After two years of writing from the outskirts, I am back in Mumbai, feeling a sense of being embedded and distant at the same time. Being back gives me a chance to ponder on the material that I have used to read the city in the past two years and the conclusions that I have drawn from it. I would like to use this blog post to discuss one such source, Avjit Mukul Kishore’s stunning film – Vertical City. I have heavily relied on this film to get a spatial sense of Slum Redevelopment Housing as I wrote my thesis miles away from Mumbai. While I am in no way qualified to conduct a “film review” I will attempt to highlight some crucial insights provided by this film.
Vertical City traverses the landscape of Mumbai’s slum rehabilitation schemes that are being produced using the cross subsidy redevelopment model discussed in earlier blogposts. The film begins with portraits of residents and shop owners standing still and gazing at the camera and moves on to patiently to capture long shots of different spaces in the building. Snaking through the building’s private and semi private spaces it creates a detailed map of the built form and activities that fill it. The voiceover moves with the camera introducing the concerns and optimism that surround the scheme. However, the film refrains from introducing the people providing the voiceover, concentrating all its effort on the lived space and sounds of people inhabiting it. Even as the narrative expresses concerns about the space, the camera does not shy away from filming the kids gleefully playing in the courtyards and corridors forcing you to question your immediate reading of the context.
The film breaks in places to insert 1965 -70s documentaries on social housing, resonating rhetoric about slum and poverty that has changed little over the decades. What’s evidently changed is the way in which these projects are funded. Frames display a sharp contrast between the rehabilitation housing and swanky facades of market rate housing that brings it into existence. This housing often bought for the sake of investment, fittingly gets represented in the film through empty projections at real estate fairs.
A moment of revelation sets in the last few scenes a when resident describes how this seemingly “free rehabilitation housing” is actually expensive to maintain. He describes how most people in his building have not filled in the property taxes and are worried that the State might ask the residents to vacate the property for faltering on payments. The scene questions the promise of permanent tenure though formal private property.
At a conference on the Rajiv Housing Program (RAY), Raka Ray, professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, eloquently put forth a question, “What is the solution to “the slum” and what is “the slum” a solution to?” Mukul’s film helps us ask the same question of redevelopment.