The ghetto within
Shoma A Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
The credit for re-creating interest in 'ghetto' people – people forced to live in the dredges of society - goes to Madhur Bhandarkar. With Chandni Bar, he set his sights on the struggles and tragedies of bar dancers in Mumbai pubs and bars, centered around one young girl and spreading out the underground mafia that controls their lives – and deaths. His recent film Traffic Signal, shedding light on a parallel economy that runs the lives of people who eke out a living at Mumbai's numerous traffic signals, is not only an eye-opener for Indians, but is also an excellent film. His chief talent lies in discovering the underbelly of a megapolis like Mumbai and laying it bare for his audience. He touches places and people most in the industry are not even aware of. The few who are aware, are scared of treading on the slippery ground of the box office via the audience.
Bimal Roy laid the foundation for underscoring the marginalised and the oppressed for the first time with Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Till date, this remains the only full-length feature film on the trials and tribulations of the deprived .Shambhu (Balraj Sahni), and his son Kanhaiya (Ratan Kumar) are forced to go and work in Kolkata to repay their debt to the merciless local zamindar (Sapru) in order to retain their land. In the city, Sambhu becomes a rickshaw-puller, facing numerous hardships that lead to the loss of his land to speculators who build a factory on it. The film's neo-realist reputation is almost solely based on Balraj Sahni's extra-ordinary performance. Also remarkable is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's editing. Today, the hand-pulled rickshawallah uprooted from his land in Bimal Roy's classic film Do Bigha Zameen seems like a distant dream next to Lage Raho Munnabhai where the new-age Gandhian hero rides around in a mechanised two-wheeler with a sidecar.
Chakra, directed by Robindra Dharmaraj, came like a tight slap on the face of the moralistic, stiff-upper-lip, urban middle-class. It focussed on the lives of slum dwellers in a Mumbai starring Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Ranjeet Chaudhary in the main roles. Smita lives in the slum with her teenaged son and has a truck driver as patron and customer. Her son sleeps in the cot outside when she is busy entertaining a client. No eyebrows are raised when a heavily pregnant Smita walks to her wedding with her son by her side. No one asks questions when a newborn baby is discovered in the huge waste bin in the slum. Ravindra Dharmaraj's untimely death put an end to a new talent.
Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar (1982) is a somewhat melodramatic expose of the clandestine trading in girls of desperately poor Muslim families of Hyderabad. The title reflects the 'market' where women, little and young, are sold for the exclusive sexual use, misuse and abuse by older, richer Muslim men from bigger Indian metros and from the Middle East or the Gulf. They are taken in either as paramours or as wives. The deal is negotiated between these rich buyers and the poor sellers - parents of the girls, through a matchmaker who could be a woman. The details are held back from the girl - the main commodity being sold.
Mandi (Marketplace , 1983) is the first film that revolves around the system of prostitution in the fringes of Hyderabad, the action centering around a brothel threatened by land-grabbers and construction promoters. A novelty of the film is its introduction of three male characters in the brothel. One is a lovable hawaldar who regularly sleeps with one of the inmates in exchange for 'looking after them.' The second is a multi-purpose errand boy whose drunken scenes in front of the madam's door clearly hint at a love affair gone sour. The third is a photographer. Certain scenes are set up in a way as to render the thrill of Peeping Toms by creating a character who actually functions as a Peeping Tom: a smalltime photographer who walks in and out of the house to click dirty pictures for his daily bread. The girls are full-blooded, brazen and raw, but they share a common illusion: to have a home and a husband. The brothel madam's character, portrayed by a twenty-pounds heavier Shabana Azmi, coquettish and bitchy, loving and cruel, maternal and destructive at the same time is unforgettable. She uses her aggression as a shield against the uncertainty of her existence, and that of her girls who are ever eager to opt out of the rut they are in.
Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1987) offers an insight into slum life in this metro city, filled with musclemen, pimps, drug runners and drug addicts, runaway children who have lost their childhood in the dirt and the debris, and prostitutes who fail to understand why they will have to give away their children to the State. Sarkar maa banegi? (Will the State become the mother?) asks the prostitute (Anita Kanwar) pathetically, when her little girl is taken away from her. But it is a vicious cycle; a little Nepali girl, yet to enter her teens goes out in a taxi, dressed to suit her initiation into the trade, much like a lamb to slaughter.
Shekhar Kapoor's Bandit Queen (1994) was made 11 years after Phoolan Devi's surrender. Mala Sen wrote India's Bandit Queen - The True Story of Phoolan Devi on the basis of detailed interviews with the controversial Phoolan when she was in prison. The fact that Channel Four commissioned the film raises questions of ideology and ethics, distanced from the privacy-related questions about Phoolan raised by another Channel Four filmmaker in Delhi, Arundhati Roy. Yet, Bandit Queen has its moments of strength. It reveals the oppressive nature of gender relationships across caste and financial class lines in the contemporary Indian rural milieu in pockets of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The film does not offer solutions. Nor does it suggest the direction women like Phoolan Devi must take to discover their voices and escape the patriarchal domination that has manipulated and conditioned their thoughts. The film is controversial and polarising. Many women and some men find its sympathetic portrayal of Phoolan