The city is often an integral part of art. From acting as inspiration for creatives, to developing a proper backdrop for art’s subjects, the city can be utilized in a myriad of ways by an artist in order to frame their message. We see this in cinema, such as Paris in Agnès Vardas’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), New York in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), and Hong Kong in many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.
Indian film, frequently led by larger-than-life stars and lengthy plotlines, often struggles to allow its setting to breathe. The camera is focused on the leading man, his heroic mustache and resolute expression, while ignoring the fruit salesman behind him, the street musicians ahead, the wails of the fish market, and the scent of jasmine flowers in the schoolgirl’s hair. Some films, particularly those set in dense urban settings, have attempted to do otherwise. Rather than the city merely operating as a background, the city becomes a main character, or even a protagonist. This is the case in two films of the 2010’s in two different industries – Bollywood’s Dhobi Ghat (2010) and Kollywood’s Kaala (2018).
Dhobi Ghat, directed by Kiran Rao, released in 2010 to limited commercial success but vast critical acclaim. The film evokes parallel cinema, and is quite refreshing in the milieu of Bollywood’s grandeur. The film follows four Mumbaikars and their stories and experiences in India’s biggest city. Critics could not hold back praise for Rao’s portrayal of Mumbai, with unforgettable imagery and using the city to drive the story forward. According to Rao herself, Mumbai is the “5th character” in Dhobi Ghat. The production did not use any sets, and opted instead for guerilla style filmmaking in order to capture the essence of the city. The attempt at making Mumbai a character worked well, with the protagonists often simply being one part of Mumbai’s mosaic both visually and narratively.
However, while Mumbai is developed as a sort of character, Rao fails to develop a sense of agency for Mumbai and its residents. This is mainly due to the centering of the character Shai (Monica Dogra), a wealthy American banker that comes to Mumbai to photograph Mumbai’s proletariat. While her relationship with Munna (Prateik Babbar), a washerman, is well-developed, we tend to see Mumbai through the lens of her camera. Much of Mumbai’s working class is only seen in the pictures she takes and her role as a spectator of the dynamic city. Ironically, we only see the actual “dhobi ghat” (washerman’s area) once in the film. Munna is the only main character that seems to be working-class, and he often seems more like a prop for Shai to realize her privilege and find the fulfillment she could not find at her white collar 9 to 5 in New York City. When we experience Mumbai through Shai, we experience it almost as a tourist, rather than a native. The other characters – Arul (Aamir Khan), Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), and Munna – mostly have scenes in their own apartments, rather than as part of Mumbai. Mumbai as a character works because of the visuals of millions of people constantly on the move, with their own lives. But when Rao struggles to give the people of Mumbai, especially its working class, agency in telling Mumbai’s stories and giving Mumbai life, we cannot fully feel Mumbai as an experience.
Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, however, utilized Mumbai very differently. While Dhobi Ghat is an art film, Kaala certainly isn’t. Starring Superstar Rajinikanth, the film boasts musical setpieces, action scenes (the protagonist engages in combat against a horde of enemies with just an umbrella in one scene), and love triangles. The movie is heavily politically charged, and not at all subtle about it – Babasaheb Ambedkar’s portrait, hammers and sickles, and fiery dialogues all grace the screen. While the film gives much of its runtime to Dharavi’s leader of the oppressed, KariKaalan (Rajinikanth), the close-knit slum community of Dharavi – the literal “dhobi ghat” – and its residents are central to the progression of the film. In fact, the opening scene of the movie is a protest led by the washerpeople, standing up for themselves under threats of their community being razed by the state. While in Dhobi Ghat, we see the “dhobi ghat” through Shai’s camera, Pa. Ranjith empowers the community’s residents, and makes them central characters to his story.
The overprotective mothers of Dharavi, the community’s uncles secretly sneaking alcohol into events, and children playing with toys are all given prominence in Kaala, something we do not see in Dhobi Ghat. The music of the film may seem like staged musical set pieces and group dances – which they are – but the musicians and dancers are all from Dharavi themselves. The music of Kaala gives us the heartbeat of Dharavi, stretching beyond visuals.
Even though Rajinikanth often plays the epitomic role of the strong-willed and righteous masculine hero, his role is markedly different in Kaala. Rather than a just hero who single-handedly brings change by beating up an entire police department, he actively works to mobilize and empower his community. Unlike Shai, our protagonist doesn’t come from New York to spectate – KariKaalan is Dharavi himself, and Mumbai does not exist without the workers of Dharavi who built it up. In Dhobi Ghat, Arul’s speech at his art exhibition references the people of Tamil Nadu who built Mumbai, but does not feature them. Contrastingly, Kaala gives the Tamil migrants who built Mumbai agency, and uses them to define Mumbai and give it life.
It would be reductive to say that all Kollywood films give the working class agency – in fact, Kaala works as an antithesis to Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) on the question of giving Mumbai agency and life beyond the main characters. However, we can observe that generally, Tamil films do a better job of that than Hindi films. One reflects on what Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan once wrote: “Tamil audiences… like to see heroes who look like them, whom they can identify with, while Hindi audiences like to see heroes who look nothing like them, and whom they can aspire to be. So a Tamil cinema hero who makes movies for the masses can be a number of things the Hindi film hero usually cannot: dark-skinned, unkempt, dressed in the most ordinary clothes, and hanging out with buddies who look like they could be autorickshaw drivers and bus conductors.” Tamil audiences want to see themselves on screen, and we see that in Kaala. However, Bollywood is still reluctant to produce films that truly highlight the working communities that make not only Mumbai, but any city in the world, run.