A great article appeared in the NY Times about the setting for this year’s multiple academy-award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, which I recommend as an instant classic of urban filmmaking, the post-shantytown Dharavi.
Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate.
Building on what exists, rather than clearing it for redevelopment, may preserve not only the character of a place but also its economic vibrancy. In Dharavi, it would allow all residents to leverage their most precious asset: a place to live and work. Slum-rehabilitation projects in Mumbai often end up creating new slums elsewhere as they increase real-estate value in the places they redevelop.
In the movie, when the protagonists return to their childhood haunts, they find that multistoried apartments have replaced the old decrepit structures, giving the impression of urban mobility and transformation. What the camera doesn’t reveal are the enormous shantytowns hidden behind those glistening towers, waiting to be redeveloped all over again.
In many ways, Dharavi is the ultimate user-generated city. Each of its 80-plus neighborhoods has been incrementally developed by generations of residents updating their shelters and businesses according to needs and means. As Ramesh Misra, a lawyer and lifelong resident, puts it: “We have always improved Dharavi by ourselves. All we want is permission and support to keep doing it. Is that asking for too much?”
The film provides amazing cinematography of Mumbai, but what shocked me the most was the postmodern neoclassicist residential towers being built in the slum. They appear alien to the place, clashing with the natural, complex morphology of the neighborhood. That shows up in the google maps images also. It shows that employing modern building processes is a choice and not an inevitability, and it is a choice that can take away from the identity of a place. The people of Dharavi were insulted that their city was called a slum because they all had a hand in building it. They won’t be eager to defend the place when all its complex tissues have been replaced with tower blocks.