Filmmaker Gautam Sonti remembers being told about a new machine by an engineer while filming the demolition of Bangalore’s Plaza theatre. The man, albeit in a light-hearted tone, made the machine sound like a monster, one with immense power and ferocity that could gobble things up. Our Metropolis opens with the shot of the same scene where the frame and the lighting make the crane look almost like a mechanical dinosaur, demolishing one of Bangalore’s iconic landmarks. This sets the tone for Sonti’s film, co-directed by Usha Rao, which shows history being crushed by the State’s bull-headed ambitions of “development”.
Many such striking images — such as Phoenix Watch Works, a famous British-era clock repair shop, being demolished as its owner Ram Chandra Sharma and his son look on — feature in Our Metropolis, a documentary that premiered at Film Division’s FD Zone in Mumbai last week. The story is in it’s title — a pun on the changing relationship between the citizen and the city, that promises to attain world-class status with imposition of government infrastructural programmes such as the metro rail.
Delhi-based cultural anthropologist Rao remembers sitting with Sonti at Bangalore’s MG Road when they saw the street’s boulevard being dug up in 2008. According to Rao, the IT boom had already brought about changes in the city but those were mostly on the outskirts. The metro was green-lit about a decade ago, and infrastructural projects take time to implement. “To witness that exact moment of the start of a change, the arrival of a new framework, a new regime to make Bangalore a global city, made us start the documentary project,” says Rao.
The film, that was shot from 2008 to 2013 questions — through its collage of interviews with activists, urban planners and environmentalists — how much of these infrastructural projects do the citizens really need. It doesn’t go into the technicalities of a sound alternative plan but makes a point that the citizens are left out of all major decisions. “Any city that calls itself a global or modern city aspires to have a metro. We used the metro rail as a symbol of the change that is thrusted upon citizens by the people in power, but whose functionality is really questionable,” says Sonti.
As much as Our Metropolis is about Bangalore, it resonates strongly with any other Indian metro. The focus of the film, in many ways, is the active participation of the urban middle-class. Usually in a privileged position, the middle-class finds itself at the receiving end of these projects. The five years of filming shows protests and gathering staged by citizens and environment activists. Malini, a dancer, is trying to save her old colonial-style ancestral house, which she is planning to turn into a dance school. This phenomenon also reflects the mood of other cities, which reflected in the Aam Aadmi Party’s win in Delhi in 2014, says Sonti.
Our Metropolis uses footage of heritage walks and book reading sessions where books on Bangalore were being read at bookstores. These apart, the film quietly observes the proceedings of a Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation meeting or follows the Metro chief into his visits to people’s homes as we are left to judge the futility of bureaucratic talks. The hard facts and stories in the film are cushioned by the poetic pauses. It makes effective use of cinematic elements: stark images of the under-construction metro rail along with some eerie sound design (Abhro Banerjee), creates a sense of disorientation.
Our Metropolis will be screened at India Habitat Centre on April 27.