Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kaala’, a glimpse of what Dharavi truly is – and what it could have been

The Rajinikanth starrer engages with many of the real issues facing the Mumbai neighbourhood, says the author of a book on Dharavi. 


Published in Scroll.in --  https://scroll.in/reel/883055/in-pa-ranjiths-kaala-a-glimpse-of-what-dharavi-truly-is-and-what-it-could-have-been

“Yeh Dharavi toh jophadpatti ki rani hai” (This Dharavi is the queen of slums). This is what a woman who lived on the pavement opposite Jhoola maidan in Byculla told me in the mid-1980s when I spoke to her. Today, she has been moved out of her house to a distant suburb, but the “queen” of Mumbai’s slums now has a “king”, by way of Rajinikanth in the recently released Pa Ranjith film Kaala.

I must admit first that I have never seen a Rajnikanth film. My loss, I am told. But I did watch Kaala, mostly because it is set in Dharavi (the Hindi dubbed version, although I would have preferred the original Tamil version with sub-titles to get the full flavour).

Although the director has taken cinematic licence in telling the story of Dharavi’s redevelopment through two main characters, he has managed to engage with many of the real issues that people living in this place that is wrongly called a “slum” face every day of their lives.

Dharavi is, as one of the characters in the film says, a mini-India, something I was told repeatedly by the people I interviewed for my book Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000). Ranjith brings this out without making a big point about it. You can see the mix of communities although the film is centered on the Tamil Dalit community, the Adi Dravidas who came to work in the tanneries that dotted Dharavi till the mid-1980s. In fact, a fleeting shot in the film shows a wooden barrel that was used in small tanneries that continued to function till the end of the ’90s, even after the big ones had been compelled to relocate because of pollution control laws.

Ranjith’s film also establishes that Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and other castes have coexisted in Dharavi and that the clashes that took place at various times were often because of external provocation. The scene where a piece of pork is flung into a mosque and ultimately results in a clash between Hindus and Muslims is an illustration of this. On December 6, 1992, the Shiv Sainiks took out a cycle rally through Dharavi celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was the provocation for the communal rioting that followed even though Muslims and Hindus had lived together with a high level of tolerance till then. There were provocations and minor skirmishes before this but not on the scale of 1992-93.

Above all, Ranjith has underlined the fact that Dharavi is predominantly a settlement of Dalits. Although the film centres on the Tamils, in fact there are Dalits from Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and probably elsewhere. Dharavi is a reserved Scheduled Caste constituency. At a time of growing Dalit assertion, this reality is often forgotten. Ranjith reminds us in different ways of this without making it the main theme of the film.

Ranjith also reminds us that Dharavi was literally “made” by the people who live there. Therefore, the repeated assertion by Rajnikanth’s character that Dharavi belongs to them. It was a swamp, a place where there could be no human settlement. Yet over time, the very people who came to live there filled it up. The side of present-day Dharavi touching Sion and the one next to Mahim were separated by that swamp. Today, you would not be able to tell.

This is part of Dharavi’s history, one that is often overlooked. The value that people have added to this land has never been recognised by those who view it as prime real estate, a realisation that first dawned in the mid-’80s when Bandra and Kurla were being developed into one business district. Dharavi lies just across the Mithi river from Bandra and Kurla; hence its importance.

It is, as people in the film state, located virtually in the centre of Greater Mumbai, although it once was the periphery. That is another reason why the eyes of the real estate developers light up when they think of the value of the land where Dharavi is located.
What makes Kaala stand out is also that it has not resorted to making some kind of generic slum and passing it off as Dharavi. Although Danny Boyle did not say that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was about Dharavi, a lot of people presumed it was. Yet, anyone who knows Dharavi, and lives in the Mumbai where informal settlements are an integral part of the city, would have recognised the mixed shots from different “slums” that were used to create one generic urban poor settlement in that film.
Ranjith does not do this. Barring a couple of shots that were clearly not of Dharavi, he tries to stay true to the place.

I came out of the film thinking, “I wish, I wish.” I wish that the urban poor were united enough to fight against those trying to oust them from the land they built. I wish that greed, corruption and politics did not divide them so that they end up working against their own best interests. I wish journalists could play the role the sole journalist plays in the film of exposing the nexus between the police, politicians and builders. I wish the Dharavi story could have held up an example for other urban poor settlements across India.

The reality, sadly, is different. The residents of Dharavi are divided along political lines. They have different demands, and follow those most likely to fulfill what they want.

Also, it is interesting that Kaala is about Dharavi’s redevelopment. Ironically Dharavi’s identity is linked to the plan to “redevelop” it. Since 2004, when the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan was mooted, people living there have identified with the place in a much more immediate way. In 1999, when I spent time in Dharavi to interview people for my book, I found many of the older people identified either with the village or district from where they or their forefathers had come, or with the specific area where they lived.
So it would be Kumbharwada, or Kamraj Nagar, or Ganesh Mandir, or Muslim Nagar, or Matunga Labour Camp. Or Tirunelvelli, Jaunpur, Junagadh. This sense of Dharavi as a specific settlement with its own identity was not evident.

In fact, I recall a conversation with an elderly man in the Matunga Labour Camp who was a Valmiki from Haryana. When I asked a question about Dharavi, he interrupted and asked me, “What is this Dharavi you are talking about?”

Yet already by then, the younger people expressed themselves as being from Dharavi. So the identity of Dharavi had begun to emerge, but I would argue that it was consolidated once the state saw it as a piece of real estate to be developed under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan.

Coming back to the idea of a “King” of the “Queen” of slums, for a film with a superstar like Rajinikanth, that works. But once again, the reality is somewhat different. In the ’80s, Dharavi did see gang warfare in the heyday of Varadarajan Mudaliar (on whom Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, with Kamal Hasan, was based). But much of that kind of dramatic clash of opposing gangs ended once prohibition ended, and Mudaliar was chased out of Maharashtra.

That is not to say that they are no slumlords, or local strongmen, with their respective gangs. They do exist, as they do in any such settlement. But the kind of violence depicted in the film is a part of history, and not daily existence in Dharavi.

Builders and their political backers have several other ways to intimidate and coerce Dharavi’s residents to sign on the dotted line for redevelopment. But that too has been frozen ever since the entire area was designated a special zone for development under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. There are no more buildings coming up under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme that applies to the rest of Mumbai.

Dharavi in fact is caught in a limbo – between the Maharashtra government’s grand designs of converting it into a high-end residential and business enclave and the reality of lakhs of people continuing to live in sub-optimal conditions and hoping for a change. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme cannot be implemented there and the redevelopment plan is a dead horse that the government continues to flog, its latest effort being the attempt to bring in some interested parties from Dubai.

Meanwhile, the people of Dharavi live in a schizophrenic world where there are some high-rise buildings, mostly adjacent to main roads, while the interiors remain virtually as they were for the last two decades. And the city around them continues to develop and “redevelop”.


Friday, June 01, 2018

Seeking controversy: Germaine Greer

The iconoclastic and contrarian feminist Germaine Greer has once again kicked off a controversy with her remarks on rape at the ongoing Hay Festival in Britain where she spoke.  In this article in The Guardian she argues that the punishment for rape should be reduced.

She must have raised many hackles when she stated:

“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime, and some rapes are, think about it as non consensual … that is bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love.”

The problem is that she says some shocking things but her aim is not just to shock.  This is the way she thinks, and she makes no apologies for this.

I met her and interviewed her in 2015 when she was invited to Mumbai to speak at the Tata Lit Live literature festival.  She was energetic at 76, overflowing with strong opinions and at 10 in the morning, sat perched on a window sill with a glass of red wine in her hand and held forth.

Here is the interview for those who are interested:

Iconoclastic, controversial, contrarian, outspoken, unafraid, feminist – each of these adjectives fits the woman who gave us The Female Eunuch. At 76, Germaine Greer has lost none of her passion. Nor her ability to shock. In Mumbai to attend Tata Literature Live this past weekend, she declares that her 1970 book that woke up so many women around the world is actually one of her worst. There are many more quotable quotes. But it would be a mistake to condense her views to one-liners, to the television sound bites that exemplify today’s journalism. They can’t be.

Perched on a window seat at Prithvi House in the western suburb of Juhu, Greer spoke about equality, liberation, abortion, growing old as a woman and Hillary Clinton.

Greer does not like Hillary Clinton. She is not excited about the possibility of the United States getting its first woman president. Why is she running, she asks. “Because she was married to a president? It might as well be in Bangladesh. It’s ridiculous. The assumption that she’s the only woman in that position is nonsense. She was not even very good at any of the very important jobs that she was given. And she has a conspicuous lack of charm. People don’t like her. But they did like Bill. And they’ll get Bill if they get Hillary. At least in the Orient, the husband is dead. But in this case, the husband is in the background.”

The Orient? We don’t hear that too often.

Representation in corporations

Her irritation with Hillary Clinton apart, Greer has a larger point to make about equality. She has declared that she is a “liberation feminist” and not an “equality feminist”. Why this binary?

“They’re fundamentally different. Equality is a conservative aim. It means you have an idea of what you want for women, which is what men have got. But what have men got? They’ve got the corporate world. They’ve got the competition. They’ve got the corporate structure that gives you one top honcho, and everyone else struggling to get up there and falling by the wayside. In the corporate world, every man is a loser. Because that’s the way it’s constructed. In the end it’s the corporation that wins. Now a woman can go into the corporation and become a corporation man. Mrs Thatcher did that. Worked pretty well. And she’s the most bellicose, war-like leader we’ve ever had. And guilty of a war crime in the Falklands war.”

Greer is especially critical of the idea of representation of women in everything – corporate boardrooms, the armed forces, other professions. “For example, in England we hear all the time how women have to be introduced to the boardroom. How the boardroom must be 30% female and you think, why 30%? What’s so holy about 30%?”

What’s the point of such representation if it does not lead to any change, she asks. “There is actually no point. It becomes window dressing. You look feminist because you’ve got women doing things. But they’re not doing anything for women. If they were to upset the priorities of the corporation, they wouldn’t be there.”

Treatment of elderly women

Expanding on why the concept of equality with men should not drive feminism, she suggests we look at the areas where men cannot be included, such as reproduction. There is no talk of equality in the birthplace, she points out. As a result, she argues, in England, safe-birthing facilities, such as maternity centres, are neglected. Many are closing down. And women who choose natural birth methods are suffering. There are not enough midwives. As a result, obstetricians get their way.

Diseases like cervical cancer that afflict only women also expose the pointlessness of the equality debate, she stresses. In England, during some years there were as many as 300,000 false positive tests for cervical cancer, exposing women to unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, medical procedures. But these issues are not debated because these are areas where men are not present.

Greer’s current area of concern is the treatment of elderly women in countries like England and Australia. “You know who we lock up? Old women,” she said. “They have no rights. They are incarcerated. Because there is not enough staff to look after them, and they might be demented, their civil rights are completely in abeyance. The matter has never been discussed in any public forum because nobody gives a shit. If I point out that these women have worked for other people all their lives, they are now frail and elderly and can’t live in their houses because they can’t afford to heat them, they now come here to be looked after and what do you do? You imprison them. They don’t go out. Ever.”

Stand on abortion

In her opening address at the literature event in Mumbai, Greer came dangerously close to sounding like a pro-lifer, someone who is against a woman’s right to abortion, when she called the fight for abortion rights “a historical accident” and suggested that in the end it has facilitated a kind of eugenics with surrogacy and made-to-order babies. “Feminists must realise some of their victories were pyrrhic,” she said, and that there was no getting away from the fact that “abortion is killing, don’t pretend it isn’t”.

So what is her position on abortion, including sex-selective abortion?

“Oh well. This is a really ticklish point. We’re dealing with female agency. And part of the decision-making when it comes to sex-selective abortions, is made by the woman as well as the man. Or maybe not the man at all,” Greer responded.

But in India, it is not a choice women make independently, I point out, that it is “the family”, including the husband, which decides that it is better to abort a female foetus than give birth to a girl.

Greer says she has revised her position on this issue after she learned of a Sikh woman in England and the choice she faced. After four and a half years of marriage, during which she gave birth to three girls, she found she was pregnant again. When she went for her scan after 12 weeks, she discovered it was a girl, again. She asked the doctors to terminate the pregnancy but was refused as it was against the law. So she went to a traditional birth attendant. And bled to death from a botched abortion.

“What annoyed me”, said Greer, “was that the coroner who sat on the case said she brought it on herself. It was her fault because she tried to do something immoral, which was to terminate a pregnancy because of the sex of a child. Damn it. You can terminate a pregnancy for the simple reason that you don’t want to bear the child. And you’re not going to explain it to someone who’s not even remotely involved. ”

Greer’s position on abortion remains unchanged but nuanced. “I’m not against abortion. But it’s even worse than that. The way people talk about the liberalisation of the access to abortion is to make it sound like a privilege. It isn’t a privilege. If you really can’t have a child, not because you don’t want to have one, but because you’ll lose your job, lose your place at university, or your parents will kick you out, or your boyfriend will dump you, if everything is pushing you towards the decision, you will hurt, you will be guilty, because you will not have wholly accepted your own behaviour. You’ll be saying, look what you made me do. I didn’t want to do that. Women’s lives are difficult.”

Don't imitate men

About the latest controversy, where she said that transsexual men undergoing surgery to become women are not women, Greer is unapologetic.

“Do I say to them, excuse me, you know women’s lives are really quite difficult. Be a 12-year-old and find blood on your pants and get someone to explain to you that you’re going to bleed like that every 28 days. And you think, what happened to my body. It used to be fine. And now look at it. And then you go through the whole thing of having to worry about your fertility. Worrying how to manage it. Worrying about whether you’re pregnant or you’re not pregnant.”

So women should not worry about equality with men, and transsexual men are not women. But what does Greer mean by “liberation”?

“It means to set women free to develop their own potential and not to imitate what the men have established. To discover how to bring their own notions of what is appropriate, what is worthwhile, how we should live, how we should interact,” concluded Germaine Greer as she finished off her morning glass of Indian red wine.

Published in Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/article/766570/germaine-greer-explains-why-some-feminist-victories-were-failures