Altering One’s Field of Vision through Urban Heterotopias

reflections by Minaz Ansari

A city often provides a backdrop to the stories narrated in film media. However, when the city takes centre-stage from behind the lens of a camera and is examined through the diverse worlds that it inhabits, the narratives that emerge can provide tremendous food for thought. The notion of Urban Heterotopias, examined through the medium of Video Art as part of the online festival ‘Fields of Vision’ by VAICA, provides this much needed space for sharing perspectives, documenting realities and unravelling layers of a city on screen. 35 short video films have been carefully curated and presented under this segment by Bharati Kapadia, Chandita Mukherjee and Anuj Daga. These videos collectively trigger the thought process of the viewer by framing the city through various unique standpoints; exploring themes ranging from identity, neglect, exploitation and conflict to the monotony of urban form, densification of the city into one human factory and the gloomy dystopia that all of these finally merge into.

As one moves from one film to another, all of varying lengths, intensities and foci, there are certain common threads that start to emerge. Though each artist has a unique story to tell, certain elements of the city find resonance throughout the series. The use of objects as metaphors, to draw attention or convey an idea is consistent. Ordinary objects like chairs, doors and windows are tools to narrate a story whilst others such as canes, coins and flower pots provide a metaphor. Vehicles ranging from an aircraft, a ship, trains and buses to tractors, construction equipment and even auto rickshaws play centre-stage in multiple scenarios depicted through the series. The city, its billboards, buildings and trains are portrayed as elements of a desolate and despondent theme park in Gigi Scarcia’s Amusement Park.

Cityscapes are consistently represented through sterile glass facades and ugly urban infrastructure from public toilets and road safety barricades to weather vanes, ladders, billboards and lamp posts, all of which form a part of our collective memory of the city. Chinmoyi Patel in The Aftertaste brings focus on a dreary concrete flyover through a stinging narration to comment on the state of our aspirations and ideas of progress. On the other hand, in Ashok Meena’s Ichigo Ichie, the camera caresses the city at night through aerial shots from a Ferris wheel with the city lights creating tantalising patterns, revealing an accidental brilliance that coexists with darkness. A fleeting glimpse of a serene mountainous landscape as a screensaver on a computer screen completes the irony of city life and outlines the secret aspirations of urban dwellers yearning for natural beauty whilst existing in the midst of a glass and concrete reality.

The videos are punctuated with representation of life in the city. Pigeons, cats, dogs that usually blend into our street life are brought into focus; the camera even zooms into rats, bees, ants. A goat provides a metaphor for the triumph of the meek and helpless in Composition 1021 by Jahangir Jani. Human representation is scant and yet thoughtful, impactful, even haunting as in the case of Makaan by Abeer Khan, where the silhouettes of those trapped into their SRA cubbyholes during the lockdown and their identity of a slum dweller for life paint a sensitive picture of their bleak position in the city. Moving in the City by Sheba Chhachhi sees the feminine body negotiating space in a city and dwells on the idea of safety and the feeling of being watched, raising a very pertinent question “Why do we love this city so much? It’s absurd!”

The pace of the narratives is often deliberately slow, compelling the viewer to hover over the unnoticed and give a face to the faceless that form a part of our city mosaic, as in the case of the craftsmen dismantling the larger than life cut-outs of local politicians in Work Starts Now by Kush Badhwar. The camera lingers around aspects that one otherwise hopes to avoid whilst experiencing a privileged city life, as depicted in the slum dweller’s perspective of an aircraft in Airplane Descending on Jari-Mari by Surabhi Sharma.

The medium of videography has been explored through various tools such as twin imagery (real v/s satellite images) and the use of doors and windows as frames to narrate dualities. In Moonis Ahmed’s Material for a Love Letter to Comrades from the Sub-continent, the impact of the story is heightened by mirroring the dystopian imagery of the landfill and further emphasised by a sermon-like background score making a lingering impact on the viewer’s mind.

Though the narratives are largely visual and devoid of conversation, the power of words have been used as a device in Do This Do That by Soghra Khurasani to demonstrate in an impactful way how societal norms incessantly strive to control our thoughts, words and beliefs whilst resultantly diminishing our choices. On the other hand the monologue in Data Messiahs by Amitesh Grover reveals, amongst other things, the labels and fake praise that corporate jargon showers on us.

All in all, the assemblage of worlds within worlds that comprise these Urban Heterotopias prod the viewer to scrutinise urban realities, ponder over aspects often ignored in plain sight and even hang one’s heads in shame at the pretence, greed, disparity and pain that lurks behind the façade of development and progress.

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