Cinema can show us what our eyes do not see, says Rashmi Sawhney. Even the sturdy fantasies of the eternally mobile, often homeless migrant
Growing up in Vadodara in the early 1990s, I used to see hundreds of stunningly fit men and women gather around Manisha Chowkdi early each morning, as the sun rose. I discovered later that they were tribals from nearby towns and villages, who gathered there in search of employment. Soon, a bunch of men would turn up, pick out as many workers as needed, and take them off to construction sites. It was astonishing to see so many of them huddled together, squatting on their haunches, new ones appearing each day, like waves of humanity sweeping with regularity over a city whose residents barely seemed to register their presence. Most of them would live on the construction sites they worked at, sleeping under incomplete edifices, which would soon be taken over by affluent owners. “Setting up a home” had perhaps become a way of establishing a relationship to impermanence for them; suspended between an immediate time and space and a distant one.
Much of the nostalgia for “home” emerges out of this play between presence and absence. A home is usually associated with a tactile sense of permanence. Memories of home endure over time through our senses; our memories of home are our memories, and no one else’s. But what about those who live in transient homes, built not from brick and mortar, but rather by circumstance, fluid networks and sometimes even chance? One might argue that everybody has some “home” that they once lived in, which they may have left behind, but can perhaps return to. What about those whose left-behind homes have been destroyed and can never be revisited in a real sense? What about the homes of children born on construction sites? What about those who are born while their mothers flee persecution in their own homelands? Migration, displacement and exile are the governing conditions of our times, and to belong to an address for a significant period is an exception rather than the norm. From our long-time existence as settlers— converts from nomadic hunter-gatherers for the last 10,000 years—we seem to be slowly moving to a condition where mobility rather than settlement marks our lives. What then will become of this thing we call home?
Cinema sometimes shows us things that we do not notice with our naked eyes. This is the reason why some of the most radical forms of cinema emerged from its quest for a relationship with “external truth” or “profilmic reality”. Over its brief history, terms such as kino-eye or cinema vérité have emphasised its ability to reveal more than the superficial, to offer a glimpse of the human psyche itself. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the first film ever made showed a train arriving at a railway station in Paris. The genetic constituents of cinema are light and movement and, at its core, its makers are puppeteers of time, pulling strings to make things appear slower or faster, closer or farther—what the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky calls “sculpting in time”. Could cinema tell us something about transient homes, where permanent dreams learn to live within temporary structures, like two different octaves in a single timecode?
Dwayne Avery uses the term “unhomely” for our contemporary experience of dislocation and disorientation, tracing it back to Freud’s essay on the “uncanny”. In German literature and film, the term heimat (home) has been used to signify a literary or cinematic genre invested in establishing an unadulterated idea of origin, belonging and identity. Avery suggests that, like the Freudian uncanny, the unhomely refers to the unnerving way in which the familiarity of home can become alien, precarious and foreboding: “The unhomely refers to the ungrounded feeling that no place is like home; no home is a place of settlement.”
In the film Disha (1990, Sai Paranjpye), a lavani singer enthralls the villagers of Bakuli with dreams of a glitzy city life:
I’m a blushing bride, dear
Always by your side here.
Newly wedded am I
Wish to see the world
Let’s get set in a jumbo jet
And fly away to the promised land.
Show me the golden sands
Down the city’s
We’ll drive up in a
The latest disco queen I’ll be
Let the film stars envy me
We’ll stay in a ritzy
So mind your ways.
Let’s liven up our days and nights
Take me to Bombay,
City of lights.
As the lavani nears its conclusion, the singer puts on a pair of sunglasses—a symbol of “modernity”—as the camera cuts to a flyover in Bombay followed by a panoramic shot of grey decaying mills across the Dadar area. Glitzy fantasies of romance, adventure and the fine life are brought to a grinding halt by the harsh realities of survival in a city. Mobility works through networks of migrant infrastructures; both desire and derision flow through these. These are networks built upon solidarity with kith and kin where the flow of news of jobs and money draws more migrants from one’s own village or town. Migrant communities establish their own informal substructures to sustain this flow. In Disha, Nana Patekar and Raghubir Yadav are given shelter in a cramped house in Bombay, a regular destination for new migrants from Bakuli. Their domestic space is shared by men of all ages, who eat, breathe and live together, and sleep in shifts. The only thing that is individual is a peg in the wall for each man to hang his belongings on. Everything else belongs to everybody at all times. The commune, a form entirely distinct from large joint family households (which function on bonds of blood, matrimony and hierarchy), works on its own logic of collaboration and competition.
This is not a peculiarly Indian story; all over the world migrant communities tend to nestle with their own kind—often in what has derogatorily been called ghettos—seeking the comforting familiarity of food, language and cultural traditions. Nick Broomfield’s phenomenal Ghosts (2006) is based on the 2004 Morecambe disaster, in which 23 illegal Chinese immigrants drowned to death in the UK while cockle-picking under extremely hazardous conditions. The film is based on Taiwanese-British journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai’s book Chinese Whispers, to write which she went undercover as an illegal immigrant, living with others in hiding. The inhuman conditions under which people travel over land and sea, smuggled through to the promised lands of the West by blood-sucking agents under deathly conditions, only to be further abused and exploited as slave labour, if they make it to their final destination at all, are stories we have heard all too often in recent years.
Popular Indian cinema has obsessed with the migrant’s story, usually telling it through the flat binaries of urban/rural, innocent/ cunning, moral/immoral, generous/greedy and so on. Each decade had its distinctive take on migration. In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor was the migrant par excellence—frazzled, confused, exploited, out-of-place. Who can forget his long trudge to Bombay singing “mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Englishtani, sarpe laal topi Russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani” in the 1955 film Shri 420. The song immediately brings the film into a “national” discourse, much in the manner of the heimat film, assigning a quintessentially “Hindustani” characteristic to a filmstar whose global appeal was at its peak in the mid 50s. The gullible Kapoor is soon forced to trade his village naïvete for a street-smart coat, but not before he has been trampled upon, exploited, and swindled, only to find a home and a mother-figure among a community of street-dwellers. As the iconic song concludes, a high-angle panoramic view of the Fort area with buildings, people, cars, buses super- imposed into one big jumble introduces us to the city; a mesh of mass and material, humans undistinguishable from machines. The village or ancestral home is a spectral presence in the film, never seen, hardly spoken about. The notion of home becomes entirely symbolic, playing out through its absence.
Mira Nair’s first fiction film, Salaam Bombay (1988), shows us a grittier street life. Trained in the documentary tradition, Nair uses techniques of cinema vérité, through a combination of casting actors along with untrained actors who actually lived on the streets. The protagonist of the film, Krishna (Shafiq Syed), is a juvenile boy who migrates to Bombay when left stranded by the travelling circus he works with. At the railway station, he asks for a ticket “to any big city” and is given one to Bombay. Krishna finds work at a tea-stall, and soon becomes part of the neighbourhood community of ragpickers, juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, child labourers and sex workers. Threatening spaces in the city are converted into “homes” in decrepit buildings, on railway platforms, on streets. Garbage yards become playgrounds, loose bricks in walls become “lockers” and the sex workers’ quarters double up as sites of both maternal warmth and adolescent love. It is in the brothel that Krishna meets his sweetheart, “Sola saal” (played by Chanda Sharma), a 16-year-old sold into the sex trade, and his mother figure, Manju (Hansa Vithal), who lives there with her young daughter. In a particularly touching scene, Krishna and Manju’s daughter dance to “mera naam chin chin choo” on a rainy day, as Manju smokes a cigarette, swaying to the rhythm and watching them affectionately. Home here is a flow of affects, unbounded by architectural space or legitimacy; an assemblage of varying intensities, spread across the Kamathipura area where the film was shot.
Homes are a measure of privilege, mapped on the grid of size/space and permanence/ time. To be able to come back to the same home each night is a luxury that many don’t have. Shaunak Sen’s documentary film, Cities of Sleep (2015), looks at the ecology of sleep shelters in Meena Bazar and Loha Pul in Delhi. The film shadows an Assamese immigrant, Shakeel, in his misadventures as he looks for a place to sleep each night, along with other characters like Ranjeet and Gufran, owners of private sleep shelters. A sleep shelter is not our classical idea of a home, but what if even a night’s sleep is not a guarantee? Shakeel and others like him often find themselves without enough money to pay for a bed, and must make do with park benches, cardboard boxes or road dividers. In a joltingly pragmatic tone, a character in the film points out, “If you want to avoid dengue and malaria, sleep on road dividers—the gusts of wind from vehicles passing by will keep the mosquitoes at bay.” Shakeel deals with the constant uncertainty in his life by manufacturing an indeterminate world; his stories mutate, unsteadily, like the realities of his life.
In Loha Pul, Ranjeet’s video parlour doubles up as a sleeping shelter; one can pay Rs 10 and watch three films here or sleep for six hours. While most of us assume that silence is a pre-condition for sleep, it is the constant drone of images that creates a blanket of comfort for these men to drape over their weary bodies. Much of classical spectatorship theory has assumed the canonical spectator as bodies bunched together, eyes facing the screen, playing out collective fantasies in a darkened room. Instead here, the cinematic image recedes behind droopy eyes, becoming a cloud of sound-images, engulfing the spectator like an immersive film. An interactive performance, where film-sounds merge with dreams, creating a sculptural assemblage of image-sounds, that shift and turn with the movement of each body. Perhaps “home” is simply a place that allows you to dream.
“Behind the Tin Sheets” is a project started in 2009 by Ekta Mittal and Yashaswini BR, to document the changes to Bangalore’s landscape. The project includes three short films—In Transience, Presence and Distance, about migrants building the Bangalore metro. In order to avoid depicting the migrant workers as either victims or the heroic figures of Marxist narratives, the films explore seemingly mundane yet deeply personal aspects of their lives. The transience of the migrant labourer is made visible to the viewer through stories of the presence of ghosts, and the distance of loved ones; the permanent impermanence of their condition is captured by spectral images of ghost-people, indistinctly distinct, in motion.
If one takes a global count of the number of persons who are without citizenship or proof of address, are gypsies, refugees or economic migrants constantly on the move, the number thrown up may be enough to form a small nation of non-citizens and nomads. When governments give legitimacy only to those with a “proof of address”, they automatically make invisible those whose homes do not have a fixed location. Dreams, after all, cannot be bound by four walls just as homes are not merely property.
This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.