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Designing the Dharavi dream

Until a few years ago, Nawneet Ranjan was like any other youngster traversing the streets of Mumbai. He had dabbled in theatre, worked with Greenpeace in Delhi — he featured as a strong proponent against corporate crime — and finally switched base to the ‘city of dreams’ with the ambition of making films that would change the world. He worked as assistant director on a few Bollywood productions including the Abhay Deol-starrer Ahista Ahista.


Filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan in Dharavi. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

However, what truly caught Ranjan’s fancy in the city was a stretch of land he passed every day to work — Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. And it was here that he decided to shoot his first documentary, a 15-minute film, Dharavi Diary, on the plight of the residents in the summer of 2012 (shot over a period of a few months and no official release date). The film has travelled the world, frequenting film festivals such as All Roads Film Festival by National Geographic in Washington DC and Raindance Festival in the UK. A job well done, most would say. But for Ranjan, his romance with Dharavi had only just begun. Since Dharavi had given him his first story, he decided it was his turn to give something back to his muse.

Dharavi Diary has now manifested into a slum development project unlike any other and is being overseen by Ranjan. The idea, Ranjan explains, is quite simple. “My original film was about the displacement of families due to the 2011 pipeline eviction. During that period, I got to see how people in Dharavi actually lived. They are enterprising folk, serving as the green lungs of the city. Dharavi recycles the city’s waste. However, there are middlemen who pocket a sizeable chunk of the profit, rendering the residents victims of a vicious circle of poverty. My idea was to facilitate and enable residents to break this cycle, and document it all on film,” he explains.

A noble pursuit no doubt, and Ranjan is a man with a plan. He is currently executing phase one of his three-phase plan. “The first phase of the project involves engagement with the community of Dharavi. We are inviting designers from all over the world — in fact a few of them recently came down from Denmark – and having them teach residents novel ways of making innovative products from waste, such as handicrafts and sculptures. With more ways to channel their creativity and raw materials at hand, more avenues of income can open up for them.


A still from the film, Dharavi Diary, directed by Nawneet Ranjan

The second phase involves documenting the amazing jugaad that happens in Dharavi. The people here have uncanny problem-solving abilities. I am convinced that the Tool House (shop on the ground floor, manufacturing unit on the first floor and house on the second floor) concept of Netherlands, is something that was inspired by Dharavi! We want to start a lab in Dharavi where experts from India — say, from institutions such as NID — and abroad can come and help them. There can even be an educational pact and the experience from this endeavour can be replicated in other slums around the world. The third phase is facilitating a relationship between residents and commercial establishments. The products being made will find space — shops where they can be showcased and sold. It will not only help them break the cycle of poverty but also reaffirm some much needed faith back in the community,” says Ranjan.

The process of funding, however, hasn’t gone entirely as planned. Ranjan says he is trying to cloudfund the project and is relying on on-site donations as money driving operations. “We were looking at gathering $10,000. We have amassed a little more than $4,000, but we are still going ahead with the project. We will figure out the rest of the finances as we go ahead,” smiles Ranjan.

Ranjan’s endeavours have received positive feedback from the community, enabling him to build a formidable team. There are award-winning cinematographers, music composers, documentary filmmakers and people who have worked with UNESCO and UNICEF in his fold. Curiously enough, designers and web platform builders are part of his team as well. When quizzed about this, Ranjan’s reply reaffirmed his 360-degree vision for the project. “We wish to go across platforms, build web apps and games which will help people understand the work we do and interact with the project online, on their phones, whenever, wherever.”

And did we mention, Ranjan will also film the project as it unfolds, as a part of a feature- length documentary?  

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