KYA HUA IS SHAHAR KO? / WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS CITY? (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1986, India)

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In the accompanying notes found in the booklet to Arsenal’s (Institute for Film and Video Art) DVD release of Deepa Dhanraj’s 1986 Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? it says that this work is more than just a documentary but

‘might very well be the only audio-visual record of communal violence and its political context in the mid 1980s’.

Not only does this underline the intervening activism of Hyderabad Ekta in trying to account for the surge of communal violence in the city of Hyderabad in the 1980s but it emphasised the lack of accountability for the crimes perpetrated by Muslim and Hindu religious and political parties in their contest for power. What makes this work altogether more unique is that it is perhaps

‘the only independent, non-state funded documentary film engaging with the specific events it follows and analyses’.

Although Deepa Dhanraj is credited as director, the film opens with Dhanraj sharing directorial credits with cinematographer Navroze Contractor and Keshav Rao Jadhav (script & commentary), reiterating the altruistic nature of the group and the risks that they took in order to catalogue as much of the riots and their aftermath. The extras which includes video interviews with the crew is tremendously important in helping to contextualise the work, offering a historical overview and presenting Dhanraj’s insightful critical reappraisal of the documentary, arguing her militant ending would be framed more progressively today. The legacy of this work is that it not only critiques the way religious demagoguery manipulates the sentiments of the working class in the old city of Hyderabad but perpetuates an imaginary division between Hindus and Muslims that has led to the dangerous consolidation of Hindutva as a political entity. Interviews with the victims of communal violence through an observational approach in fact exposes yet again the horrors of poverty affecting all people.

Filmmaker, feminist (she is certainly one of the few filmmakers to have given a voice to the working class women of India especially lower caste and peasant women who are rendered invisible by the media at large) and activist Deepa Dhanraj has made many documentaries over the years but this is the first work I have come across. She seems to have been blotted out of the discourse on Indian cinema. Unsurprisingly we have yet to have had a major study or academic publication on documentaries from Indian cinema especially the progressive activist work. I think much of Dhanraj’s work is not available on DVD but a search on the Internet threw up some interesting finds which I have listed below. Her IMDB page only lists three documentaries which is at odds with other articles written about her work. Either way, her work definitely needs to be made available more widely since like Anand Patwardhan counter hegemonic studies of communalism, demagoguery and the secret crimes committed by the Indian government against the marginalised are ever so relevant given Modi’s terrifyingly benign crypto-fascist ideologies. Thankfully, Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? has been salvaged from the past and deserves its place amongst some of Indian cinema’s most urgent political works. The documentary was also screened at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2013 as part of their celebration of 100 years of Indian Cinema.


1. Something Like a War (1991) – focuses on the coerced sterilization of women in India


2. The Forgotten Generation (2013)

In The Forgotten Generation older people aged over 60 in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra reveal the realities of their lives, relationships and work as well as their expectations of the future. We learn how they manoeuvre within tight constraints to create new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families and friends and how targeted social pensions are producing Kafka-esque encounters with the State. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)


3. The Advocate – based on the life of KG Kannabiran, India’s foremost champion of civil liberties and human rights


4. We’re Still Working (2014)

Unseating the assumption of old age dependency, We’re Still Working, reveals the extent to which families, communities and India itself rely on older people’s work. Shot in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra the film makers argue that people aged over 60 are shouldering the burden of India’s economic development by providing low-cost labour that makes India competitive in the global market. Yet, older people’s work and their moral and legal rights as workers, citizens and people remain unacknowledged. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)

ANKUSH: A Weapon to Control (N. Chandra, 1986, India)

ankush

Ankush (Control) was an unexpected commercial success on its release and launched the careers of both director N. Chandra and Nana Patekar. Ankush, released in 1986, appeared when the angry young man films had all but ended. N. Chandra, most famous for launching Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (Acid, 1988), wrote and directed Ankush as his debut feature. Appearing years before Salaam Bombay (Nair must have taken note of Patekar’s breakthrough performance) and Parinda (which also uses Patekar), Ankush is an often forgotten film of the 1980s that succeeds in bringing together an old fashioned didacticism with a socio-political context that references both rampant unemployment and systemic corruption. The film from which it draws most explicitly is another neglected work in the angry young man saga; Yash Chopra’s 1984 film Mashaal.

The story of four unemployed friends who waste away their days internalising the injustices committed against them is questioned by the arrival of Manda (Rabia Amin), a social worker fighting for the rights of labourers, inspiring the group to draw on their individual strengths and find an economic outlet. Chandra’s unashamed admiration for heightened melodrama is counterpointed by a raw urban milieu. Against this underbelly of machismo Chandra introduces two very significant gender tropes; the mother as a symbol of trauma and the young seemingly emancipated feminist social worker. What this produces is an idea of family which in Chandra’s view restores a sense of equilibrium missing from a conservative perspective of Indian society. Nonetheless, the absence of a father figure in the lives of these young men seems to be the real crisis at the heart of this broken society. The entire film functions in a state of trauma that is never resolved, leading to courtroom didacticism, voicing injustices that yield nothing but indifference and more inertia.

THIEF (Michael Mann, 1981, US) – Proletarian Politics


Genre readings of Michael Mann’s debut feature film Thief are relatively inclined to explore both the crime film and neo noir which seem to intersect as a form of postmodern existential hybridity. Mann could have easily worked in the Hollywood studio era since he works specifically within genres. Separation for Mann from his contemporaries especially when it comes to the crime film is authorial preoccupations are lucid, intellectual and existential enough to transform the most ordinary or formulaic of situations into a kind of poetic rapture. Thief is a virtual template for Mann thematics he would regularly explore in the crime film genre. Yet in the midst of a narrative that could only be described as an urban western, Frank’s refusal to conform and to be assimilated into a much wider capitalist system of working class exploitation requires further elucidation as an early marker of Mann’s politics. 

One of the more interesting exchanges in terms of political dialogic occurs towards the end of the film between Frank, the worker in this case, and Leo, the master and boss. Having completed his final job as a high line safe cracker, Frank comes to see Leo, his new friend, for his cut. However, when Frank looks through the envelope full of cash he realises Leo’s idea of friendship is cynically unveiled as a form of ownership antithetical to Frank’s very existence. Frank’s defense of his ideological position is very revealing as it harbours a semi Marxist tone: ‘I can see my money is still in your pocket, which is from the yield of my labour’. When conflated with his ‘state raised’ background, a picture emerges of the proletariat rallying against the exploitation of labour which he must sell in order to survive and function in a capitalist American society. In many ways, this is Frank at his most political and the resistance he vigorously demonstrates to the humiliating demands of Leo, who wants to own Frank and thereby control him, is an extension of such a working class protest. Notably, Frank also furthers his argument about working class exploitation, saying: ‘You’re making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat’. Oddly enough the tone of Frank’s criticisms concerning profits and his sweat is overly familiar in the context of corporation exploitation and most significantly the element of greed. Although Leo could be interpreted as the domineering crime boss, his conflict with Frank at this point in the film becomes an ideological one and thus can be a symbolic extension of the capitalist system attempting through initially coercion and finally violence to subjugate the consciousness of the proletariat spirit. Leo’s response to Frank is glib, condescending and politically loaded, ‘Why don’t you join a labour union?’, he says. 

Existence in the world of Mann for the male loner is defined by anonymity. By partnering with Leo, Frank realises he is jeopardising the anonymity he has struggled to protect but he is also putting at risk his belief system. Unsurprisingly, Frank’s proletarian politics become a source of ridicule. Leo feels threatened by Frank’s unwavering professionalism and deadening adherence to a strict moral code and by rubbishing his politics, Leo tries to humiliate Frank in every way possible whereby he is made into a relic in an age of corporate power. However, Frank resists. The resistance exemplified at the end appears like uncontrollable rage. Framed politically as an act of proletariat protest, the violence unleashed by Frank sees him annihilating a fragile past forged on a notion of personal integrity now tainted by Leo’s betrayal. By destroying the house, the bar and the car lot Frank’s self destruction read ideologically becomes a politicised act of symbolic resistance since he does not want Leo, the zealous corporate capitalist, to claim and exploit the ‘yield of his labour’. In fact, an indifference to conformity is what sets Frank apart but by walking away at the end sets him up as an outcast doomed to drift like the cowboy on the margins of a society that disgusts him. In other words, Frank is a worker, a stand up guy and that counts for everything in the films of Michael Mann.