Dark is the city

At one point in F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise (1927), the ‘Woman of the City’ tempts the farmer to leave everything behind and come with her. She offers him a tantalising glimpse of the nocturnal cityscape — the dance halls, the glittering streets, the romp and music, the jazzy cafés and restaurants, the bustling city life, the thrills and energy of a heady urban culture. Feelings of shock and wonder overwhelm the farmer as he gazes with longing at these enticing visions of the early modern cinematic city. As the following scenes show him conspiring to kill his wife, acting as if under a spell, we wonder if this could have been one of the very first instances of the psychopath in film.

Representations of the city in the cinema of the early decades of the 20th century were all about the celebration of modernity where the city was the site of speed, dynamism and cultural progress. The post-war metropolis, on the other hand, became a site of gloom and disenchantment, and as a result, the urban cinema of the later decades was characterised by a distinctly darker aesthetic and increasingly aligned itself with traditions of noir. And along with a focus on themes such as urban blight, mechanisation and capitalism came an increased interest in the city’s effects on the mental life of its inhabitants. Given the rapid pace of urbanisation in all big cities together with the constant range of new stimulations, the city progressively became a site of social and psychological alienation, apathy, fear and illness.

A lot of modern anxieties and pathological conditions are rooted in the experience of the city. Fears like agoraphobia and claustrophobia, the fear of heights or acrophobia are all essentially associated with modern urban space and architectural forms — small apartments, elevators, stairwells, high-rises — and perhaps even occur as a result of such spatial constraints and demands. A number of films have explored these ideas in a variety of ways.

In the recent Hindi film Phobia (2016), what we see effectively is a disturbed mind’s subjective experience of horror. Mehak (Radhika Apte) develops severe agoraphobia after a traumatic experience in the city one night and finds herself increasingly debilitated by a disorder that traps her within the four walls of an apartment, which in turn starts to mirror her inner anxieties. This idea of the inner world portrayed through the outer where the characters’ homes start to reflect their delusional and agitated state of mind was brilliantly used in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. In The Tenant (1976) as in Phobia, the apartment spaces are haunted by what the characters imagine as the presence of a recently deceased occupant which leads to a curious crisis of identity. Again, Phobia has similarities with Repulsion (1965) where as a result of her rampant paranoia, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) finds herself confined to her flat whose proportions become wildly distorted as her hallucinations increase. Ram Gopal Varma’s psychological thriller Kaun (1999), set entirely in a house, also dealt with themes of neurotic behaviour, paranoia and withdrawal into a private space with similarly disastrous results for those attempting to invade that space.

Though films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Bhoot (2003) primarily deal with satanic and paranormal incursions respectively, they too explore the claustrophobic nature of apartment spaces and their disturbing effects on their inhabitants. Fear follows the city-dweller even as he moves out of closed interiors and traverses vast open spaces as detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) discovers while chasing a suspect across the rooftops of buildings above downtown San Francisco in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958). As he hangs precariously from the edge of a building, he is overcome by a severe spell of dizziness which then comes back to incapacitate him at crucial moments in the film.

Troubled by life in the city, while some suffer quietly, there is a more direct lashing out in case of others. A number of films have dealt with the urban mess head-on where city life is portrayed as so hostile, stagnant and suffocating that it elicits violent reactions from seemingly upright and stable individuals who suddenly snap. Examples include the Michael Douglas starrer Falling Down (1993) where infuriated by what he sees as the complete collapse of law, order and justice, laid-off defence worker William Foster goes on a sudden rampage across the city of Los Angeles, leaving several victims in his wake. Nishikant Kamat’s Marathi film Dombivli Fast (2005) has a similar theme. With very effective editing, the film’s opening sequence portrays the mundane routine of the white-collar worker. Its depiction of middle-class urban life in Mumbai with the familiar long-distance commutes, the massive crowds on local trains and the city’s dependence on the rail network point to how a megapolis keeps itself running. On the other hand, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday! (2008) looks at what happens when that very lifeline is threatened as an outraged Mumbaikar chooses to protest, rather unconventionally, against the disruption of normal life in his city.

Of the various psychological afflictions produced by the city, nothing perhaps has proved as popular or as worthy of filmic representation as the phenomenon of the criminal psychopath. While estrangement and loneliness are common themes in urban cinema, it is this very anonymity that the city provides which allows deviants to exist and operate. It is the site of the voyeuristic view, the preferred haunt of the stalker. There are countless examples: from the child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) who is himself portrayed as an overgrown child in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) in David Fincher’s noir thriller Se7en (1995) who is appalled by the sinful nature of urban society and decides to impose upon it his own disturbing moral framework.

Bombay cinema has produced its own set of serial killers, drawn from both fiction and reality, who take advantage of the city’s vast populations to hide in plain sight and prowl the streets at night, claiming dozens of innocent victims. Examples include The Stoneman Murders (2009), which bases its story on the killings that terrorised suburban Bombay in the 1980s. The Sushmita Sen starrer Samay: When Time Strikes (2003), which was inspired by Se7en, also follows a familiar trajectory where the murderer periodically claims victims and remains perpetually one step ahead of the detective who investigates his case. Sriram Raghavan’s Raman Raghav, A City, A Killer (1991) documents the case of the notorious murderer who, like the Stoneman killer, preyed upon the most vulnerable sections of society — the homeless and slum residents — and operated in Bombay in the ‘60s. A common feature in all these films is the way in which they depict the city in a state of mobilisation, panic and fear with simultaneous operating networks of vigilante squads, informants, the press and the police, all desperately trying to comb out the killer.

The trailer of Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 has all the makings of an urban psychological thriller: the unstable individual, who haunts the city while it sleeps, a terrifying version of the flâneur, that quintessential modern subject aimlessly wandering through urban space. His binocular hands and boastful declaration — “I am God’s own CCTV camera” — show how visual surveillance has as much to do with discipline as with crime.

City of dreams? Or nightmares?

Sucheta Chakraborty is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 1:38:03 AM |

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