Big city blues

Sheharnama brought together filmmakers from across the world working on themes associated with the price of urbanisation


Geetanjali Minhas | February 14, 2014

 A few days before the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) was held in the first week of February, a lesser-known three-day international festival, Sheharnama, was held in the city from January 30 to February 1. As part of the festival more than 40 films from all over the world, chronicling various aspects of mundane, neglected city lives, were screened.

“The chosen films were based on a very specialised area of film-making, which looks at cities, especially in the global south where these cities have been the focus of economic development,” said Avijit Mukul Kishore, co-curator of the festival. “Several filmmakers around the world have been working on themes around cities, and we were looking mainly at those films.”


“After Hollywood, plastic is the biggest import in India,” said Anirban Datta whose film Wasted is a metaphysical take on the notion of waste in our cities and personal lives.

“There is no word for recycling in Indian languages, except a compound construct in Hindi: punar-navikaran,” he said. “According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi is the centre of universe. But the fact is while we talk of cleansing our souls there, Manikarnika Ghat is so filthy that you do not want to touch the holy water even with a stick.” But to Datta, as an artiste, “framing filth means recycling it”.

“Ancient agrarian India believed nothing is waste. The concept of waste came with the industrial revolution and has now become a currency of development. We have to understand that because we failed to understand industrial revolution our living conditions are pathetic.”

Shot over a period of seven months, Wasted also speaks on India’s wasted efforts on developing nuclear research that finally became redundant.

This resulted in large amounts of technical waste and loss of money, after India signed the civil nuclear energy deal with several countries and purchased dated foreign technology at cheaper prices.

“I drew inspiration from the book The Sick Planet by Guy Debord. It is a spectacularly nihilistic situation,” said Datta, who earlier taught film direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.  


Despite the fact that manual scavenging is officially banned in India, it, of course, continues to exist. Caste discriminations force the community of scavengers to live in precarious conditions without any hope for change. Their next generation is also forced to continue the tradition.

Shit is the story of Mariyammal, a dalit sanitary worker with the Madurai municipal corporation, who shares her anger and frustration with filmmaker RP Amudhan as she cleans a street lined with human excreta.

“It was very difficult to watch them physically go about their work,” Amudhan said. “I was continuously spitting and puking and unable to eat because the smell lingered while shooting and visiting toilets day after day.”

The film, he said, is about sanitation workers. “The protagonist, a full-time employee of the municipal corporation, is compelled to clean human excreta because she is not educated. It’s a violation of human rights.”
The 26-minute documentary triggered a chain of action in Tamil Nadu, and led to mass movements. “It is a one-sided film but I don’t care,” Amudhan said.
Tondo, Beloved: To What Are the Poor Born?

Jewel Maranan’s entry from Philippines was a geopolitical exploration of life before birth in a small home in Tondo, one of the oldest slum communities near Manila’s international port.

Shot over two years, the film captures the slow pace of life and time in a slum where the woman of the house is trying to fend her family’s daily food requirements while her husband is unemployed. The activities around the slum and its reflections on the larger society outside the family are vividly captured.

Though the film is shot in a very small place, as you go deeper into the small space prints and traces that exist within this space give a larger picture of the world around them.
“Coming from the countryside I was very curious about city life, and a series of choices I made in my early 20s led me to this community,” said Maranan. “It is a film on people and community in the context of the contradiction between vulnerability and imagined affluence of state. On the buzzing port, alongside extreme poverty you see international trade activity going on with container vans with international labels. this drew me like a magnet.”

While contemporaries from her film school chose mainstream media, Maranan spent two years in the slum doing community work. “These people have peculiar issues – like demolition,” she explained. “I would research and tell them, and in return they would tell me, so we educated each other. Poverty is very hard to explain; it is a very deep thing. Right from the time you are born, till the time of death, it surrounds you and never escapes.”

She is now editing the second part of the film which is about displacement of people when the port was being privatised, after which the government started devising ways of relocating the community. While the first part ends with the birth of the fourth child in the family, the second ends with a death.  
Around the time Maranan was shooting the film, the family received the demolition notice period of 30 days.

“I was not just filming. I was also experiencing what I was shooting. Time and life is really very slow and the analysing life tempers your mind. It is a matter of survival as these people have no choices. It was a calming experience and I am not an anxious person anymore,” she said with a laugh.



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