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<p>Photo By Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo By Aubrey Belford

An entrance to Sion Koliwada.

Slumdog Movie Share

In Mumbai, India’s most frenzied city, slum dwellers facing eviction are defending themselves with a locally made weapon: film.

There are few places in the world with slums more valuable than those of Mumbai.

In India's commercial capital, about 14 million people are jammed in and around a narrow coastal peninsula, many of them in peeling tenements or shanties on shockingly expensive real estate. When developers or the government want to build a tower, mall or expressway, they have few options for finding land. Bulldozing Mumbai's grim slums, home to as much as 60 per cent of the city's population, is one of them.

Fighting Back In Bollywood

On May 31, when police and demolition workers moved in to clear parts of Sion Koliwada, a patch of one-storey tenement houses in Mumbai's suburbs, Prathamesh Shivkar, a 21-year-old IT student raised in the slum, was ready with his video camera. For more than a decade, locals had been fighting what they allege is a conspiracy of city officials, developers and corrupt police to illegally kick them out and build high-rise apartments. Part of the community had been demolished already, and local people had been injured and arrested in multiple clashes with police. So this time, as police stormed into rows of slum women carrying out a sit-down protest, and dragged them away — some by their hair — Prathamesh was recording, while dodging attempts by the police to nab him too.

"If they see the cameras, they directly try to arrest you," Prathamesh says of the police, now sitting on the floor of one of Sion Koliwada's narrow homes.

From recording Arab uprisings to capturing Occupy protests in the West, video has become a common weapon for documenting abuses and spreading that footage to the world, via mobile phones and video-sharing sites such as YouTube. But in Mumbai, the capital of the world's biggest film industry, slum residents are taking things a step further. For locals, many of whom are illiterate and living in a swathe of threatened communities, making short films has allowed them to join forces and fight back.

Prathamesh wasn't just shooting evidence to put on YouTube or show in court. He was shooting a scene for a film, complete with narration, animation and local music — a little sliver of Bollywood in one of the Indian movie city's less glamorous quarters.

Sion Koliwada slum, also known as Shiv Koliwada, is the subject of a bitter and drawn-out struggle between locals, who are members of the Koli fishing community (Mumbai's original inhabitants) and the city government. Locals claim that in 1999 a developer forged dozens of their signatures on consent documents that would allow the developer to shift them into a single block of flats while turning the rest of the land they live on, which is owned by the city, over to private apartment buildings.

“Villagers understand emotional things and each and every thing, if it is in their mother tongue and it is associated with their community.”

Since then, the majority of the slum's 1,200-odd people have fought a string of battles to avoid what they claim is nothing more than a forced relocation (a minority of people has split off in favour of moving, and have already left their homes). Dozens have been arrested in repeated clashes with police, and some women claim to have been beaten in police detention. Locals face charges ranging from illegal assembly to rioting. One community leader, Madhuri Shivkar, 27, is currently out on bail having been charged with attempted murder, which she claims is a trumped-up effort to silence her. The Global Mail spoke to local police and the developer, Sahana Builders & Developers, all of whom have denied colluding to force people out.

Mumbai's media, numbed by stories of clearances across the city, largely ignores the drama in places like Sion Koliwada. And when they do come, it's usually too late, explains Madhuri. (Shivkar is a common name for locals, drawn from the traditional name for the area, Shiv. Most Shivkars are not related.) "Actually, news channels come after everything has been demolished and everything has, you know, just vanished," she says.

Despite the lack of media coverage, locals have discovered they aren't alone. Across Mumbai, more than 40 of the city's koliwadas — Koli fishing villages, often on prime coastal land which has become surrounded by Mumbai's sprawl — have recently linked up to resist heavy-handed development efforts that they argue will destroy their way of life.

<p>Photo By Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo By Aubrey Belford

Prathamesh Shivkar shows footage on his phone of protests and demolition in Sion Koliwada.

In 2010, Rajesh Mangela, a civil servant, put together a 25-minute documentary on his local community's battle with developers. He lives in Moragaon, a tangle of surviving cement and tin-slum homes on government land on Juhu Beach, an otherwise tony area of luxury apartments. Travelling with a projector, he screened the film in koliwadas across town. In communities where many of the younger generation are well educated, but their parents are unable to read and are easily confused by the legal complexities of dealing with developers and city agencies, the film was an instant success. His film rapidly spawned imitators. "In every koliwada there is something going on," Rajesh says, proudly. "This land is the last left — it's very precious."

In 2010, amid one particularly nasty flare-up with the builders, Sion Koliwada locals decided to start shooting video. Prathamesh, the young IT student, became the group's key cameraman. "Villagers understand emotional things and each and every thing, if it is in their mother tongue and it is associated with their community," Madhuri says. "Actually every koliwada has created such films in their own language, their own mother tongue, and they are spreading these documentaries.

"This helps because, you know, in Mumbai every generation is associated with television. They like to watch whatever stuff is being shown on television. So we thought social enlightenment can be passed through this medium."

“They’ve seen too many documentaries and gotten bored watching them, so they came up with the idea of fictionalising parts of it and making it funny.”

For Madhuri, the films have been a breakthrough. Although Sion Koliwada is a slum for fisher folk, no one there fishes anymore. Madhuri explains that the city long ago built over the waterway that connected the village to the Arabian Sea, and locals were too uneducated and disorganised to put up a fight. "We regret, we have grievances for our forefathers or for the generation prior to us, that if they would have tried or struggled for this, for creeks, for everything, then we would have got boundaries, demarcation of our koliwada, or we would have got our koliwada extended. But because of our illiteracy and our unawareness about our rights, our forefathers have never given struggle for that identity and community," she says.

I arrive in Sion Koliwada in mid-June at a crucial juncture. Madhuri is facing a review of her bail for her attempted murder charge; locals are holding daily sit-ins; demolition crews are picking off houses; and a film premiere is a day away. I come with Faiza Ahmad Khan, a 30-year-old independent filmmaker. Unlike the locals in the slum, Faiza is established in the movie business. She's also well acquainted with India's DIY filmmakers, having directed the critically acclaimed 2008 film Supermen of Malegaon , a documentary on filmmakers in an impoverished textile town, who beat the boredom and bleakness of everyday life by making tongue-in-cheek, low-budget knock-offs of Hollywood and Bollywood films. (The film saw wide theatrical release in India in June this year, to positive reviews.)

Faiza is here as part of a group of middle-class filmmakers and Bollywood part-timers who have been helping locals, most of them young men, make their own films. Faiza first got involved with Mumbai's slum movement in 2010, and facilitated connections between Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, a group that fights for the rights of slum dwellers facing forced eviction as part of the city's slum rehabilitation efforts, and locals who were documenting the struggle using film. In Sion Koliwada, Faiza was surprised to find that many locals had already seen her other films on their mobile phones.

“The only thing we have is this plot. It is the identity of this community.”

They also had a suggestion for the more experienced filmmaker: make the dry agitprop more entertaining.

"Actually that suggestion came from the boys. They didn't want a documentary because they've seen too many documentaries and gotten bored watching them, so they came up with the idea of fictionalising parts of it and making it funny," she says. Among the team of local young men involved in producing the film is 22-year-old Bhavesh Shivkar, who knows how to create computer animations. "So this is just a better way to get people to engage with the issue. Otherwise they sort of zone out after a minute because it's the same thing everywhere, really."

Living in a city where the movies are everywhere has its advantages.

"I've been emotionally blackmailing friends who work in the mainstream industry to come and help out here whenever they're free," Faiza says. "So we've had camera people, sound recordists, editors… chipping in whenever they can."

As we walk through the neighbourhood, the tension is palpable. At one end, workers dismantle rows of houses by hand, smashing apart walls and dumping splintered sheets of asbestos on the ground. I take photos and quickly draw the attention of staff members from Sahana, the developer. Faiza and Prathamesh approach and a verbal slanging match ensues, until I walk away and the two filmmakers eventually follow me. Around 50 metres away, some two dozen middle-aged women, many of them out on bail on criminal charges from earlier protests, sit camped under a tarpaulin near piles of rubble and black flags to block the approach of heavy machinery. Jayavanti Shivkar, 55, says she has watched films made by other slums, and was part of the May 31 protest in which police arrested 25 women and one man. "If the builder really wants us out, he can slit our throats," she says.

The following night, the premiere of the slum dwellers' film is a touch-and-go affair, screened as it is under the watchful eyes of a smattering of police, who had refused to provide a permit for the event. As the light starts to dim, hundreds of people, including residents from 42 koliwadas around Mumbai, take their place in rows of plastic chairs in a courtyard that has already been demolished on one side. Up the front, a plastic banner on a bamboo scaffold acts as a screen. After more than an hour of speeches, and seeing more than a few bored faces, Faiza flips open her MacBook and rolls a clip of the violence from May 31. She then runs the film proper, a scathing and at times funny screed against the owner of Sahana, Sudhakar Shetty, and local police.

The film hardly provides a balanced view. Straight off the bat it alludes to allegations that Shetty, a former bar owner, has been linked to underworld crime. It also accuses Shetty and Sahana of forgery and bribing authorities. The company flatly denies such accusations, but locals don't care. Shetty appears on screen in the animated form of a Hindu holy man — dubbed "Builder Baba" — and hundreds in the crowd hiss in unison. As residents appear on screen, little cheers go up and then transform into eruptions of laughter at sarcastic one-liners.

As the film reaches its denouement — a musical number — the meeting organisers tell Faiza to quickly stop the video. The lights flick on and young men move in to dismantle the bamboo scaffolding. It is getting late, Faiza explains, and community leaders are getting jumpy about giving police any pretext for making arrests.

Despite this anxiety, everyone seems to think the film a success. I speak to Madhuri as the crowd disperses, some people heading for surviving homes nearby, others wandering back to other slums. The community does want a better life, she says, but people want to be able to have a say in what their future, improved neighbourhood looks like.

"The only thing we have is this plot. It is the identity of this community. And if the plot is taken and grabbed out from our hands, then we are left with nothing. Our identity, our culture, our community is at stake."

The next day, the demolition workers come back. Soon, two more houses are gone.

1 comment on this story
by Robin, Darwin

As if the situation described in this story is not appalling enough, I was struck by the fact of the demolition workers being exposed to splintered sheets of asbestos. I assume this was not worth dwelling on as it paled by comparison with the more immediate human rights abuses. But it highlights how low paid workers, as well as local residents, are mere pawns in the hands of the rich and those who protect them, which sadly includes the police.

July 5, 2012 @ 2:01pm
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