Every year Mumbai alters her daily routine to celebrate Ganesha, or the Hindu deity widely worshipped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. She closes her roads, diverts traffic patterns, gives workers the day off and swells her waterways in preparation to swallow thousands of painted idols. After ten days of chaos, song, dance and shear mayhem, she goes back to her daily routine, slightly fatigued but hopeful that the new year will be prosperous.
It’s always a pleasure collaborating with the uber-talented Vikas Bajaj, reporter with The New York Times.
If you think Bollywood films, with their lavish song and dance sequences, tend to be a bit over the top, then watch out for Tollywood. According to Rajkumar, a South Indian film industry professional, “Telegu films are larger than life. Bollywood has become a bit more realistic, a little too glamourous, the superhero has given way to the gangster. We are reclaiming the super hero.” A predominantly mustachioed super hero, with raging biceps and donning dark sunglasses keeps the Andhra Pradesh film enthusiasts satisfied. Film and faith seem uniquely intertwined in the Southern Indian state, boasting India’s second largest film industry. I had less than a day in Hydrabad to meet with local producers, actors and directors and to get onto a working film set. What struck me as I was introduced to one heavy hitter after another was the humility in which the men spoke of themselves and their craft. Almost everyone recounted the same story, they didn’t intend to be in the film industry, it just happened and now here they are, well established, and their fame – only two words can describe it: idol worship. It is common to see shrines created in honor of film stars during premieres or screenings. Although the lines between film and faith are blurred by local audiences, popular Telegu film actor Venkatesh seems quite grounded. With over 65 films to date, I spoke with Venkatesh between takes on a film set, and apart from the umbrella boy following his every move, he came across as a down-to-earth son, father and actor. “I’m not this,” he said, a realization he came to after seeking knowledge from wise men of various faiths, “the star thing I’m not getting. I just fell into acting and I think I’ve been successful because I’m very sincere at work.” Perhaps that is why Telegu films remain so successful, they are true to their audience and don’t pretend to be anything but pure bombastic entertainment.
I didn’t sleep much the night three bombs went off in Mumbai. Not out of fear for myself but concern for the many vulnerable people that make this city home. The majority of whom sleep in slums, shanties or on the street. The Times of India’s July 14th headline exclaimed: YET AGAIN. In two words the paper seemed to sum up public sentiment. They are tired, angry and frustrated and, I imagine, mostly because they feel so vulnerable. But that is what makes Mumbai a marvel. The sheer vulnerability of 12.5 million people. Foreigners who settle here speak of it as an energy, a pace which they have never felt before. They consider the West to be stagnant and not malleable to new venues or opportunities. They see India as the new “Wild West,” an untamed beast, with an undeniable allure. And Mumbai, falls into a separate category altogether. The city allows everyone in with open arms. The city doesn’t judge who you are or where you came from or even why you are here. The city may not be able to take care of you but it will challenge your survival instincts, eventually making you feel at home. The heart-breaking beauty of the city lies in the vulnerability of the people. The day following the bomb blasts, I went to work along with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends. I was on assignment to see how Mumbaikers were reacting to the tragedy. In Zaveri Bazar, a jewelry market where one of the blasts occurred, people filled the narrow lanes, even as the heavens unleashed torrential rains. Shop keepers didn’t open their businesses but still come to work, for them it is routine not resilience that brings them back. For them this is their life, their identity, they carved this niche for themselves and staying home wasn’t an option. Women on the trains didn’t call into work to see if they should come in, they just did what they do everyday. I am constantly humbled at Mumbai’s willingness to bare its soul to me, a native foreigner. The people are asking for the government to be allowed to share their vulnerability without living in fear. My hope is that they will be heard.
I recently spent a morning with Mukesh Mehta, a private real estate developer appointed adviser to the Government of Maharashtra to redevelop Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s largest slums. Slum redevelopment has become a polarizing issue in Mumbai, often times dividing the developer, residents, business owners and non-profits from each other. Mehta’s challenge is to find a plan that will satiate Mumbai’s need for more luxury housing and provide a better existence for the current slum dwellers, while appeasing various politicians and bureaucrats. My challenge for Monocle was to convey this in one image. Get a nice image of Mehta in the slums, while getting a good sense of the people and place, and avoid the harsh realities of poverty. Thankfully Mehta was up for the challenge as well and as we meandered our way through the narrow corridors of Dharavi, I was able to get this image while he was busy speaking to residents about redevelopment plans.
A lot could be said about how frustrating life can be in India, and I will be the first to admit I’ve expressed my disappointments on more than one occasion. Traffic, congestion, population, poverty, pollution, corruption, the list can go on and on. Which is why it is a blessing to be a photographer because you are forced to seek humanity in the midst of madness. Many times you make images without even recognizing their significance. I made the image below in Varanasi, India. I was on assignment for National Public Radio, nearly a year ago. At the time I was collecting images for a visual diary of the trip. I was just wandering through the city feeling moments. I walked by a small park and saw this girl standing on a concrete step. Her brilliant attire caught my eye. I made the image fast so as to avoid having her look into the frame, and then I kept moving, not knowing what I had. That day and many days after I appreciated the image for what it was, a diamond in the rough. But after over a year of living in India, the image became more than that, she had much more to offer. At the time I didn’t notice the brilliant tiger scarf on her head and the mickey mouse slippers on her feet. Nor did I notice the subtle way she is biting her lip, almost as if there is more on her mind than should be for a young girl. Then the background, the muted grey stone nicely contrasting her radiant softness. She is what I love about India. A heartbreaking surprise around every corner. Most days I’m too frustrated to recognize these moments. Most days it is not love but exhaustion and frustration pumping through my veins. But the moments are there and come often enough to keep me wanting more. I started a new medium format photo project today, and fell in love again.
A recent video I produced with reporter Hanna Ingber Win of the Global Post on what lessons Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s largest slums, can teach us about creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. Text & Video can be found here: Land of the Rising Slum: What can the poor teach Mumbai?
when i was on assignment today in dharavi, one of the largest slums in mumbai, i came across bangleman. i first noticed a trail of broken green glass while i was walking. then i looked up. i was greeted with a warm smile and a nod saying, ‘it is okay if you want a picture.’ i took about ten frames then bangleman, draped in thin circles of delicate glass, went on his way. something about our exchange made me smile. something about his face made me wonder. it was a fleeting moment, and i’m thankful to have had my camera to always remind me of it.
This is not, especially in the tumultuous present, an easy act (as is attested by the uninhabited and uninhabitable no-places in cities everywhere), and it requires help: we need allies in inhabitation. – Charles Moore, School of Architecture, UCLA
I had the pleasure to team up with New York Times reporter Vikas Bajaj on a story about a proposed 9,900 MW Nuclear Plant along India’s Konkan coastline. I think no matter where I go, there will always be an energy story to cover – from coal mines in Appalachia to hydrogen-fuel cell SUVs in California, to a Nuclear Power Project in India. You can find the STORY HERE and the SLIDESHOW HERE.