Last summer, on a visit to my home city of Bengaluru, I stood waiting for a train at the newly renamed Dr BR Ambedkar Vidhana Soudha metro station. In the background, I could hear the gentle twangs of a veena in the style of Carnatic classical music. The contrast between the name of the station and the style of music, which has been the reserve of upper castes for centuries, was quite amusing to me. However, the music is so ubiquitous in the city that I doubt most long-term residents even notice it. To many outsiders, it is a defining marker of Bengaluru’s culture.
I wondered how many of these defining cultural markers reflect the true demography of Bengaluru. How did a cosmopolitan and diverse city of mostly meat-eating people come to largely be thought of as a city of idli, dosa, filter coffee and Carnatic music? The culture of indigenous settlers, working castes and those who live in auto-constructed spaces—which most residents, without the slightest sense of tragic irony, call “colonies”—is omitted from the mainstream. When one thinks of Bengaluru, one rarely thinks of the hip-hop, the football grounds or the beef stalls that are integral to the culture of its poorer citizens. As the city globalises, these are the cultural practices that would be allowed to vanish; what would survive are the idli, dosa, filter coffee and Carnatic music, considered more “worthy” of preservation.
Across India, the dominant story of any megacity is untouched by the stories of the marginalised communities that live there. You could be a Pardhi tribal living in and around the same street corner in Mumbai for the last three generations, but your story would always be of the “migrant in the city” or “the homeless in the city”; it would never be the story of the city. This is precisely what makes the Tamil film-director Pa Ranjith’s films path-breaking. When Ranjith tells the stories of Vyasarpadi or Dharavi—auto-constructed neighbourhoods laden with histories of oppressed castes—he is insisting they are the stories of Chennai and Mumbai. Drawing from legendary anti-caste thinkers, Ranjith is moving us towards a greater understanding of a new third-world urbanism.
Ranjith’s first film to buck the trend in urban portrayals was 2014’s Madras, a film about a rivalry between two political parties in Vyasarpadi. Although the working-caste neighbourhoods of north Chennai had appeared in films such as Gemini, Pudhupettai and Polladhavan, Madras produced a new imagination of the city. “[Madras] did a daring thing,” the reviewer Apoorva Sripathi noted, “saying that north Chennai was Madras, not the West Mambalam, Adyar or Egmore neighbourhoods of Mani Ratnam or Gautam Menon, kings of the Chennai padam.” Ranjith’s Vyasarpadi showed the lives of its IT professionals, young hip-hop lovers, football players and working women. The film does not apologise for or explain the neighbourhood in the city. Rather, it firmly and confidently argues that the city would be nothing without the neighbourhood, asserting its right to the city with the title of the film. In this, Ranjith’s ancestor seems to be the American writer James Baldwin, who wrote in his Notes of a Native Son: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.”
Kaala does for Mumbai what Madras did for Chennai. Ranjith gives us a quintessential Mumbai film, except through the eyes of a lower-caste Tamil basti in Dharavi fighting to keep its land, which is under the threat of seizure from a politician. Ranjith defies the Oscar-winning legacy of depicting the area as unsanitary and unsafe. Much like Madras, Kaala adopts a social-realist approach, taking us into the vibrant living space of a community. Elders join kids in playing gully cricket; celebrations, festivals and processions are held in small open spaces; freestyle dancers and rappers are shown performing. In showing us these relationships closely, Ranjith gives us a much better idea of the area than the distanced, disconnected ethnography and “fieldwork” produced by many journalists, artists and academics.