“Yeh Dharavi toh jophadpatti ki rani hai” (This Dharavi is the queen of slums). This is what a woman who lived on the pavement opposite Jhoola maidan in Byculla told me in the mid-1980s when I spoke to her. Today, she has been moved out of her house to a distant suburb, but the “queen” of Mumbai’s slums now has a “king”, by way of Rajinikanth in the recently released Pa Ranjith film Kaala.

I must admit first that I have never seen a Rajnikanth film. My loss, I am told. But I did watch Kaala, mostly because it is set in Dharavi (the Hindi dubbed version, although I would have preferred the original Tamil version with sub-titles to get the full flavour).

Although the director has taken cinematic licence in telling the story of Dharavi’s redevelopment through two main characters, he has managed to engage with many of the real issues that people living in this place that is wrongly called a “slum” face every day of their lives.

Dharavi is, as one of the characters in the film says, a mini-India, something I was told repeatedly by the people I interviewed for my book Rediscovering Dharavi (Penguin, 2000). Ranjith brings this out without making a big point about it. You can see the mix of communities although the film is centered on the Tamil Dalit community, the Adi Dravidas who came to work in the tanneries that dotted Dharavi till the mid-1980s. In fact, a fleeting shot in the film shows a wooden barrel that was used in small tanneries that continued to function till the end of the ’90s, even after the big ones had been compelled to relocate because of pollution control laws.

Ranjith’s film also establishes that Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and other castes have coexisted in Dharavi and that the clashes that took place at various times were often because of external provocation. The scene where a piece of pork is flung into a mosque and ultimately results in a clash between Hindus and Muslims is an illustration of this. On December 6, 1992, the Shiv Sainiks took out a cycle rally through Dharavi celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This was the provocation for the communal rioting that followed even though Muslims and Hindus had lived together with a high level of tolerance till then. There were provocations and minor skirmishes before this but not on the scale of 1992-93.

Above all, Ranjith has underlined the fact that Dharavi is predominantly a settlement of Dalits. Although the film centres on the Tamils, in fact there are Dalits from Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and probably elsewhere. Dharavi is a reserved Scheduled Caste constituency. At a time of growing Dalit assertion, this reality is often forgotten. Ranjith reminds us in different ways of this without making it the main theme of the film.

Kaala (2018).

Ranjith also reminds us that Dharavi was literally “made” by the people who live there. Therefore, the repeated assertion by Rajnikanth’s character that Dharavi belongs to them. It was a swamp, a place where there could be no human settlement. Yet over time, the very people who came to live there filled it up. The side of present-day Dharavi touching Sion and the one next to Mahim were separated by that swamp. Today, you would not be able to tell.

This is part of Dharavi’s history, one that is often overlooked. The value that people have added to this land has never been recognised by those who view it as prime real estate, a realisation that first dawned in the mid-’80s when Bandra and Kurla were being developed into one business district. Dharavi lies just across the Mithi river from Bandra and Kurla; hence its importance.

It is, as people in the film state, located virtually in the centre of Greater Mumbai, although it once was the periphery. That is another reason why the eyes of the real estate developers light up when they think of the value of the land where Dharavi is located.

What makes Kaala stand out is also that it has not resorted to making some kind of generic slum and passing it off as Dharavi. Although Danny Boyle did not say that Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was about Dharavi, a lot of people presumed it was. Yet, anyone who knows Dharavi, and lives in the Mumbai where informal settlements are an integral part of the city, would have recognised the mixed shots from different “slums” that were used to create one generic urban poor settlement in that film.

Ranjith does not do this. Barring a couple of shots that were clearly not of Dharavi, he tries to stay true to the place.

I came out of the film thinking, “I wish, I wish.” I wish that the urban poor were united enough to fight against those trying to oust them from the land they built. I wish that greed, corruption and politics did not divide them so that they end up working against their own best interests. I wish journalists could play the role the sole journalist plays in the film of exposing the nexus between the police, politicians and builders. I wish the Dharavi story could have held up an example for other urban poor settlements across India.

The reality, sadly, is different. The residents of Dharavi are divided along political lines. They have different demands, and follow those most likely to fulfill what they want.

Making of Kaala sets.

Also, it is interesting that Kaala is about Dharavi’s redevelopment. Ironically Dharavi’s identity is linked to the plan to “redevelop” it. Since 2004, when the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan was mooted, people living there have identified with the place in a much more immediate way. In 1999, when I spent time in Dharavi to interview people for my book, I found many of the older people identified either with the village or district from where they or their forefathers had come, or with the specific area where they lived.

So it would be Kumbharwada, or Kamraj Nagar, or Ganesh Mandir, or Muslim Nagar, or Matunga Labour Camp. Or Tirunelvelli, Jaunpur, Junagadh. This sense of Dharavi as a specific settlement with its own identity was not evident.

In fact, I recall a conversation with an elderly man in the Matunga Labour Camp who was a Valmiki from Haryana. When I asked a question about Dharavi, he interrupted and asked me, “What is this Dharavi you are talking about?”

Yet already by then, the younger people expressed themselves as being from Dharavi. So the identity of Dharavi had begun to emerge, but I would argue that it was consolidated once the state saw it as a piece of real estate to be developed under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan.

Coming back to the idea of a “King” of the “Queen” of slums, for a film with a superstar like Rajinikanth, that works. But once again, the reality is somewhat different. In the ’80s, Dharavi did see gang warfare in the heyday of Varadarajan Mudaliar (on whom Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, with Kamal Hasan, was based). But much of that kind of dramatic clash of opposing gangs ended once prohibition ended, and Mudaliar was chased out of Maharashtra.

That is not to say that they are no slumlords, or local strongmen, with their respective gangs. They do exist, as they do in any such settlement. But the kind of violence depicted in the film is a part of history, and not daily existence in Dharavi.

Builders and their political backers have several other ways to intimidate and coerce Dharavi’s residents to sign on the dotted line for redevelopment. But that too has been frozen ever since the entire area was designated a special zone for development under the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. There are no more buildings coming up under the Slum Redevelopment Scheme that applies to the rest of Mumbai.

Dharavi in fact is caught in a limbo – between the Maharashtra government’s grand designs of converting it into a high-end residential and business enclave and the reality of lakhs of people continuing to live in sub-optimal conditions and hoping for a change. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme cannot be implemented there and the redevelopment plan is a dead horse that the government continues to flog, its latest effort being the attempt to bring in some interested parties from Dubai.

Meanwhile, the people of Dharavi live in a schizophrenic world where there are some high-rise buildings, mostly adjacent to main roads, while the interiors remain virtually as they were for the last two decades. And the city around them continues to develop and “redevelop”.