“Maine Flyover Cross Kar Liya”: Self And The City in Raat Rani

The Shonali Bose story is a reminder of the real and metaphorical walls of hostility in an inaccessible city
“Maine Flyover Cross Kar Liya”: Self And The City in Raat Rani

In the opening scene of the short film Raat Rani from the anthology Modern Love: Mumbai (Prime Video), the protagonist Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh) asks her husband Lutfi the rationale behind not allowing two-wheelers on Mumbai's iconic Sea Link. This exchange sets the tone for a film that implicitly focuses on the tension between the self and the city, more specifically the friction between self-love and the urban design and development that hinders it.

The ways in which urban design affects our everyday life often eludes us. When certain sections of society struggle to claim the city in ways that are easily accessible to others, they become subjects to what Carra Chellew (a public-space researcher) has called "hostile architecture" — "an urban-design strategy that uses elements of the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behaviour". She contends that hostile architecture often targets those who are more reliant on public spaces than others. Some examples of hostile architecture include installing 'anti-homeless' spikes on the steps outside a building, adding hand rests on public benches to prohibit people from sleeping on them, and prioritizing roads that cater to the rich instead of allocating public space for pedestrians and others who don't use a car. This hostile architecture is often hostile only towards those who are on the fringes of the city's existence: daily labourers, urban poor, the disabled, the old and the animals; the ones who aren't represented among the decision-makers who shape our city life. Hostile and unfriendly architecture not only shapes this 'unwanted' group's relationship with the city, but it also often shapes their relationship with themselves.  Lalzari, a house-help who lives in a shanty in Mumbai and works in an upper-class house, embodies this struggle.

When her husband abandons her, she must ride a cycle for the first time to reach her workplace. The tumultuous journey she undertakes while riding a bicycle through the car-infested streets of Mumbai reflects the inner commotion in her mind. Once she realizes that he's not coming back anytime soon, she breaks down. It becomes a moment of epiphany, overwhelming her with the realisation of her separation as well as the anxieties of having to navigate the city — the way she had done by riding to work that day — all by herself.

In our culture of heightened individualism, when a person can't make sense of a space, they tend to blame themselves, when in fact, it is often the space itself that has been designed in a way that renders it unapproachable to several factions of the society. This is a recurring trope, especially in films where women's journey to self-discovery often follows the labyrinth of an unfamiliar yet fantastic city — think Shashi in New York (English Vinglish) or Rani in Paris (Queen).  This initial feeling of incapability when the rest of the world seems to be moving on smoothly affects people's relationship with the self. But it is also this very hurdle that the female protagonist overcomes to find her independence.

In Raat Rani, however, filmmaker Shonali Bose also makes Lalzari's story a lens to look at the majority of the city's inhabitants, who live outside the comfort of the air-conditioned tinted glasses. She directs our attention to minute aggressions that city developers commit toward the vast amounts of people who might not want to take a motor vehicle to work. The gradient of the flyover is so high that Lalzari struggles to climb over the incline on her cycle; the security guard frowns when he realizes that the cycle would be parked on the premises; there is sophisticated surveillance equipment implemented on the roads, but the path to her house is bereft of even basic tar. When Lalzari decides to take charge of her life, her struggle against the world is condensed into her battle against the cityscape. The city makes her feel like she's inadequate, someone who won't be able to navigate through, and give up; the city personifies the inescapable toxic relationship she shares with her husband. So Lalzari fights back, for it is a battle for self-love.

Lalzari's triumphs in her life as a woman trying to live by herself are paralleled by the little victories she has against the city. She eventually learns to cycle well and cycles over that flyover. Ecstatic, she clings on to her cycle and sings, "my love, my life, my only love!". She also claims a space at a footpath during the night, the only woman doing business there after sunset. Her final triumph shows up as defying the law and claiming her space on one of the city's most expensive public infrastructure project: Bandra-Worli Sea Link. This is the ultimate battle for self-love. Lalzari eventually rides across the famed bridge. She finally climbs over the metaphorical wall of hostility. She knows that she has defeated the city, an act foregrounded by her dancing in front of the CCTV, the eyes of authority that control the city. It fills her with immense happiness and pride. Her eyes twinkle brighter as she declares, "Maine flyover cross kar liya" ("I have crossed the flyover").

At a time when the city of Mumbai is building the ₹12,000-crore 'Coastal Road' project, the politics of development have never been more explicit, considering less than half of Mumbai's residents have a car (sources say more than 70 lakh trips are taken daily on local trains, which incur a fraction of burden on the environment). Many climate activists have flagged the damage the coastal road would cause to the flora and fauna of Mumbai's waters, and fishing communities have protested against the possible loss of livelihood caused by the Coastal Road. Amidst an atmosphere of contestation in public space, Raat Rani reminds us that our relationship with the self is often invisibly dependent on the way our cities treat us.

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