Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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Free China?

On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Dr Andreas Liefooghe of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology explores the powerful message of the award-winning documentary Free China, and asks why the West lacks the courage to believe.

For the first time, the service industry accounts for more than half of China’s economy, with manufacturing now accounting for less than 40%. Reports state that this is because of a burgeoning, and wealthy, middle-class doing what they do best: consume. Yet this is only part of a story.  For every Vuitton bag sold (fake or otherwise), someone else labours not for a minimum wage, but for nothing at all. Beyond the glossy facades of Shanghai and Beijing lies the ugly underbelly of repressive China. The laogai system provides labour from ‘criminals’ and prisoners incarcerated for ‘crimes against the regime’ who need ‘re-education’. Those Homer Simpson slippers you are wearing may just be made by one of these prisoners, and perhaps it’s time to listen to some alternative account of China’s might.

On the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the documentary Free China: The Courage To Believe does just that. Following the lives of two protagonists, Free China tells the story of Jennifer, a mother and former Communist Party member, who along with more than 70 million Chinese people, was practicing a belief that combined Buddhism and Daoism, until the Chinese Government outlawed it. The Internet police intercepted an email and Jennifer was imprisoned for her faith. As she endured physical and mental torture, she had to decide: does she stand her ground and languish in jail, or does she recant her belief so she can tell her story to the world and be reunited with her family? A world away, Dr. Charles Lee, a Chinese American businessman, wanted to do his part to stop the persecution by attempting to broadcast uncensored information on state controlled television. He was arrested in China and sentenced to three years of re-education in a prison camp where he endured forced labor, making amongst other things, aforementioned slippers sold at stores throughout the US.

As political scandals surface and tensions rise, along with more than one hundred and fifty thousand protests occurring each year inside China, this timely documentary highlights the issue of unfair trade practices with the West, organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience and widespread forced/slave labor. The film also highlights how new Internet technologies are helping to bring freedom to 1.3 billion people in China, and other repressive regimes throughout the world. Free China also has another aim. It has partnered with an internet technology team, who have developed new peer-to-peer software, which allows users inside China to safely and securely breakthrough the Great Internet Firewall, and access uncensored information. This is hoped to allow Chinese people with alternative sources of information, to be able to make more informed decisions about their own future, and to help transform ‘China-net’ from a tool of control and oppression into one of freedom of expression on the world stage.

This week from the 4 June people can buy DVDs of the film, plus there will be theatrical releases in New York and Los Angeles, as well as a series of international screenings. Despite high-profile endorsement, very little is heard of this story. As we continue to court China for its economic power, perhaps we also need to check our courage to believe some alternative accounts.

Free China was screened at Birkbeck on 18 March 2013 as part of the Vulnerable Selves, Disciplining Others ESRC Seminar Series, examining the relationship between vulnerable individuals and oppressive regimes. We were joined by the producer Kean Wong, protagonist Jennifer Zeng, and interviewee Ethan Gutmann, and became part of a list of screenings alongside US Congress and EU Parliament.

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