Hip-hop on a tanki top

The reclaiming of public spaces is the running theme at this year’s Urban Lens Festival

Updated - September 20, 2017 12:11 pm IST

Published - September 16, 2017 04:26 pm IST

Still from Wings of Desire

Still from Wings of Desire

Prabh Deep lives in Tilak Nagar in Delhi. He recalls how financial constraints, family needs and an incident involving the humiliation of his mother left him deeply angry and frustrated. He could have raged on about it, but was advised by a confidant to get creative instead. The expression of dissent would then last forever, not just stay relevant for the moment. So Prabh Deep started articulating angst and anguish in his rap songs. He now has a loyal SoundCloud following and revels in the endorsement he has been getting, not just from family and friends but, as he puts it, from his “hood” (neighbourhood) as well.

Music gives meaning to his life, makes him feel alive; the street where he has been living for almost two decades is his anchor and inspiration. And the two passions come together in a song called ‘Delhi 18’ (an ode to his pincode).

From lawn to water tank

There are other rebels like Prabh Deep you meet in Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia’s new documentary, Gali — Slumgods in Khidki Extension, Ray in Gurugram, 8 Hindus in Nepali Basti of R.K. Puram — leading lights of the thriving subculture of hip-hop, rap and break dance in the capital. The defiance reflected in their music stems as much from circumstances and situations as it does from the claustrophobia (physical and psychological) they feel in their homes and lives.

One sees a similar unrest in Mod by Pushpa Rawat that explores the complicated mindset of young men weighed down by patriarchy, starting with her own drifter brother. Unlike the boys in Gali , there is no music, no redemption, meaning and inspiration for the vagrant dropouts of the lower middle-class Pratap Nagar in Ghaziabad.

However, these films are not just about the intersectionality of city neighbourhoods and the individuals living in them. It’s also interesting to see how these young men seize the public spaces in their cities for themselves — the lawn of a swanky mall is claimed for practice sessions in Gali and a water tank turns into an infamous hangout in Mod .

If in Gali it’s about men on the margins trying to seize the mainstream by getting to inhabit the physical spaces appropriated by the privileged, in Mod it gets more complicated.

Unable to live up to the expectations of their families or negotiate their rightful space in society, the young men gravitate towards the ‘ tanki ’ to gamble, drink, smoke up and rap. The water tank is their refuge and escape from the real world, a space of their own yet one they wouldn’t want to return to if they had a choice or were given a better shot at life.

Owning the streets

Both Gali and Mod are among the films that will play in the fourth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival being held from September 21 to 24 in Bengaluru, October 6 to 8 in Delhi and on December 2 and 3 in Mumbai. It is organised by Media Lab of Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) in collaboration with Goethe Institut/Max Muller Bhavan. For Subasri Krishnan, who heads Media Lab, this claiming of public spaces is a running theme in the bunch of films in the festival this year. “It’s about how different sections of society — be they at the centre or the periphery — make a claim to the city through different modes,” she says. It could be about 3,000 enterprising squatters and 750 families making homes in an unfinished, abandoned office building in Caracas in Venezuela in Markus Lenz’s student film Ruina. The long documentary is not just about turning the ruins of a skyscraper into a fascinating high-rise slum but also about building a whole community from scratch.

Still from Ruina

Still from Ruina

Or it could be about 11-year-old Zaid, owning the streets of Ahmedabad and negotiating peak traffic while chasing his obsession — the kites in the sky — and fighting for the terrace on Uttarayan (kite festival) in Hardik Mehta’s short Amdavad Ma Famous that won the national award for the best non-feature film in 2015 .

The selection of films in the first three editions had been by invitation. This year, in order to open the festival to a greater diversity of films from a wider geographical spread, the festival called for entries in April. “We received more than 1,605 entries from 102 countries. It helps bring unheard of films to the table,” says Krishnan. As many as 28 films (between Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai) will play at the festival, from India, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Israel, Jordan, U.S. and South Africa.

“It is about seeing the city not just with one lens,”says Krishnan. What better example of that than the gentle angel’s look at the humans in a war-torn Berlin in Wim Wenders classic Wings of Desire. The idea is to go beyond the panoramic showcasing of habitats, buildings, city landmarks and skyscrapers on screen and to go beyond turning the city — its distinct language and culture — into a mere backdrop.

It’s about how a filmmaker engages philosophically and culturally with the city and with the idea of urbanisation. So, it’s the tenuousness of life, and love, in an urban chawl that Payal Kapadia captures with her geometric frames and whimsical, fable-like narrative in Watermelon, Fish and Half Ghost . Told from the point of view of a young girl, it is about the immediate everyday routines, the little loves, found and lost.

The films are about individual and collective experiences. Distance by Ekta Mittal and Yashaswini BR looks at migrant workers from across India — Bihar, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh — living on the margins of Bengaluru. It captures their personal stories — about desires and longings, and about ghosts — all pointing to an acute collective loneliness.

So many journeys

The journey of immigrants in Daphna Awadish’s enchanting Journey Birds is across countries. The unique animation presents individuals as hybrids between human beings and birds, those who have flown far away from their original nests to build homes elsewhere. Four narratives — of Nona, Irene, Abraham and Karen — provide commentary as Awadish explores the aching for a homeland and the curiosity for a new habitat. I still don’t know where I want to be, says one of the immigrants. I can’t saywhether I am at home here, says another.

Still from Journey Birds

Still from Journey Birds

Among the fiction features is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Asha Jaoar Majhe ( Labour of Love ) about alienation in urban relationships. With everyday images and situational sounds, Sengupta creates a vivid world of a young couple over 24 hours in Kolkata.

The daily banal rituals and routinised work lives prevail as the togetherness is lost. If Girish Kasarvalli’s Ek Ghar looks at a couple’s struggle to find a home in the city, Rajiv Ravi in Kammatipaadam looks at how the real estate mafia built a shining Kochi by depriving Dalits of their land.

The festival also aims to go beyond films to engage with filmmaking. Last year the focus was on cinematography. This year the series of conversations will be on direction and editing, with award-winning filmmakers and editors like Girish Kasaravalli, Rajeev Ravi, Bina Paul and Namrata Rao talking about their craft and how it has come to reflect in their body of work.

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