1 June 2014

Haunted by Homelessness

When it comes to city housing, Hindi films have often painted a bleak picture, and CityLights is as dark as they come. But now even our fantasies only promise homes for the rich.

Hansal Mehta's CityLights returns us to what used to be a persistent theme of Bombay cinema: the search for a home in the city. An authorised adaptation of last year's British-Filipino film Metro ManilaCityLights brings its protagonists - Deepak (Rajkummar Rao), his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and their daughter Mahi - from a Rajasthan village to big, bad Mumbai. (In what is one of the first signs of the hoariness of the plot, Deepak is escaping the clutches of a moneylender.) Within hours of arrival in the metropolis, they have been tricked out of their savings by the promise of a home. 

The enormity of that first betrayal is depicted in an early scene that is bleak, and powerful. Rakhi has already started cleaning the empty flat as her own when the construction workers return. There is an unspoken, brutal marshalling of class here: seeing a woman squatting on the floor with a jhadoo, the city workers assume she is a hired cleaning woman. Because of course no-one who looks like a bai can possibly be at home in this relatively comfortable space. Bai, tum ghar jao, they say to the baffled Rakhi, who continues to sweep at first. Then, as realization dawns on her (and them), she roots herself to the floor. It is a harrowing moment of cinema: the frail young woman clinging literally and metaphorically to the ground beneath her feet, as the men try their best to drag her out of the flat.

Rakhi is removed, of course, and when we next see the family, it has floated into that vast amorphous population of the urban homeless. They move from pavement to pavement for a few days, until a bar dancer helps arrange temporary shelter in a half-constructed multi-storeyed building. "When this flat is ready, it'll go for three crores!" declares the tout with that strange pride in something he will never own. Then he pockets a hundred rupees a night to let the family sleep on the bare floor, amid the exposed bricks and beams and dangerous open parapets.

The shadowy spaces of the half-constructed building are a favourite locale for Bombay cinema: most often as the site of action sequences, or a villain's den. CityLights is perhaps the first film to use the space as ironic shelter for the homeless, the city view spread out below less grandly picturesque than cruelly anonymous.

Watching CityLights reminded me of Gharonda (The Nest, 1977), about another young couple's ill-fated striving for a home. Though of course that unusual Gulzar screenplay -- directed by Bhimsain -- was about middle class office-goers: people who did not have ready cash, but could conceivably save up for it. And Gharonda's protagonists do try, working overtime at odd jobs. Sudeep (Amol Palekar) puts up film posters at night, Chhaya (Zarina Wahab) takes on a modelling assignment. But the Rs. 5000 down payment they need to book an LIG flat -- via a munshi known to Sudeep's roommate - is too large to generate so quickly. Sudeep's monthly salary is only 600. So they borrow money to pay the munshi, and in the lovely song 'Do Deewane Sheher Mein', fill the half-done building with their dreams of domestic bliss.

But a house in Bombay is no place for dreaming. It is a matter of life and death. The munshi disappears with the money; Sudeep's roommate commits suicide; Sudeep himself, broken by the turn of events, turns bitter and desperate. And as in CityLights nearly four decades later, acts of desperation only drag you further into the quagmire. Sudeep ends Gharonda as a ghost of his former self - walking away into the horizon, dwarfed by the tall buildings of Bombay.

Amol Palekar as Sudeep in Gharonda
Abandoned buildings were also the scene of a very different sort of film about homelessness and injustice, earlier this summer. All across Mumbai, according to the Amitabh-Bachchan-starrer Bhootnath Returns, are apartment buildings on whom work has stopped because they are haunted. They are haunted by the ghosts of those whose lives were lost in their construction - from engineers who fell to their deaths to displaced jhuggi dwellers. The good ghost Bhootnath (Bachchan) combines forces with a little boy from Dharavi (Partho) to get these hapless souls justice, so that they go peacefully into the next world and our ghostbusters can get paid by the building mafia.

Once upon a time, mainstream Bombay cinema sold a dream - the dream of the poor boy who would grow up to be Amitabh Bachchan, and buy the building for which his mother had once broken stones as a labourer. Sometimes that dream was a mass one, as in the marvellous scene in Coolie when Bachchan smashes the villain's chandelier as he says, to give every coolie's house a light like that one. The middle class film in the same period - even a film as sensitive as Gharonda - simply did not encompass the labouring classes in its imagination. The one time that manual labourers appear in Gharonda, they pause their work obligingly to turn into a gigglingly indulgent audience for the middle class couple's song of home ownership. (It is another matter that the song's desires remain unfulfilled).

In 2014, Bollywood has offered us two visions. On the one hand, the darkly cynical denouement of CityLights, in which we learn that there is no such thing as a free gift - or a free home. On the other, a feel-good tale in which Bachchan -- now a ghost of his former self -- gives corrupt officials lessons in citizenry. But to what end? So that the work of building houses for the rich can continue. For the rest, a home in the city is no longer even held out as fantasy.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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