From America to Dharavi

In 2012, armed with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, filmmaker Nawneet Ranjen left the U.S. to work with first-generation learners in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi in Mumbai. 

Ranjen says his motivation to move back to India after seven years in the U.S. was to use his storytelling and technical competencies to help train first-generation learners in low-income communities become employable.

The journey was tough but very fulfilling, says Ranjen. “It’s all about people and purpose that gives me hope for the future.” 

Ranjen was back in the Bay Area recently for his latest production, Kora Kagazz (Tabula Rasa), which was showcased recently at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose and San Francisco. 

The movie won the Film Audience Award in the Drama category.

Kora Kagazz features Rajat Kapoor, Swastika Mukherjee, and Aishani Yadav in the lead. It is centered around a juvenile home for girls and how different people from varied social strata can come together and get inspired by each other for a more equitable society. “Juvenile homes in small towns of India are in bad shape, and especially post-Covid, things have become harder,” says Ranjen.

Dharavi Diary  – Building from the ground up

Poster of the film, Kora Kagazz, showing the lead actors.
Kora Kagazz won an audience award at Cinequest. (Poster courtesy: Nawneet Ranjen)

After returning to Mumbai, Ranjen set up a Slum and Rural Innovation Project called Dharavi Diary,  a storytelling and technology education platform for kids, youth, and women of Dharavi. The non-profit aims to enable more entrepreneurs in poor communities by developing their job skills.

The work of the non-profit has now scaled to other urban slums and rural communities in Pune and some regions in Bihar in India. Their programs help the participants learn skills using science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

“India’s youth of today are very aspirational because of the reach of the internet. These aspirations have to be managed with the right competencies to help them navigate the opportunities and challenges of the current times,” says Ranjen.

Apps and Workshops

Ranjen and his team coach school and college kids in the slums on how to create apps using the MIT App Inventor. They also conduct workshops on topics like robotics and innovation. Their before and after school programs reach over 200 children. Ranjen wants to scale the program to benefit more children. He says although a lot has improved for people at the bottom of the economic food chain, more changes are needed both at the policy level and on the ground to help first-generation learners navigate the 21st-century landscape. 

“Better infrastructure in schools catering to low-income students will help motivate both the teachers and students,” says Ranjen. He says greater emphasis on project-based learning in schools, and helping the youth develop critical thinking and presentation skills, would make them more confident and employable.

Shalini Kathuria Narang is a Silicon Valley based software professional and freelance journalist. She has written and published extensively for several national and international newspapers, magazines...