BLAZING A trail for new talent and fresh angst on its way to the Oscars, Bollywood blockbuster Gully Boy not only cast a spotlight on Dharavi, the 500-acre urban sprawl in the heart of the financial capital, but also altered the language of local campaigning, with first the Shiv Sena and later the Congress using rap songs as electioneering material this summer. But while the movie’s focus on resistance and an alternative narrative is alive and well in the industrious slum, local rappers say that has not changed what issues dominate an election campaign.
“With its slang and rhythm, rap has gained in popularity, especially after Gully Boy — but only as a form of entertainment. I wouldn’t say listeners are thinking carefully about the lyrics or the underlying emotion of the song,” says Akash Dhangar, 27, a Dharavi resident and founder of SlumGods, a hip hop crew. “Everyone likes the new slang, words like bantai (a word used to address others in a casual tone) have caught on. But how many listeners actually know anything about the origins of rap, or the effectiveness of hip hop communities in the West in making people listen to voices on inequality?”
Dhangar says Dharavi has become a sort of romanticised hub of poverty, its unique industry and unity ignored as much as its real issues. “If anything is about Dharavi, it goes to the Oscars,” says Akash, “whether it was Slumdog Millionaire or Gully Boy.”
Additionally, in recent months, songs on slums are no longer penned only by those who have experienced the gritty life of shanty town Mumbai, says another rapper. He says while Dharavi’s underground poetry is often about caste, inequality and the need for opportunities for young people, political parties continue to promise larger homes in the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, a long-delayed scheme that many local youngsters consider a pipe dream. In the leather goods stores and clothing sweatshops dotting Dharavi, key subjects are the economy and the slowdown, one that started with demonetisation and has not seen an upswing yet.
In April’s Lok Sabha election, Congress candidate Eknath Gaikwad could establish a lead over his Sena rival in only one of six segments in the Mumbai South Central seat, the Dharavi Assembly segment. Gaikwad’s daughter Varsha is the sitting MLA in Dharavi. Months before his successful campaign for a second term in Lok Sabha, Shiv Sena MP Rahul Shewale’s team conducted a two-day event at the Dharavi Pumping Station grounds called ‘I Am Dharavi’, a branding exercise involving leather goods manufacturers and potters, and a platform for local artistes.
Among them was Jafar Shah, who agreed to pen a rap song about Shewale, which the party later used extensively during the campaign in the Mumbai South Central Lok Sabha constituency.
“I believe that the song spread awareness on local issues that rappers usually sing about, and because rap had become so popular then, we were able to popularise our agenda, our message on how the Sena can make their daily battles a little easier,” says Kunal Jadhav, who designed this part of Shewale’s campaign along with Shantanu Kulkarni.
Jadhav says rap as a medium is about the reality of common people, and the Sena has long prided its image as a party of the common man, led by Sainiks who readily take to the streets for a cause.
For rapper Jafar, 24, who lives in the Mahim-Dharavi locality, the opportunity to rap about the Sena also meant a foray into writing lyrics on political issues, something he believes must be explored further.
“Big stars have brought rap into the mainstream, like Badshah and Raftaar. We can’t get into Bollywood, but we can rap about local things, issues, developments; people want to know about that,” says Jafar, who runs a five-member crew tentatively named Yamraaj.