has been fighting for the right to a home, and against Slum Rehabilitation scams, since his home was demolished in 2005, ‘And this film is about how the state deals with the few of them, so you better keep your mouth shut.’

‘People who don’t have any knowledge of what’s happening in the street and in the morchas, in the andolans, especially the youth, whose homes have never been demolished, they’d be very badly influenced by this film.’ Said Jameela Begum of Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar. Four young boys from Sion Koliwada who experienced demolitions and violence, would add how a young woman leader from their slum is in jail for protesting against demolition, but their awareness was born by the realities of what they face. The lack of the realities of what they faced in the past week – one boy who was beaten up by the police after trying to protect his father from the police, simply replied, ‘the film was boring.’

Another issue would be semantics and two words in particular ‘dalaal’ or tout– by far one of the most hated figures in the slum and in development projects; those opportunists who eat money from the political establishment, often betray their own neighbours and families for profit. A word, that can lead to violence, and to counterviolence. A word, which is not mentioned in the film even once – even though the ‘dalaals’ had considerable screen time. The other word ‘morcha’ was appropriated by the developer, when the word has absolutely close connotations to people’s movements. Here, it’s happily appropriated by the developer while the ‘people’ remain absolutely absent again, incapable of claiming their own symbols.

On a positive note, the viewers are glad that the well-entrenched corruption is shown, even aware of the irony that ‘special thanks’ for the film had gone to Ritesh Deshmukh, the son of the man who has tormented them the most: Ex-Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh ‘who sold the dream of Shanghai’ that gave birth to their nightmares. Jameela felt that this film says it clearly, ‘rajneeti kuch nahi hai.’

‘Ek accha baath thi kya zaada sentimental nahi tah, accha fact of matter film baniye thi.’ Continued Jameela Begum, who felt the lyrics, ‘Sone ki chiddya, dengu malaria, sab hai bharat mata ki jai,’ was absolutely brilliant.

And if the film wasn’t called ‘Shanghai’, then ‘picture ke saath hamara kuch lene dena nahi hai.’ Said Uday Mohite of Bheem Chhayya who had kept a hunger strike for 19 days to protest against the demolition of his slum, and of the death of his 3 year old son.

Response: Aniruddha Guha from DNA interviewed director Dibanker Banerjee about the issues raised by the residents I saw the film with. According to Dibanker, if you represent working class movements in cinema, you’re making a ‘mobilization propaganda film.’ The interview is here.

(7) Comments Write a comment

  1. Javed.. Admire your approach and writing.. This is what film critics/reviewers lack when they reflect. They don’t see the world outside them.. Bravo!

  2. I am a Dibakar Banerjee fan, let me admit that from the outset. The man has a sense of filmic aesthetics that most directors today lack.

    That being said, I did see in ‘Shanghai’ some of the flaws you mentioned – the lumping together of the diversity of slum dwellers, the one-dimensional handling of the classes in revolt and an overwhelming cynicism of human nature and the ‘system’.

    However, I disagree on the supposed ‘uninspiring’ nature of the characters played by Prosenjit and Kalki, because it seems to me that all people — including commendable leaders of critical people’s movements — often are flawed, don’t always behave ideally and have personal agendas of their own motivating them. Nothing wrong in representing them as complex people with their own issues, while still seeing their arguments as valid criticism. I for one, am glad that we are seeing more and more grey characters in cinema who while being flawed and behaving reproachably in some areas of life, still make important points about nation and society.

    But I have to say that looking to cinema for inspiration is not a good idea. Cinema hinges on perspective-based storytelling, unlike documentaries that need a more democratic model. Banerjee’s emphasis is very much on the middle class civil servants who prop up Indian administration, and it’s not his ‘responsibility’ as such to centralise the people’s movement in his narrative. It isn’t possible for one film to fit the diversity of people you say who need to be mentioned, and also handle complex characterisation, tight narrative and a believable resolution.

    Like it or not, this is Dibakar’s story to tell and his storytelling process. The people who live the urgent appalling reality of this story have every reason to be displeased at their representation, but cinema and its makers have a different agenda, and not one that is obliged to be inspiring. I think we can still cautiously laud the fact that someone is making contemporary relevant cinema with a fair degree of realism, while we also encourage debate on all the issues you’ve raised.

    Also, this irony of Riteish Desmukh is a bit strained – do we have any evidence of Riteish’s complicity in his father’s political shenanigans? Or are automatically assigning the sins of the father to the son? I find this ‘like father like son’ fingerpointing unfair.

    • Uglywords,
      it would be unfair of me to ‘imagine’ the responses of the people whose words and reactions to the film i represented in the piece. i feel it would be best if you could just go and talk to them yourself.

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  4. Dipankar Bannerjee is a cheese eating, scotch drinking Bengali Bhadralok. Shanghai is not replica or inspired by ‘Z’. Bannerjee’s production is ‘Cheee’. Just having a Bengalee surname, does not make him understanding the people’ sstruggle or his right over to comment on people’s struggle. At best he can be another Prtish Nandi or one of the lotus eaters. The films is neither portrayal of peoples struggle nor hypocrisy of Indian bureaucracy nor corrupt politician. It is an immature creation. That’s all. Forget it.

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