Sheharnama, a documentary film festival in Mumbai, looked into the crevices of cities across the world, and portrayed how urban narratives worldwide are shared ones.
If you ask residents of Golibar — a slum near Khar station in Mumbai that is marked for ‘redevelopment’ — about their life, interesting stories emerge. An old woman will tell you about how, one afternoon, ‘demolition men’ attacked and demolished her hut on the sly. Others will tell you of life without electricity and water. In the nights, you will find children studying by candlelight.
Oliver Meys and Zhang Yaxuan’s A Disappearance Foretold documents the demolition of a neighbourhood called Qianmen in Beijing, China. In the film, an old woman describes the ways authorities have repeatedly tried to demolish her dwelling. You will see children study by candlelight and people living without water, electricity or sanitation facilities.
Golibar and Qianmen are 3,000 miles apart. But the two cities and their concerns seemed to merge seamlessly in the 40-odd documentaries that played out at Sheharnama: A City/Film Festival between January 30 and February 1 in Mumbai as a precursor to the 13th edition of the Mumbai International Film Festival and presented by Films Division and ActionAid India.
“All cities in the world are alike in more ways than their residents realise,” says curator Surabhi Sharma, explaining the idea behind the festival. “The connections between what’s going on there and what’s going on here are tragically in sync.”
Migrants building cities they will never inhabit; immigrant watchmen protecting residential buildings of the rich while living in despicable shanties; colossal waste; underpaid and overworked workers; well-off citizens looking at migrant workers as problems... these and many more emotions emerge from the films, photos and discussions in the festival.
The best of represented reality escapes into the surreal without even attempting to. When one watches the films in tandem, the lines between reality and its representation, the distance between places that are continents apart suddenly evaporates and you find the eerie, surreal ways in which the same umbilical cord runs through every city.
It is as if the migrant workers in the Qianmen film complaining about lack of proper food, clothing and payment have jumped into Nishtha Jain’s hauntingly evocative At My Doorstep. And it is as if both these migrants have been permanently etched in the photographs of M.S. Gopal, who has been documenting Mumbai and posting a photo a day on his blog for the past many years.
“Newspapers from Kerala with special Mumbai editions carry two pages of obituary everyday. That is the first page Keralites read. When you are so far away from home, death is your connection to the place you have left behind,” says Gopal, explaining a montage photo of newspapers.
What catches one’s attention in this festival is silence. “We wanted to go beyond the headlines and the clash points, which is usually how a city is represented. We were looking for films that have a quieter gaze, get into the nooks and corners where it might seem that nothing is happening, but incredible stories are being told,” says Sharma.
Co-curator Avijit Mukul Kishore adds, “The kind of films we have chosen are not the typical polemical documentaries. Instead these have a quieter look, tell smaller stories connected to a larger reality. We consciously chose to stay closer home, not geographically but contextually and economically. Thus, you have films from Latin America, Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia, China, etc. Watch any film, be it from Bogota, Manila, Lima, Beijing or Mumbai, and you see the same stories playing out everywhere as cities and countries globalise.”
Actor Shabana Azmi spoke about the crisis in our cities today where one half of the city pretends that the other is unwanted and does not have any issues. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Azmi — who can be called a second-generation migrant to Mumbai — candidly recounted her personal narrative of growing up in Central Bombay, the city as it was then, and her isolation from that space after getting into the film industry.
This seems to be the story of most second-generation migrants who have not only forgotten their parents’ experience, but end up looking at new migrants with hostility.
In Azmi’s case, however, watching Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Bombay My City inspired her to look inwards and she made an attempt to reconnect with the reality she had left behind.
“If even a few people are able to see the connection between these disparate but linked films and if that inspires them to connect to a larger, inclusive reality, I would consider the festival a success,” says Kishore.
The old women of Qianmen and Goliber would agree.