Review: Anand Patwardhan – A Cinema of Songs and People

This review was first published in “The Mirrored Hammer” – a newspaper of Music, Art, Culture and Critique for Leeds and Bradford in November 2014. The exhibition was at Gallery II from 18 Sep-23 Oct 2014

Near the start of Anand Patwardhan’s 1985 documentary “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City ” a female interviewee says: “without money I have no voice.” Then the film cuts to a shot of three musicians, singing a protest song. It begins: “Listen to our Story, listen to this workers’ tale” and it continues – threading throughout the film’s 75 minutes – to recount a story of power, corruption and oppression. The lyrics echo the words of slum dwellers interviewed in the documentary who speak about their struggle to live in Bombay in the face of persistent demolitions and attempts to move them on by the city authorities. Along with 3 more recent shorts by Patwardhan, made in slum communities, “Hamara Shahar/ Bombay: Our City” strives to give voice to impoverished inhabitants and workers who have been essential to Bombay’s (now Mumbai’s) economic development but who have been marginalized and ignored. The films have a social-political objective intertwined with a concern for the politics of representation. How can the filmmaker give voice to the slum community and what potential do artistic representations have to enfranchise people and affect political change?

“Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” unfolds slowly through interviews and via footage of daily life in the slums, counter-posed with images of high-rise, glitzy Bombay. A shot pans around the lavish home of the city commissioner whist he inveighs that others cannot just put up homes where they like. Later we hear from slum dwellers that work in construction, building swish apartments for a meager salary whilst their own makeshift homes are repeatedly destroyed. We witness a meeting of city advertisers being cajoled into making positive representations of the city, as if the hutments are only a problem of image. A slum dweller retorts, they want to “push us into a corner, [to] make it shine.” There is no voiceover monologue to cohere what is depicted, the films’ success is its pointed juxtapositions and multiple voices.

Running in parallel with the interview and documentary content is the protest song and several scenes of street theater by Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit musician who Patwardhan collaborated with. The film periodically cuts to Ghogre’s band and to street performances watched by a large, amused crowd. For slum residents – for whom access to education is difficult and literacy presumably low – these performances are likely to have served a communicative role in addition to their entertainment value. For the film viewer the humor and creativity of these scenes humanises the slum dwellers. They act as a counter to depressingly familiar comments made middle class city residents who bemoan that slum dwellers don’t mind living in sewer conditions so long as they can buy a fridge or TV, that they have too many children who they can’t look after or that they should go back to the villages they came from. Ghogre’s music is intricate, the lyrics reflective and the theatre is darkly comic. In one sketch the distress of a man with diarrhea at a broken community toilet is interrupted by a visit from an electoral candidate. The candidate says he brought taps to the slums last year and if they vote for him again, he will bring water to those taps.

Patwardhan’s use of song and rhyme continues in the two shorter films “We are Not Your Monkeys” (1996, 5min) and “The Children of Mandala” (2009, 5min). The former is structured around an anti-caste song co-written with Dalit poets that criticises the Hindu epic Ramayana. The latter shows children from Mandella slum playing, learning the alphabet and chanting a message of support to children in the Swat valley. For me “We are Not Your Monkeys” was harder to get a handle on because I am only superficially familiar with the epic, however the film’s inclusion made me conscious of the possibility for misinterpretation or simplistic interpretation of unfamiliar cultures. I had previously assumed the Ramayana to be a straightforward representation of historic Hindu beliefs; this film suggests that it is contested. Watching Patwardhan’s works I am aware that my understanding may only be partial. It is clear, for example, that the Dalit songs are much more musical in their original rhyming Hindi and some of this is lost on me as I read the subtitles on screen for their meaning. Having said this, the films’ strength is in the empathy they elicit and where “We are Not Your Monkeys” looks to the past and the importance of a specific history “The Children of Mandala” foregrounds the universal experiences of childhood and play, with children in one situation reaching out to children in another.

Patwardhan acknowledges the potential for his work to objectify impoverished people – one woman in “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” reprimands him saying: “you take photos to make your name…don’t take photos of the poor.” But his films are nuanced and though they represent a particular situation the questions of power, wealth and corruption raised by the films transcend a specific place or time period. This makes them affecting and important even 30 years after “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” was produced.

The final short film “Occupation Mill Worker” (1996, 22 min) has a particular resonance in Bradford, bearing in mind this city’s textile history. Bombay – we are told – had a thriving textile industry until mill owners discovered they could make more money by closing mills and selling off their land. The film documents events from 1992 when workers forcibly entered Bombay’s New Great Eastern Mill after a four-year lock out. Workers hold protests, watch film screenings and attempt to clean old machines. They are confronted by police and some are arrested, then after a two year struggle they achieve a court order to reopen the mill. The film finishes here and we do not know whether they were ultimately successful. Nonetheless Patwardhan’s choice to end on a positive note demonstrates optimism about the potential for change via collective action.

The question remains: can the films themselves be agents for social change? A 1986 press release, included in the exhibition, suggests uncertainty. In the release Patwardhan struggles with whether to accept a national award for best non-feature film for “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” because he is aware that the film has not changed the situation of the slum dwellers depicted. We know today that slums persist and it is hard to watch the film without thinking about the subsequent children who have grown up in these dire conditions. This ambivalence – around the films’ impact – makes this exhibition more complex; it does not pretend to present simple answers to the complicated problems of global capitalism. Patwardhan’s films have not been widely seen in the UK and I think it is important that they are shown here. Bombay’s slums may seem remote from us but the issues foregrounded in these films ought not be.

The films may not directly help slum dwellers however they can – like Ghogre’s street theatre – raise awareness and influence opinion. In “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” we learn that some of the police mobilsed to demolish slums are former slum dwellers themselves. The security of a municipal job and the resulting ability to support their families compels them to act against their peers. Similarly we all, as global citizens, make individual choices complicit in the oppression of others. We try to push poverty into a corner, out of our minds, in order to live comfortable lives. Patwardhan implores us to look and to listen. “Hamara Shahar/Bombay: Our City” is harrowing but it too finishes with a call to action and a glimmer of optimism. Ghogre’s song ends: “When the workers rule, there will be food for everyone” and, as he sings, the camera pans along lines of police men, stopping for a moment from their job of demolitions and simply listening.