Cities: Books, Cinema and Representation

Cities are the engines of our global economic paradigm and the arts have not shied away from reflecting this material reality from the cultural mirrors. Art, reflects, refracts and deflects life from the living on to the rubric of text and visual art. Cities have a unique DNA on to itself but have something universal in this age of neoliberal capitalism where malls dot the landscape from Medan to Muscat where the Americano from Starbucks shall not fail you thanks to the tropes of quality driven by standard operating procedures, a way in which imperialism is recirculated.

Text and visual art, are tools of soft power, hence questions of representation are critical. Cities have been a powerful muse of writers and directors in India and around the world. A slice of the city in 300 pages or 120 minutes is often our introduction to our beloved cities. Bollywood or the Hindi Film Industry and Indian Writing in English have lent cities their reflections and it’s shape in popular discourse.

Mumbai is written about in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City in the most accurate way for a tome which is seminal for exploring the darker underbelly of the megapolis. Mumbai similarly has found notoriety in gangster land flicks such as D, Company, Satya and most recently Haseena.

Kolkata on the other hand has been the muse for movies since the 1950’s such as Howrah Bridge and over the years, Kolkata has featured as the backdrop for many Bollywood films including more recently Teen, Yuva, Pinku, Kahani and Gunday which evoke Kolkata as a poignant backdrop to their screenplays with a Howrah Bridge and the Ghats almost visually over powering the narratives. Kolkata has a strong literary culture to say the least, being the fountainhead of Indian Writing in English. Prof Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta tells the stories of life lived in the city as does Kushnava Choudhury’s recent book ‘The Epic City’ on life in Calcutta.

The microscopic mechanics of what makes a book great versus a film wonderful to watch are distinctly different to each other. In this age of video, films have a catalytic impact on how cities are constructed in the popular imagination. This has an effect on tourism dollars and employment creation. Books are often the inspiration for films as the raw text.

Representation is a important anchor in books and films of how cities are framed. Is Mumbai, only gangster land, or the land of the dream factory? Is Kolkata only the Howrah Bridge, a totem of the past, where the past is the only texture worth portraying?

The politics of representation is a complex mine field. Cities are complex creatures and metabolic entities fusing, breaking apart everyday to create a new cartography of imagination. Are the books and films doing justice? Did Slumdog Millionaire do enough for Mumbai; I beg no.


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