The Mumbai Slum: Aerial Views and Embodied Memories

Aerial view of Mumbai by Johnny Miller,
In this third and final part of our Slums series, Ranjani Mazumdar discusses two recent films that have created "embodied cartographies" of Mumbai's Dharavi.
[Ed. note: This is the final instalment of a three-part series on the representation of slums on screen. You can read part one here and part two here]

In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis presents us with an apocalyptic account of a future overwhelmed by congested slums resulting from large scale migration to the cities. In Planet of Slums, the slum is a fait accompli. While squatter settlements have had a presence in most cities of the world, in the second half of the twentieth century, the global South increasingly witnessed a concentration of slums. Davis’s account makes us sit up with a sense of shock as we absorb the statistics and data that he parades for the reader. The whirlwind of staggering information is meant to shake us out of our reverie, to recognize a crisis that is at once economic, social, political and ecological. The cover of the first edition provides us with a high angle view of a Brazilian Favela. 1Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York: Verso, 2006).

A decade after the publication of Davis’s book, Johnny Miller, in his award-winning photographic work Unequal Scenes, captured aerial views of inequality.2 See the website for Johnny Miller’s photographic project Unequal Scenes: Miller initially started work in South Africa, but soon branched out in 2016 to use drones for the capture of striking images from around the world. These images provide high angle views of major cities with clusters of low-income housing set against wealthier districts. The countries where Miller took pictures included South Africa, India, Tanzania, the United States, and Kenya. The idea of these high angle images came to Miller during his time as an anthropology student in South Africa. The tin shacks and their existence right next to the affluent neighbourhoods made for striking imagery. Says Miller:

The images that I find the most powerful are when the camera is looking straight down —what’s known as ‘nadir view,’ looking at the actual borders between rich and poor. Sometimes this is a fence, sometimes a road, or wetlands—with small shacks or poor houses on one side, and larger houses or mansions on the other. …I think the images make inequality relevant— people can see themselves reflected in the images, and it’s deeply unsettling.3Cited in Tariq Tahir, “Tale of Two Cities”, The Sun, August 20, 2018

There is an uncanny resemblance between Davis’s account in Planet of Slums and Miller’s photographs in his Unequal Scenes. Both capture broad trends in the world and focus on scale, numbers, and the desire to instil a sense of shock. Their approach is clearly informed by certain kinds of urban plans, policies, and academic discourses where statistical analysis of the slum population is a regular feature. The key issue, however, is the deployment of an aerial perspective – a planetary view, so to speak, which assumes an essential interconnection between all humankind and the earth; a relationship that transcends nations to foreground a shared vision of a united humanity.

The aerial view popularized since the experience of flight is now a widespread form that has deeply affected the way we understand geography and territory.4Adnan Morshed, “The Cultural Politics of Aerial Vision: Le Corbusier in Brazil”, Journal of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (2002): 201–210. Since this form of looking is distinctly different from ground level perception, there is a quality of abstraction that comes into play in any high angle view of the world. What we experience is a move away from a complex reality to an image form where the unruly appears tidy. This is a process where eyesores seen at ground level get transformed into striking forms of spectacle, and complex lived realities are reduced to a planar spatiality that instils a generalized notion of the universal. The apocalyptic imagination in Planet of the Slums does not engage with the delicate and turbulent world that exists inside the squatter settlements.

Against this apocalyptic imagination, we have also seen micro narratives that focus on the diverse contexts of slums – their appearance, informal networks, and infrastructures, and the survival strategies of their inhabitants. There are many examples of this kind of work. In Shadow Cities, Robert Neuwirth presents the stories of ordinary slum dwellers.5Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World  (Abingdon,  UK and New York: Routledge, 2006). For two years, Neuwirth explored slums in four continents and despite their poverty and wretchedness, he experienced a great deal of vitality, creativity and the ‘human spirit’. The book maintains a strong sense of hope, and squatters appear in it as people who are able to cope by staying outside of the “the asphalt world”, a term they use to refer to the streetscape of the legal city. Shadow Cities introduces the slum as a space with a sense of community, a place of friendship and bonds and a highly productive life.

In some ways these opposing tendencies – expressing the expansive horror of the slum experience via statistical classification, and the search for a spirited community of residents engaged in informal economic networks – has framed the popular dynamics of slum representations. All these arguments, despite their diverse positions, operate on a belief that slum ecologies can be relayed transparently to the world.

Slums are sites that are now enmeshed with our thinking about certain kinds of urban spaces.  We may not always know these places but have heard of them, or learnt about them through a global production of pictures and documents, news reporting, literature and cinema. This indeed is what makes the slum iconography so difficult to establish since its so called “authentic life” is no longer available outside this blitzkrieg of visual production. Slums are architecturally and socially diverse, and they can be mysterious, violent, and sometimes impenetrable for those living outside the boundaries of these locations.

Giuliana Bruno’s evocative reference to film as a kind of modern cartography is important here. Bruno assigns importance to the art of cinematic mapping, a form of emotive, embodied and visceral engagement with space. The result is the production of an ‘atlas of emotion’.6Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film  (London and New York: Verso, 2002). In some of the 21st century cinematic accounts of Mumbai’s Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, we have seen a form of visual cartography where bodies, spaces and the camera display a capacity to remember and relay. These films use techniques to play with the nature of the medium itself. In Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2007), Pa Ranjith’s Kaala (2018) and Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019), we witness the reflexive use of artificially constructed sets and media forms such as music videos, animated histories, and reality television to initiate an embodied form of cartography. While Slumdog Millionaire’s huge global success in 2008 led to widespread public and academic debate, Kaala and Gully Boy are recent films made primarily for a domestic audience in India.

Let me briefly illustrate the workings of this kind of cartography in Gully Boy and Kaala since much has already been written about Slumdog Millionaire. In Gully Boy, Murad Sheikh (Ranveer Singh), a young man from Dharavi, dreams of becoming a rapper. The story is inspired by the lives of real rappers Naezy and Divine, who also contributed to the soundtrack. The team wanted to capture Murad’s world with his claustrophobic home, narrow alleys, the electric wires, dilapidated houses, shops stuck to each other and a sea of people visible at any time of day. Suzan Merwanji, the production designer, decided on building a set in a parking lot inside Dharavi.7Nandini Ramnath “Designing ‘Gully Boy’: ‘When Nobody Knows What’s A Set and What Isn’t, That is the Best Compliment”, Scroll, March 3, 2019 Murad’s home and the congested lanes were part of this set. In a sequence where Murad and his mentor, MC Sher, shoot for a music video (Meri Gully Mein), we see how the camerawork and editing combines with the movement of the bodies as the duo give voice to their experiences. The choreography is spatialized to provide a sense of synergy between what is viewed as embodied knowledge of Dharavi and the content of the lyrics. With drones, tracks and handheld camerawork, the sequence consciously maps the location with its rooftops, narrow alleys, and more.


Kaala (Pa. Ranjith, 2018)


In Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, we have India’s biggest star Rajinikanth playing the role of a Tamil Dalit and local hero in an extremely diverse Dharavi. The film opens with animated imagery inspired by Amar Chitra Katha comic books – a popular series that has been the subject of much controversy with its connections to classical Hindu mythology and contemporary Hindu nationalist assertions.8For a comprehensive account of Amar Chitra Katha’s cultural politics, see Nandini Chandra, The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha, 1967-2007 (New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2008). Using this form, the opening presents us with issues related to the unequal distribution of land across centuries. At one level this stylized opening is perhaps a way of questioning the tales of heroism attached to Hindu epics. At another level, the film is unabashedly interested in the articulation of an embodied experience that draws on the structure of caste over centuries to animate the present with a powerful Dalit hero.

It is difficult to imagine that the film was shot entirely on an artificially constructed set in Chennai conceived by the art director, Ramalingham.9 Ashameera Aiyappan, “Here is how Kaala’s Dharavi set was created in Chennai”, Indian Express, June 4, 2018 It was this kind of set that enabled the film to work with a scale that would have been impossible to achieve on location in Dharavi. In the climax, amidst a riotous play with colour, Kaala’s followers consolidate into a powerful force in the streets of Dharavi after he is killed. In this sequence, the film deliberately moves away from the dominance of saffron in contemporary right-wing political rallies to mobilize blue as the colour associated with Ambedkar, black as the colour of protest, and red as the colour of revolution. The theatrical and choreographed enmeshing of bodies, colour and space is magically carved out as the final dance of victory, even in death. The sensation of this moment has a piercing quality – an embodied narrative holding within its folds the experience and memories of centuries. In Kaala, embodiment takes a larger than life form to break through the tyranny of historical pasts.

For the makers of all three films, the encounter with Dharavi, a settlement of more than 700,000 people with poor infrastructure, yet highly skilled labour and mediated connections to global networks, had to be a process of excavation, of suppressed and repressed memories. This desire for sensory knowledge is therefore given a particular form that is distinctly different from the planetary consciousness at work in Davis and Miller’s work. Nor do these films work with some sentimental notion of ‘community spirit’. If the high angle drone imagery used in Miller’s photographs generate abstract spectacles of shock, in Slumdog Millionaire, Gully Boy and Kaala our senses are assaulted with a form of embodied cartography.



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