Mumbai Disconnected

September 12, 2011

Like a city on steroids, Mumbai is rapidly becoming one of the world’s biggest megacities. But it’s all happening on a narrow peninsula with an infrastructure on the verge of complete collapse. Every day, 10-12 people die from falling off the overcrowded public trains. On the roads, cars come to a stand-still in serial traffic jams. To make matters worse, the Nano, India’s popular and affordable mini car, was launched in 2008. Iker Gil interviews Camilla Nielsson, co-director with Frederik Jacobi of the documentary Mumbai Disconnected. Through three interwoven human stories, we meet the people at the frontline of Mumbai’s infrastructural battle. The film is part of Cities on Speed, a documentary project commissioned by The Danish Film Institute and the national broadcaster DR that presents four filmic views of human conditions in four of the world’s biggest cities: Bogotá, Cairo, Shanghai and Mumbai.


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Mumbai Bridge disconnected. Photo by Frederik Jacobi © Upfront Film.

IG: How did you and co-director Frederik Jacobi decide to do Mumbai Disconnected, and how did you become involved in Cities on Speed, a project commissioned by the Danish Film Institute and the national broadcaster DR?

CN: I was working on another film project in a production company in Copenhagen, and one of the producers who knew that I had spent a lot of time in Mumbai proposed that I write up an idea for the series “Cities on Speed.” Frederik Jacobi joined the project first as a DP, and later as a co-director. We had never worked together before, but we clicked really fast, and I felt that we could make a better film if we took a collective responsibility for the storytelling, as well as the cinematography.

IG: Previous to Mumbai Disconnected, you had directed a trilogy on children’s rights: Good Morning Afghanistan (2003), Durga (2004), and The Children of Darfur (2006). What attracted you to looking at urban issues and, more specifically, to rapidly changing cities like Mumbai?

CN: I’ve always liked big cities, and films about life in big cities. I lived in New York for 6 years and I was always very fascinated by how well designed the city is. The grid street system and the subway means that more than 8 million people are able to move around relatively freely on an island as small as Manhattan. Arriving in Mumbai, on the other hand, you are overwhelmed by the traffic and the chaos in the streets, and although more people live on much less space there than in Manhattan, it made me think of whether there still was a way for Mumbai to plan its way out of a collapsing infrastructure, or whether its future is really as dystopian as some urban planners and architects are predicting.

IG: How was the process of starting to look into the issues of Mumbai?

CN: As a megacity, Mumbai is facing many types of problems related to its rapid growth. It is an extreme city on every level, and there are many great and relevant stories to be told from there. As a filmmaker and anthropologist, I’m interested in people and human stories more than theoretical questions about urban planning and infrastructure. So I started thinking about how it affects people’s daily lives living in a place where getting on a train in rush hour is a bigger accomplishment than most of us can imagine. I also knew that I didn’t want there to be any villains. I didn’t want the film to point the blame for the city’s problems in any particular direction. Instead, I was looking for a multi-POV approach and a structure that could unpack some of the inherent complexities that make up the big city maze.

IG: The film looks at the transportation infrastructure of Mumbai through the lenses of three different characters. Talk to us a little bit about the selection of the three characters in the documentary and what you discovered from each one of them.

CN: When researching for the film, I was looking for frontlines in the public debate about Mumbai. Where were the major clashes and what were the competing interests between which groups of inhabitants in the megacity? I learned a lot by reading local people’s blogs on the internet. Traffic problems in the city seemed to be a common theme of debate here more than I have seen anywhere else. It was all about traffic. I was looking for a microcosm that could unravel a larger story about the city, and I found the story about an elderly woman, Veena, who was living in a wealthy neighborhood on Peddar Road. She had been leading an 8-year battle against the building of a four-lane flyover outside her apartment. The public debate about whether to build the flyover was intense and raised some interesting questions, because it affected so many people who were stuck on Peddar Road every day while commuting from their homes in the northern suburbs to work in the business district in the south. Should they suffer in hour-long traffic jams to save the neighborhood of a small wealthy elite? On the other hand, no one thinks that building more flyovers is the solution to anything, and unlike the people in the poorer neighborhoods in Mumbai, Veena had the resources and skills to go up against the massive flyover project. The conflict was therefore about much more than infrastructure. It was also about issues of class and democracy. In the newspapers and on blogs, Veena and her Residents Association were fighting both popular opinion and the Maharashtra Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), the government department in charge of constructing 60 new flyovers in Mumbai.

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Mrs. Veena. Photo by Camilla Nielsson. © Upfront Films.

In MSRDC we found our second character, Mr. Das, a hard-working bureaucrat in charge of building the flyover. He is also a hardcore believer in meditation as a way to deal with the stress of the city’s collapsing road system. We could easily have made the film entirely around their conflict alone, but Veena, who was born and raised in Mumbai and remembered the times when she could swim in the sea and the parrots were flying around freely, not living in cages, had this nostalgic memory of the city that always led her to talk about the massive immigration problem, about all the millions of people who were moving to Mumbai from the rural areas in search of a better life. From this, it became clear that the perspective of an immigrant could add to the story, dial the kaleidoscope another round and give us yet another perspective on the city.

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Mr. Das. Photo by Camilla Nielsson. © Upfront Films.

Shortly after we decided to look for an immigrant story, the Indian car manufacturer, Tata Motors, launched the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, and this was the clue to find our third character. We found Yasin, who lived in the northern suburbs and commuted to the south of the city every day on the overcrowded trains. He desperately wanted the new Nano car to improve his quality of life. He also represents the people, who would like the flyover to be built. Like three archetypes representing the three sides of the Gordian knot, we seemed to have our story.

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Mr. Yasin. Photo by Frederik Jacobi. © Upfront Films.

IG: Born in Denmark and having studied in the US, do you think that having an outsider’s view of Mumbai and urban planning helped you to have a fresh take on the infrastructure issue?

CN: I guess so, but I think that it is also due to the anthropological gaze that I helped give the film. Anthropologists are very aware of our status as outsiders, and at the same time we are working really hard to get inside the cultural universe that we are trying to describe. The awareness of this duality is one thing that the methodology of anthropology can add to making documentary films. Also, an awareness of how we represent and affect the environment that we work in are classic anthropological trademarks that translated into the question, what right I have to tell their story, and whether it should rather have been the Mumbaikers themselves who told their own stories about their city. That would have made a different film, of course, but this question was always there. Thankfully, we have been told many times by locals who have seen the film that we have captured their city as they know it, and that the film is ‘very, very Mumbai,’ something that makes me happy to hear.

IG: The documentary is a powerful tool to discuss the consequences of the fast pace of current urban transformations. Like the characters in the film, the potential audience of the film could also be varied, from academics to urban designers, government officials to residents interested in the future of their city. Did you have any target audience in mind when filming Mumbai Disconnected?

CN: The film was originally commissioned for Danish primetime TV, and soon after other national broadcasters in Scandinavia, the Sundance Channel in the US, and in Japan NHK came along, so we knew that we were going to address a broad span of people almost from the beginning. Besides the large international TV audience, the film has also screened to full houses in festivals all around the world, which I guess is rare for a rather dry subject like this. But that was our intention. We tried to make infrastructure in Mumbai as relevant and interesting to as many people as possible, rather than taking a more technocratic approach to the subject. Making a film with academics and urban planners in mind would not have interested me in any way.

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Mumbai trains. Photo by Frederik Jacobi. © Upfront Films.

IG: According to the diagram “The Speed of Urban Change,” published in the book The Endless City (Phaidon, 2008), by 2015, Mumbai will add 42 people per hour, only surpassed by Lagos (58) and Dhaka (50) and tied with Karachi. At that speed of growth, what do you think might be other pressing urban problems that the city is going to need to face?

CN: There are many. Besides the problems with infrastructure, there are also more basic issues such as constant shortage of water and electricity, and space in general. In Mumbai there is an almost surreal sense of over-crowdedness. People sleep in the middle of the heavy traffic on those narrow concrete dividers that split the car lanes. A full elevator arrives and you think that there is no space, and you better wait for the next one, but the people inside say “come on in.” And on each floor you stop and again more people manage to squeeze in. Your senses are constantly challenged. But most importantly, the steep differences between the rich and the poor needs to be dealt with. I always wondered why the lower classes in Mumbai don’t rise and protest against the almost perverse level of social injustice. The rich don’t pay enough taxes there, I think, and a better redistribution of the massive wealth that is generated in the city is needed.

IG: Has there been any outcome from the film in Mumbai that has made the authorities and residents look at this issue from a new perspective?

CN: No, not in any manifest manner that I know of, but Veena wrote me recently with the news that the Peddar Road Residents Association has won their “epic battle” against the government, which has now decided not to build the flyover in their neighborhood. Instead it was decided to continue the 8-lane sealink all the way down to the financial district in the south, and not lead the traffic back onto land through Peddar Road. It was a very expensive solution, but one that made much more sense for both the residents and the commuters.

IG: Do you think documentaries like Mumbai Disconnected can help other cities understand the issues generated by their speed of growth and address them early on?

CN: My hope is that, if anything, the film has made us, who live in more controllable environments, more humble in terms of understanding just how hard it is to deal with the extreme challenges that megacities like Mumbai are facing. I wouldn’t like the film to be seen as any kind of a lifted finger, but I think that it can make a good case study for other rapidly growing cities, and hopefully the lesson to learn from it would be to invest more in public transportation and less in short-term band-aid fixes like flyovers, which are not sustainable solutions. The film has been screened widely in educational institutions, mostly to students in the field of architecture and urban planning, and the feedback from them, who will one day be in charge of planning our future cities, has been that the film has helped them put a human face of the issues they are dealing with. I think that they are already acutely aware of the benefits of a proactive approach to urban planning. The big question is whether the politicians are prepared to invest in long-term solutions that may not pay off in their time in office.