The city film, a lively sub-genre of documentary cinema, has produced several piercing and memorable productions in India in recent years. As our megacities lurch from one crisis to another and expand in area but contract in their possibilities, documentary filmmakers have been at hand to record the problems, debates and possible solutions, whether proffered by individuals, citizens’ groups or people’s movements.
A wide-ranging showcase of films about cities from India as well as other countries is on offer at the third edition of the Urban Lens film festival, which has been organised by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. The thoughtfully curated festival will screen old and new films from March 4-6 in Bengaluru, followed by another edition in Delhi from March 18-20. “The festival primarily showcases non-fiction films that engage with the real and imagined idea of the city, over time,” said a curatorial note. “These films come from different story-telling traditions and formal practices: from ethnographic accounts of the city, to personal essay films and animation films.”
One of the titles at Urban Lens is local. Our Metropolis, by Gautam Sonti and Usha Rao, explores the deleterious impact of the Metro project on the city. The docu-fiction More than a Friend, by Kolkata filmmaker Debalina, intertwines the relationship between a lesbian filmmaker, her girlfriend, her mother, and the maid. Vani Subramanian’s Ayodhya Gatha revisits the Uttar Pradesh town that is forever linked in the public imagination to the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists.
Other documentaries from India include The Factory, Rahul Roy’s examination of the Maruti labour dispute in Manesar. A poetic perspective on workers and their contributions to a city’s economy can be found in Arun Khopar’s documentary on working-class balladeer Narayan Gangaram Surve.
Two early films by Mira Nair will be screened. So Far From India (1986), about a Gujarati migrant who travels to the United States of America for better prospects, is an early exploration by Nair of the ties between non-residents Indians and their homeland. In India Cabaret (1985), interviews with two dancers from Mumbai and their customers provides insights on exploitation and voyeurism.
Films about cultural identity include Safina Uberoi’s My Mother India (2001), a personal documentary about her parents, the social scientists JPS and Patricia Uberoi, and the changes in their lives after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.
Paromita Vohra’s Where’s Sandra (2006) turns over the stereotype of the Bandra Catholic woman, commonly referred to as “Sandra” and fixed in the popular imagination as a dress-wearing telephone operator. Ruchir Joshi’s My Rio, My Tokio (2013), despite what the title suggests, is about Kolkata.
The capital of Bengal is also explored in Joshy Joseph’s A Poet, a City and a Footballer, an essay on filmmaker Goutam Sen’s aborted attempt to make a film on legendary footballer PK Banerjee. Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Electric Shadow looks at the presentation of China’s politics and culture in its cinema, based on a visit by the filmmaker to the country.
There are animated films too. The pre-eminent Indian animator, Gitanjali Rao, turns the typical Bollywood romance on its head in True Love Story. The lack of access to public toilets in the country’s financial capital is the subject of Good Morning Mumbai! (2012), by Rajesh Thakare and Troy Vasanth, who were studying at the time at the National Institute of Design.
The international selection is equally meaty. A revival of interest in the film essays of Indian-origin German director Harun Farocki has followed his death in 2014. Videograms of a Revolution (1992), co-directed with Andrei Ujica, looks at the Romanian Revolution that ended the Communist dictatorship in 1989 through news and amateur footage. Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) is an anthology of cinematic depictions of workers and labour issues, inspired by the Lumiere Brothers’ short film that constitutes among the earliest images of cinema.
Among the foreign documentaries are micro portraits of megacities. Hubertus Siegert’s Berlin Babylon (2001) explores the changes in the German capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jens Wenkel’s Lagos – Notes of a City taps into the Nigerian city’s pulsating rhythms through six characters. A Disappearance Foretold (2008), by Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan records the impact of the 2008 Beijing Olympics on a neighbourhood that is being redeveloped – a term as loaded in China as it is in India – and subsequently gentrified.
Gentrification is also the theme of Bingol Elmas’s Komsu Komsu! Huu! (2015), set in Istanbul in a neighbourhood packed with old and new structures. Fatih Kin’s Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005) captures the Turkish city’s music scene.
Also part of the package are student films. A temple in Dharavi for the Dalit Adi Dravida community is the subject of Not Caste in Stone, by Tata Institute of Social Sciences students Firdaus Soni, Keduokhrietuo Sachu, Kritika Agarwal, Prateek Shekhar and Vaibhav B Sorte. Manur Raj Katyal’s Qila Aparajit interviews children at a night shelter near Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. In B-22, Akshika Chandna and Shilpi Saluja navigate the Budh Vihar slum cluster in Delhi’s Munirka neighbourhood through local resident Manju. In Maine Dill Nahin Dekhi, Humaira Bilkis explores her relationship with Delhi through encounters with its diverse residents.