In 2019, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority declared 14,207 south Mumbai buildings dilapidated. However, the residents – many of whom have been living in these decrepit houses for decades – refused to move to transit accommodations for MHADA to initiate redevelopment procedures. They seemed to have accepted that the fear of living in a run-down establishment is more palatable than the crippling anxiety of moving to temporary housing, never to return to their generational homes, like scores of tenants who continue to languish in transit camps after over 30 years of moving out.
In Jarjar Ghar, Dilapidated Houses, the state of constant impermanence in India’s most expensive city and Mumbaikars who negotiate the reality of living under the traditional pagadi-kiraydar system find representation.
With the Maharashtra Rent Control Act, 1999 freezing the rent of all buildings constructed before at 1965 at extremely low amounts, these establishments were never repaired by the owners due to their unprofitability. Now, years later, the tenants are faced with the decision to either move into a safer home while the building goes into redevelopment, or continue paying a monthly charge as low as Rs 125. Most have chosen the latter.
Above: Views from inside a 200-year-old south Mumbai building on the verge on collapse, where residents must use the community toilet while holding an umbrella.
Jarjar Ghar first found some form in 2017 when its editor and director, Geetanjali Gurlhosur, was tracking a story about the residents of a couple of south Mumbai buildings on the verge of collapse. Even though the story never saw the light of the day, the “generational stories, images of the dark passageways of old, decrepit buildings and the unchanging situation” persisted. Three years later, she sent in an application for the Nagari Short Film Competition 2020, organised by the Charles Correa Foundation, wherein the idea would come to life within the theme of 'Urban Housing (In)adequacy'.
Shot entirely during the ongoing pandemic, the six-minute documentary captures vignettes of buildings as old as 200 years, crumbling on the outside but bustling within. Creating a film during the pandemic, the makers recall, was as interesting as it was challenging. While a minor budget did not allow for much comfort at a time when the city's lifeline — the Mumbai Local — wasn't fully functioning, the involvement of multiple stakeholders in the conversation demanded a nuanced, inclusive take on the metropolitan malady at hand. "There are so many things to address here apart from the lack of safe, secure and affordable housing — the history of the pagadi-kiraydar system, rehabilitation policies, the role of housing agencies like MHADA, the role of owners and builders, transit camps and religious and caste-based nuances within the microcosms of the buildings. You can't do justice to every person and every story. There's always something that is left out," recounts Gurlhosur.
Above: An old photograph of one of the families living in the building tells a distinct tale of time and nostalgia, which perhaps also ties the tenants to their home spiritually.
However, it all started coming together with the tenants opening up on their shared housing woes. "Although most of the residents were quite welcoming and warm, we had to be careful around the elderly and keep some distance. This was challenging because as seen in the film, the spaces are very small and tight. Prateek, our sound recordist Aditya, and I barely fit inside these spaces together with our equipment. Yet this did not make the interactions awkward or uncomfortable for anyone."
Interestingly, the proximity between the camera and the subject barely makes it evident that the film was shot under minimum contact. “These spaces are so small that family members can't self-isolate themselves if they get infected, which is the first thing that struck me when we went to shoot. Despite the risk, the residents were so warm and offered us food and tea every time we visited that it was overwhelming,” adds award-winning cinematographer Prateek Pamecha.
“In the night it makes sounds. It’s coming down, this building. Yes, I can hear it. I wake up and sit up in the middle of the night and pray to God, ‘Mother, save me!”: an elderly woman exclaims in the opening sequence.
Jarjar Ghar not only brings to the fore the ‘possessiveness’ that residents have for their rented generational homes in Mumbai, but it also speaks to the fears of temporariness in a bustling metropolis. And seeing as they were surrounded by people who have a staunch allegiance to their home, the filming process gave the makers a fresh perspective on what it means to belong. “The privileged like us have begun to associate 'home' with the people we love and care about whereas we take for granted the security and safety of the actual houses we live in. My interactions with the tenants reminded me that having a solid roof over your head and having ownership of that roof are rights still at risk in cities like Mumbai,” reveals Gurlhosur.
Above: 'If the premises are not vacated, it may cause injury/death to the occupier,' reads one of the many eviction notices sent to the tenants. However, moving out of their dilapidated home will make them refugees in their own city.
Apart from bureaucratic red tape, the coronavirus pandemic has further impeded the rehabilitation process by rendering evacuation and construction more difficult. Therefore, the tenants continue to live in their rented homes, with the promise of a safe home beginning to seem like a pipe dream. This is also when the makers realised that social distancing was a privilege, too, like spaces and safety, for those with the means to access them. The makers reveal that while the shoot was underway, officials from the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) discussed repairs and rehabilitation with the tenants.
Even though the general updates on the process have been awfully slow, the tenants are still holding out hope. “The idea that Mumbaikars have about the city's 'spirit' is that it never dies despite recurring disasters," observes Gurlhosur. Hence, the way I wanted to tell the story was to wake people up from their slumber and show that people want their lives to be changed, that they are waiting for their lives to be changed.”