Rajkaran (Om Puri) is a cab-driver living in a tidy, one-room Dharavi shack with his mother (Anjana), his wife Kumud (Shabana Azmi), and their son. Rajkaran yearns for success in business and a better life; he is gathering funds to buy a small cloth-dying factory. When one of his partners pulls out unexpectedly, Rajkaran reluctantly accepts a loan from the local underworld boss Tiravi, whose goons are suspected to be behind any number of neighborhood beatings and murders. Now indebted to Tiravi, Rajkaran finds himself drawn into ever more shady dealings, to the despair of Kumud, whose brother dared to stand up to Tiravi's tyrrany and was murdered for it. Kumud finds solace in the peaceful company of her first husband Shankar, with whom she had parted ways years before, and who has returned to Dharavi helpless and partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke. On the verge of losing his livelihood and alienating his family, Rajkaran grows ever more desperate.
What is most fascinating about Dharavi is its slice-of-life look at Bombay's slums. In small but vivid details as well as in big-picture themes the film illuminates this world that is so different from my own. The slum neighborhood itself is like a village, where everyone is all up in everyone else's business - you cannot keep secrets, and you can't cross the thugs and heavies who rule over the place; there is violence almost daily. Kumud engages in a daily struggle with the local corrupt water-mongers; they illegally tap the municipal water supply - there are no official municipal services in Dharavi - but they won't let Kumud take more than one bucketful without a fight. But there's also a strong sense of community; women gather in the streets to make pappadums and gossip, and in the evenings, everyone gathers in a little alley movie theater to watch escapist movies starring the likes of Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit. Rajkaran has romantic dreams in which he and Madhuri (who plays herself) roll around in mustard fields, he confiding his troubles to her, she confessing her love for him.
Rajkaran and Kumud live in a tiny one-room corrugated shack, reminiscent of the shantytown dwellings I saw in the South African film Tsotsi. But Kumud keeps it tidy and neat; there is a pretty little rug on the floor and potted plants on the sill, and other small comforts that can help preserve one's sanity and dignity when living in squalor. Kumud works in a small oppressive tailor shop, like the old sweatshops of the lower east side tenements in New York, working a sewing machine while sweat beads on her forehead. As hard as their life is, though, Kumud seems to manage it - early on, she questions why Rajkaran isn't satisfied, why he has to try to push for more - she doesn't seem, at least at this point in the movie, to share her husband's eagerness to get out of Dharavi. But while his ambition might be inspiring, it enrages him when his industrial dreams begin to crumble, and his rage drives away everyone around him. The message of the film is therefore a little ambiguous - should one just accept one's lot and leave well enough alone, or should one try to make something better for one's self and family? The film resolves this ambiguity for the best by allowing Rajkaran to emerge from his trials bruised and set back, but not defeated.