Through The Cinema Lens: Understanding The Politics Of Space In India

Neeraja Sahasrabuddhe

Neeraja believes in the power of chaos, which is why she is always caught up between the elegance of rationality and the beauty of irrationality.

In a little-known telefilm from the 80s (set in the 70s) called “In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones“, Arundhati Roy, who wrote and acted in it, talks about the marginalized urban population in one of the scenes. She says –

Every third world city consists of two parts – a city and a non-city – and the city and the non-city are at war with one another. Now the city consists of a number of institutions of houses, offices, shops, roads, sewage systems – all these institutions are built by the architect, engineer. Now the non-citizen has no institutions. He lives and works in the gaps between these institutions. He defecates on top of the sewage system, he designs them so that they say to the non-citizens – “stay out of here, keep out. This is not your area.” It’s a way of establishing territory.

All of us living in big or small towns of India understand what she is talking about. People living on the streets is a common sight especially in the big cities of India. The displacement, slum demolitions etc. have only made things worse. I grew up in a middle-class residential area in a city. While as a kid, I found the environment very free and non-restrictive, when I watched this film my mind kept going back to all the places in the city – the paan-waalas, chai-waalas, video game parlours or just the bike parking areas along the streets of a marketplace – the places where we hardly saw any middle class women. They were unofficially kept out of most of these places by virtue of their class and gender. Public spaces were not for them to hang out. They could go out, shop etc. but they had no places to sit down and be a part of the social dialogue in the marketplace, there were/are no avenues for them to interact with people outside their class and gender. In the language of the above quote, these middle class women are the non-citizens of modern Indian towns.

The lack of imagination for coming up with ideas in urban planning that are more inclusive and gender neutral is appalling. Every mohalla in every modern city of India has a local `chai-ki-dukan’ or a `paan-ki-dukan’ where men hang-out and can socialize beyond their regular circle of friends etc. Where are these spaces for women in modern cities? Where are the opportunities to transcend the boundaries of their class that men so easily do when they hang out in public?

The politics of space is not a new debate. A lot of it stems from the very way the private and the public space is defined in the modern world. These ideas drive the ideas in Urban planning. Not only in India, but everywhere else. In the post industrial revolution world, where everything is commodified, the modern lifestyle comes as a part of a beautifully wrapped package called development. In United States it was sold as the great american dream. However by 1960s, people started seeing the dark side of that perfect life. The grimness of the situation has been portrayed beautifully in the heart-breaking film `Revolutionary Road‘. The film is about a middle class american couple – Frank and April (played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet) – who live in one of those lovely suburban houses with their kids. Living the american dream in times when the brightest and the best were selling people the idea of the perfect suburban lifestyle where each gender has a well-defined role and must adhere to that to achieve happiness and perfection.

Frank works in the city while April is a homemaker. The domestic life of the couple portrayed in the film is extremely monotonous. In some aspects, it comes very close to fictional representation of Betty Friedman’s `The Feminine Mystique‘. Friedman writes – “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even to herself the silent question – Is this all?” In the film, day after day after day, after Frank leaves for work, we see April going through all these chores, confined in her large house with nothing to do. She socializes with other people when she goes to house parties of family friends with her husband. They have plans of moving to Paris because they believe that would solve their marital problems but Frank is promoted at work and April becomes pregnant. They reconsider their plans and Frank more or less accepts their hopelessly empty and monotonous life as the only option. April is constantly depressed but is in fear of completely accepting the reality because that would mean that their lives are not perfect. After all, this was sold to be an ideal life for an american woman in the 50s. `The suburban housewife’ – she was the dream image of the young american women and the envy, it was said, of women all over the world.”(The Feminine Mystique).

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