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Vartak Nagar – A Story of Four Crows

July 5, 2020 | By

A Unique Perspective on the 1982 Mill Strike In Bombay.

Vartak Nagar is about the coming-of-age of the four teenage boys within the midst of a terrible financial crisis around the textile strike narrated by the boys themselves.

VARTAK NAGAR film review

Very few filmmakers have ventured to make a feature film or even a documentary on the historic textile mill strike that affected some 250,000 textile workers working in 65 textile mills in Mumbai. This is really sad. The workers had put down their tools in support of the strike called by militant trade unionist Datta Samant in 1982.  But it was a tragic failure that destroyed the lives and livelihoods of the workers and their families. It signalled the collapse of union power, and altered the relationship among business, politics and labour, according to scholars. It also led to the total collapse of the textile industry in Mumbai, then Bombay, for all time. More than 50 textile mills closed down permanently.

Vartak Nagar is a Hindi feature film directed by FTII alumnus Atul Taishete and jointly produced by Kunal Kohli Productions, Amit Agarwal of Adarsh Telemedia and Dione Entertainment. The film uses the 1982 mill strike as the backdrop and a powerful sub-plot in the film but not the main plot. The main plot is a looking back at the strike and its socio-economic and political impact on the people who lived in Vartak Nagar. This “looking back” is through the eyes of four teenage boys who lived in Vartak Nagar and who come back to the neighbourhood after 30 years for a reunion after they have become adults and gone their separate ways.

The only other film on the textile mill strike that comes to my mind is Mahesh Manjrekar’s City of Gold (2010) in Hindi and Marathi which, however, despite honest intentions, did not make it to the mass audience. The plot revolved around an original story by Jayant Pawar, which highlights the consequences of the atrocities towards the mill workers, and the failure of the Mumbai government to act seen through the struggles and tragedies of a single family.

Vartak Nagar shows Black-and-White clips in the opening frames as a tribute to Datta Samant but the film is not about Samant. It is about the coming-of-age of the four teenage boys within the midst of a terrible financial crisis around the textile strike narrated by the boys themselves.

The film opens on the day of the Ganpati immersion in 1981 where two groups use the immersion and the procession to get even with each other. One group is led by Kunwar Singh (Raghu Ram), the honest and principled leader of the mill workers and the other is led by Bala Chavan (Jimmy Shergil) who is a dangerous gangster on the payroll of the mill owners. This ends in violence but the two leaders escape.  The entire gang-war is witnessed by the quartet  – Gajya, Satya, Raju and Savio, the last boy stepping in much later to join the other three.

The film then takes a time leap 30 years ahead as Gajya, now an adult, arrives in a car and the story moves back again by 30 years when the boys are seen studying in the local English Medium co-ed school. The fathers of Raju and Satya are shown out of work as they are employed in Sitaram Mills resulting in the families finding themselves in deep penury. The four boys laze around and keep away from studies like average boys. Their favourite haunt is the bank of a local lake where they draw comparisons with three crows and then one more, who perch themselves on the branches of the tree and the boys rejoice in identifying with them and with their movements. When Savio joins them, they initially reject his friendship but slowly take him into their fold. The characterisations are sharply fleshed out so they seem real – going through the pangs of adolescence, curious about the sports teacher who wears red knickers, inquisitive about porn magazines a student introduces them to.

The naughty adventures of the four are intercut with their home environment cutting into the striking workers sitting on a mat outside the closed gates of the Sitaram Mills, worshipping their leader Kunwar Singh who staunchly stands behind them and refuses all attempts by the mill owners to buy him off. Savio’s father who was an alcoholic, dies during the course of the film. Raju’s father, hit by the strike, takes to selling vadas in someone else’s roadside stall and tries to pilfer things from the godown of the mill. Satya’s father, is reduced to a servant of the evil mill owner. Savio moves to another town to live in a hostel. The film rolls on, and we watch the changes happening in and around Vartak Nagar through their eyes and voices..

Some deeper exploration into the textile strike itself and how the workers cope through the terrible financial crisis would have added a richer dimension. The impact of the strike felt by these four boys in different degrees brings them closer after some squabbles between Raju and Satya. The most striking element is the brilliant acting by the four actors who portray the four boys. Stripped of any preconceived screen image or starry airs, the boys are so natural that we begin to love them as if they are real. The director has tried to sustain an amazing resemblance between the teenage boys and their adult personas when we see them at the end of the film, dancing together. The music is very good and so is the sound design. The editing needed to be a bit smoother and seamless as the narrative moves through different locales, situations and times.

Dance is used as a unique metaphor and also as a framing device. “The way a person dances gives away his class, status, lifestyle and education,” says Gajya marking the beginning of the film as the camera focusses on the immersion procession dancing madly to the loud music and the drums. The film closes on the four adult men joining hands to dance on the streets of Vartak Nagar and on this note, this delightful film ends with the voice-over repeating the social significance of dance that came across in the beginning of the film.

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
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