Sunday, January 16, 2011

Anonymous and wanting too much: on Andheri and The Naked City

Watching a short film titled Andheri recently, I thought about movies that attempt to capture the character and pulse of a big city. Perhaps the only way to do this is to look at individual stories – at the fears and hopes of the people who populate a metropolis and make it what it is, but who also have an uneasy relationship with it.

Andheri, directed by Sushrut Jain, is a spare, simply told story about a young live-in maid, Anita, who runs away with dreams of leading an independent life. In a bus, she meets a newlywed Muslim girl who has just arrived in Mumbai with her husband, and they strike up a conversation. Then something happens that makes Anita realise how foolhardy it is to try and survive alone in an impersonal world.

I wish the film had been a bit longer (the running time is under 20 minutes and the ending feels a bit abrupt) but I liked that it didn’t try to underline its central point with needless talk. The story is told through the uncertainty on the faces of the two women and their tentative smiles, through images of crowded colonies and tall buildings flashing by, and the comical way in which total strangers collide with each other whenever the bus stops abruptly. But by the end, there’s no escaping the contrast – from Anita’s point of view – between the cold anonymity of life on the streets and the cosy familiarity of the flat where she has to work for a sharp-tongued old woman but where she at least has someone she can call her own (and watch Kasautii Zindagi Kay with). At the same time we get a fleeting sense of the loneliness of the old lady who is probably also, in a different way, a victim of city life.

A video essay on the film’s website mentions that the city of Mumbai, “the most densely populated place in the world, is home to millions of stories of hope and despair”. This observation reminded me of the famous closing line of one of the most vivid “city films” I’ve seen, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” says the film’s narrator at the end, “and this has been one of them.”

The reference is to the population in 1948 of New York – where the film was set – and the line would later become the catchphrase for a popular TV series of the same title (a forerunner of detective/police procedural shows such as NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues). Dassin’s movie, inspired by a book of photos by Arthur Fellig, follows a homicide investigation: when a young model named Jean Dexter is found murdered in her apartment, a team of 10th Precinct detectives headed by the Irishman Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) get to work. A chronic liar who was close to the dead girl soon becomes the chief suspect, but some twists and turns lie ahead, and this entails a lot of legwork for the youngest member of the team, Jimmy Halloran - who, we are told, “had walked halfway across Europe with a rifle in his hand" during the War, and who must now "play Button Button in a city of eight million”.

As Halloran walks the streets and an invisible narrator (journalist-turned-producer Mark Hellinger) comments on the city’s bustling life, the tone of the film starts resembling that of a documentary. This impression is strengthened by the extensive location shooting – very unusual in a mainstream American film of the time – with its many shots of sweaty office-goers taking the crowded train home, and children hosing each other down on the streets. (As Hellinger tells us at the beginning, “This is the city as it is...the hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”)

This narrative is consistently engaging (if also a little precious and self-consciously literary at times), but for me one of the most telling scenes is the one at a morgue, where the dead girl’s parents have to identify the body. These are small-town people whose daughter had – in the face of their disapproval – run away from home and become involved with the wrong sorts of people, and the mother initially tries to be detached, then contemptuous, about her wayward child. ("I hate her, I hate her.") But she fails and breaks down, and in her grief we see how the lure of city life can divide families and presage human tragedies. (“Wanting too much – that’s where she went wrong.”) Eventually Jean (not her real name - small-town girls change their names when they move to the city!) became just another statistic, just one of the millions of “stories”, soon to be forgotten. For all the beauty of the film’s locations, it’s possible at this moment to see the city as a mechanical monster greedily gulping down its victims while holding its arms wide open for more.

[Did a shorter version of this for my Business Standard film column. Here's a post about another Dassin film, Brute Force]


  1. I read that as "wanking too much". A guilty conscience, I think.

  2. movies that attempt to capture the character and pulse of a big city

    I think movies can, at best, capture the flavour of a particular city at any given point in its history. For instance, I can readily think of three New York films - Strawberry Blonde (1890s), Shadows (1950s) and Manhattan (1970s) - each film presenting an altogether different perspective on life in NYC.

    It's interesting how one can almost witness the evolution of the city and its people by watching these films!

    Also, sometimes films can get overly self-conscious by over-emphasising the city's character instead on focusing on individuals. I think the Carol Reed films Odd Man Out and The Third Man suffer because of this. (though the city is not even mentioned in Odd Man Out)