Mumbai – evolution of a muse

May 13th, 2013 IBNLive

Six years ago, as a newcomer to Mumbai, the greatest thrill in discovering the city was spotting places I had already seen in the movies, be it the Hiranandani towers that had been the backdrop of countless songs including Shah Rukh’s “Gumshuda”, the Vashi station that had been used in “Rangeela re” or the iconic Marine drive, the backdrop for songs all the way from “Ae dil, hai mushkil” to the ones being shot right now. In the movies of yore, Mumbai was a backdrop just because movies were shot here. The character of the city rarely came alive. That has changed a bit in the recent years.

“Ae dil hai mushkil” lyrically explained Mumbai (then Bombay) to the unitiated, painting beautiful pictures of its mills, buildings and trams. In the black and white era and most of the 60’s, Mumbai was a wallflower in the movie motif. Or else, you would have references to how people from Mumbai were shrewd, materialistic or awe-inspiring.

In the 70’s, there were brief references to the exotic minorities in the city. So you had a “Khatta Meetha” on the quirky Parsis, a “Baaton Baaton Mein” that focused on traditional Bandra-Malad Christians, a few references to chawl life and brief but overly fictionalised versions of the underworld. Movies of the 80’s were all about angst. The Mithunda era saw the introduction of the tapori and lukkha of the street, the no good young man from every street of Mumbai; only he had no cultural specifications. He was just another guy and there were no overt references to him being a Mumbaikar. The 80’s and early 90’s also had some references to the demolition of slums that dominated a lot of newsprint also in those times but the slums portrayed were not quintessential Mumbai. The 90’s saw majority of movies being shot in exotic foreign locales. The characters were NRIs or high flyers, so Mumbai didn’t matter much, nor did Delhi or any other place for that matter. Shooting on actual locations was still not the norm in the film industry, so there was a set for everything. The 90’s also saw exploration of the mafia sidekick theme, the gully ka bhai and though these were strictly a Mumbai reference, there was nothing undeniably identifiable about their Mumbai-ness.

By the late 2000s, the scene had shifted to Delhi and UP. “Khosla ka Ghosla”, “Oye Lucky Lucky Oye” introduced people to a Delhi that was as close to reality as possible, complete with a pesky aunty. The gangster movies shifted to eastern UP and Bihar. It was not just the advent of new era directors but also the need to present something fresh. Not much of Mumbai was seen, at least not in vivid detail till then. But the success of detail-oriented films encouraged exploration of every city in the same detail. Shooting on original locations was also encouraged.

There are four to five movies that come to mind which explored the city in its raw detail and come close to how I saw Mumbai since my arrival. The first was Aamir, which took shooting at original locations to a new level. It explored the seedy culture and bylanes of Mohammed Ali road, the creaky stairs, the building that could collapse anyday, the Mumbai I had come to know in my initial years of reporting. One of the first enduring images I have in my mind of Mumbai is that of travelling on the JJ Flyover at twilight and being enthralled by the lives of residents whose windows opened out to the flyover. Glowing in the light of 60 watt bulbs, were lifetimes of drudgery, stunted aspirations and yet such energy and love for life. The filmmaker who I felt came closest to show this somewhat was debutant Kiran Rao in “Dhobi Ghat”. The house that Aamir rents out is typical of the homes around JJ flyover. Another movie that showed the real middle class Mumbai was “Shor” in the city, replete with Mumbai’s traditional festivals, the traffic signal book sellers and a revised version of the no good guy in the form of the gun crazy sidekick played by Pitobash. Pitobash infact, looks very real, because that is how the slum-dwelling smart aleck of Mumbai behaves and looks.

“Wake up Sid” and “Jaane tu ya jaane na” were the other end of the spectrum. They showed the privileged kids of Mumbai accurately. There was no overt reference to the city in the movies, Mumbai was just a backdrop but the student life depicted there was very Mumbai.

But there is one filmmaker who seems to have made Central Mumbai, the bastion of the sons of soil, his own. A Bong, born and brought up in Delhi, he could have made a hash of adapting Mumbai and its vibrant Marathi culture. But he has painted a picture of Mumbai as vividly as he painted of Delhi in his previous movies. Dibakar Bannerjee’s depiction of the Worli-Parel ex-mill worker culture is very accurate. Though “Shanghai” was said to be set in a fictional city, the references were very Mumbai. The festival dancing, the slums, the Marathi references – everything was apt. It was in one of the interviews he gave post “Shanghai” that Dibakar revealed he lived in the Parel area. He replicated this in his short film in “Bombay Talkies” too. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character, his neighbours, his wife all of them are accurate representations of lives spent in chawls, doing odd jobs, hoping for something to work out and looking for that one moment that would transform your life and make you feel like you mattered in this city of impossibly great fortunes. The characters even engage in banter in Marathi. It is the Mumbai I know, of ordinary lives spent in day-to-day drudgery but with the hope that someday everything will change.

There cannot be any one definition of the real Mumbai. The Mohammed Ali Mumbaikar is different from the Chimbai village one who is again very different from BDD chawl one. It’s a city of stories that coalesce. And there are many more stories that Bollywood can tell with Mumbai as its muse.



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