RK Studio sale and the politics of forgetting heritage
The legendary Kapoor family of Hindi cinema, whose four generations have not only acted but contributed to shaping and nurturing the industry, has decided to sell the iconic RK Studio in Chembur, according to reports this week. The process of negotiation has apparently begun. It could take months or years, but what is certain is the family’s resolve to sell the space, though with “a heavy heart”, as actor Rishi Kapoor told a tabloid.
There is nothing overtly political about the act of selling off a piece of legacy. Such decisions tend to be personal and circumstantial, sometimes purely commercial. The Kapoor family, by all reckoning, are an emotional lot, bonded by their shared heritage and place in the film industry, and unlikely to have made the decision only on commercial basis. How the renowned actor-filmmaker, the late Raj Kapoor, might have reacted is anybody’s guess. Yet, it is political in a way.
RK Studio symbolises something uniquely urban: A personal space of great public, historic or heritage value but which is neither cared for by the industry or the city. This isn’t the first nor will it be the last. The hostel and printing press set up by Dr BR Ambedkar were razed. Textile mills were replaced by malls and offices, and other film studios by gleaming towers.
Work spaces and homes of famous personalities, spaces steeped in historical value which speak to present generations, are a living heritage of Mumbai. They deserve more than what the Mumbai administrators have offered so far, focussed as they have been on built architectural heritage that too largely in the southern tip.
Despite the city being the de facto headquarters of Hindi cinema and a hub for alternative cinema, it got a film museum only four years ago. Could RK Studio have been turned into a memorial to the one of the greatest showman of the business in a way that preserved its essence but also allowed his descendants commercial returns? Could the city, the industry, and Kapoor family have partnered to create something new? Could this model have been replicated for other similar sites?
In the decline and imminent sale of the once sought-after studio lie many stories about Mumbai: The spatial shift of the cinema industry itself away from Chembur to the western parts of Andheri and Goregaon, the inescapable perennial traffic congestion which makes the commute to Chembur and back tedious for many, the availability of modern state-of-the-art studios, the speculative but dizzying prices of real estate, the premium on redevelopment of old and iconic properties. Also, it symbolises a city impatient with its past, making invisible certain aspects of itself.
Ironically, this is at a time when the leisure industry, including Bollywood, has expanded. The industry celebrates Ranbir Kapoor, but contributes little to maintain his grandfather’s heritage. This is also a time when the middle class is more visible or vocal than in pre-liberalisation years. It begs the questions: Do commercial boom and an empowered middle class mean selective amnesia; do they lead to what’s called the politics of forgetting?
This is not only about places; it’s equally, or more so, about people. As the city expands and becomes richer – at least certain sections acquire more wealth and wealthy – the poor become invisible or are forgotten, banished as it were to the margins of the city, turned into totems of urban exoticism for tourists the way “poverty tours” are organised in Dharavi. Then, those who speak for the marginalised and ask difficult questions are branded (for example, that obnoxious term “urban naxals”), arrested and thrown into lock-ups.
The words of Prof David Harvey, the distinguished geographer and anthropologist who popularised the idea of “Right to City”, come to mind. “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, or what aesthetic values we hold,” he wrote. What sort of a city do we want?