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Productive Body, Unseen Figure: The Migrant Laborer in Bombay Cinema

By Suvadip Sinha

“Seene mein jalan, aankhon mein toofaan sa kyun hai/ Iss shahr mein har saksh paresaan sa kyun hai”: one of the most haunting odes to the urban populace Bombay cinema has ever produced plays in the background, as the camera frantically tracks various scenes of Bombay interjected with the face of the protagonist’s wife, whom he has left behind in the village. As the song progresses, a bird’s eye shot depicts the sprawling metropolis; yet the song goes, “Why is there nothing but desert as far as eyes can see?” It is no surprise that this paradox, deepened by the melancholic tone of this beautiful song, expresses the ennui and homelessness experienced by one of millions of migrant laborers in the city. While India has experienced rapid and, often, unsustainable urban growth during these decades, such urbanization has created a shadow group that remained perennially dispossessed and disenfranchised. Yet, Indian cinema, popular Bollywood cinema in particular, in recent times has largely remained oblivious about them.

The cinematic engagement with the woes of urban migrants was started by early classics like Chinnamul (Uprooted; Dir. Nemai Ghosh, 1950) and Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land; Dir. Bimal Roy, 1953). The theme experienced a provocative yet irregular return in films like Gaman (Dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1978) and Disha (Dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1990). I should mention here, the trope of rural subjects migrating to the city in search of livelihood has remained a regular for Indian cinema. Popular mainstream films like Shri 420 and Deewar, among many others, remain prominent examples. I will first look at Gaman and Disha to reflect upon how post-1970s’ Bombay cinema has dealt with this population group. The last section, fast forward two decades, will take up Peepli [Live] (2010) to suggest that this film reveals how the body of the uprooted migrant laborer in the wake globalized economy and media has become just a life-form.

There are some remarkable thematic and cinematic similarities between these films and their predecessor, Do Bigha Zameen (hereafter DBZ). Amrit Gangar’s essay in this issue looks at Roy’s classic to show how the uprooted rural subject became the dispossessed urban laborer during the phase of Nehruvian developmentalism. Made decades after DBZ, Gaman and Disha explore how the situation had not changed much for that population group. While Muzaffar Ali’s first film shows the journey of a young man, Ghulam Hasan (Farooq Shaikh), from a village in Uttar Pradesh to the city of Bombay, Paranjpye’s film depicts two young men from Bakori village in Maharashtra, Soma Sarpat (Raghuvir Yadav) and Vasant Mandre (Nana Patekar) taking the same journey to the city of dreams. Unlike Shambhu Mahato, they manage to survive, albeit precariously, in the city. Caste and class-based oppression brought on by a pervasive feudal order and an absolute absence of any economic opportunity in the village force these men to leave behind their home. In this regard, it must be noted that these narratives do not necessarily idealize the rural as a utopian category. Both of these narratives refuse to romanticize the village by making “inalienable dispossession” as essential part of the urban migration. In doing so, they bring up the issue of citizenship in postcolonial India. In the context of the discursive rise of nationalism, as Appadurai and Holston claim, “cities remain the strategic arena for the development of citizenship” (‘Cities and citizenship’ 188). While this observation is correct, one needs to acknowledge that the rural migrant laborer in Indian cities, and perhaps in cities across the entire developing world, remains a subaltern figure denied of legal rights and justice. In these narratives social realism is interwoven with melodrama to suggest that the discourse of national/ized citizenship meets its limit when it comes to a group like migrant laborer.

Gaman was made in the context of accelerated migration of skilled and unskilled rural laborers to the city. After losing his job in the mill and being duped by the local landlord, Ghulam decides to accept his friend’s advice. He leaves his wife, Khairun (Smita Patil), and sick mother in order to seek some employment in Bombay. Ghulam’s first encounter is unsettling: looking for his friend Lalan (Jalal Agha), he reaches a dilapidated shantytown – one local gives direction, “Sandas ke bajuwali gali” (“the lane beside the toilet”) – to be somewhat disillusioned. While he is astonished by the shining facade of various tourist attractions in the city, the hapless migrant’s own world consists of relentless struggle for survival. However, Ghulam’s negotiation with the city remains somewhat different from that of Shambhu in Roy’s film. While Shambhu’s Calcutta in DBZ is peopled with strangers, Ghulam’s Bombay is already home to several others like him. This not only stops us from seeing Ghulam’s uneasy arrival as rupturous moment; it also hints at a community of migrant laborers being formed in the capitalist city.


Gaman: Migrant’s city merges with the image of his wife in the village

Starting with the job of a taxi-cleaner, Ghulam soon learns how to drive and, eventually, becomes a taxiwallah. In spite of this relatively rapid “success”, his experience in the city remains that of alienation, poverty, and insecurity. Ali complicates the cartography, or the lived spatiality, of the city repeatedly superimposing the images of the city with nostalgic vignettes of Ghulam’s village. Bombay as a city is rendered visible through the migrant’s gaze. In this film, as historian Gyan Prakash observes, “we see an impersonal city emerge through [Ghulam’s] eye” (Mumbai Fables 332). Contrasted with scenes of idyllic greenery of the village, camera now moves in a frantic manner to capture the newcomer’s perplexity. That is how the migrant’s city emerges as a fusion of presence and absence, of rural and urban, of desire and disenchantment. Ghulam’s ultimate disillusionment dawns when Lalan gets killed by the goons hired by his girlfriend’s family. Devastated and desolate, he decides to leave. Yet, he doesn’t. As the train leaves, the opening song returns: “Come, my beloved/ I long for your embrace/ Your eyes are filled with love…”, soulfully sung by Chhaya Ganguly, plays on as Khairun comes out of her house in the village only to find that her beloved might not return ever.

Paranjpye’s Disha, made almost a decade after Gaman, definitely paints more melancholic and bleak picture: Soma, a daily wage laborer, frustrated with the precarious life in the village decides to try his luck in Bombay. Soon after the same situation forces his friend Vasanta to follow him. Like Ghulam, they, too, encounter an inhospitable and dehumanizing city on their arrival. Cramped up in a tiny room they share with 40 other people, sleeping in shifts, struggling to find a job in the city, they too are disillusioned. Disha divides its spatial attention equally between the city and the village. The village is particularly haunted by one character, who refuses to leave, Soma’s elder brother Parashuram (Om Puri), or Pagal Parsha as the village people mockingly call him. Parsha has been digging a well for twelve years, hoping to get water to irrigate his barren land. His comical perseverance works as a necessary foil to the despaired surrender of Soma and Vasanta: Parhsa is determined to dig out water, so that the barren rural land will provide food and income one day. Disha concludes on a bittersweet note: Vasanta, who has always wanted to return, finds that his wife is having an affair with her employer and decides to stay on in Bombay. He will become one of the millions who come never to return. “The city has trapped me under her spell,” he reflects. On the other hand, Soma, who once thought Bombay is his future, decides to return after he finds out that water has come out of his brother’s well. With dreams of turning his village into an egalitarian and fertile wonderland, Soma takes a bus on the road that has remained a one-way street for so many like him.

Disha 1

Vasanta in Disha: The migrant’s body trapped between the machine

The Curious Case of Nathadas Manikpuri

I would like to conclude with a brief discussion of a film that comments on the reality of rural-urban migration in post-globalization India in a shockingly telling manner. Peepli [Live], a satirical tragicomedy directed by Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, takes up the issue of farmers’ suicide in rural India and forces us to think about the figure that has by and large disappeared from post-globalization Bombay cinema. Ghulam, Soma, and Vasanta are reincarnated as Natha, who is ready to commit suicide so that his brother’s family can receive compensation from government. Haven’t we seen this before? The satirical look at the media and political obsession – I am particularly referring to scenes like where media runs wild to catch a glimpse of Natha’s shit – reveals how this disenfranchised population is reduced to the level of a mere bio-political category in today’s India. Here I must point out Peepli [Live] contains a delightfully subtle reference to Disha: while the media and politicians are caught in a mad frenzy over Natha’s forthcoming suicide, the film shows an unnamed laborer who perishes while digging a well. Although the entire film takes place in the village, the last scene takes us in a space-lapse shot to an urban setting, where we find Natha working at a construction site. Expectedly Natha, too, will meet the same fate in the city as did Ghulam and Vasanta. The camera moves away to keep us in an ethical suspension without revealing any more.

The urban growth taking place in contemporary India has created a new generation of migrant laborers: satellite townships like Navi Mumbai, Gurgaon, Noida, and Rajarhat expand their height and width in the hands of these people. Yet they remain largely devoid of any systemic infrastructure for these people. In this context, the plight of migrant laborers in the city has become even more topical. In this context, the relevance of films like Gaman, Disha, and Peepli [Live] does not only lie in their realist gestures; rather, they provoke us to position ourselves in a zone of discomfort by revealing what has often missed the attention of the camera in recent Bombay cinema. In this way, the migrant cinema, if these films can loosely be given such a name, emerge as an irreducibly ethical medium.


Suvadip Sinha is an assistant professor of South Asian literature and culture at the University of Minnesota, USA. He primarily works on Indian cinema. He is currently working on two projects. First one explores cinema as an ethical medium in the South Asian context. For his other project, Sinha looks at the dis/appearance of ghosts and animals in Indian cultural texts.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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