When Indian filmmakers reach for sporting metaphors to make sense of the world, cricket is usually the game of choice. But Milind Dhaimade’s debut feature Tu Hai Mera Sunday kicks its way down a different path: he uses football to explore the severe shortage of open spaces in Mumbai as well as the lack of emotional elbow room. Tu Hai Mera Sunday is in the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27). The movie will be shown at MFF after being screened at the BFI London Film Festival, and will be released in India in early 2017.

Tu Hai Mera Sunday captures a ritual that will be familiar to Mumbai residents. Every Sunday, a group of friends meets at Juhu beach to play football. One of the members, Arjun (television heartthrob Barun Sobti), adopts an old man in the early stages of dementia (Shiv Subramaniam). The old man causes an accident that leads to football being banned from the beach. From this scenario, Dhaimade weaves a feel-good yarn about friendship, romance, and the eternal quest for a small spot of peace in the most crowded metropolis in India.

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The movie draws from Dhaimade’s personal experiences. An advertising filmmaker who grew up in Walkeshwar in South Mumbai and has lived for over two decades in Santa Cruz in the north, Dhaimade mined his knowledge of the city to write a screenplay that captures its often invisible rhythms and habits, mongrel speech patterns, and typical characters. “The seed of the film came from knowing this football evangelist friend of mine, Vinay Kanchan, who was instrumental in creating a group which plays football at Juhu beach every Sunday, aptly called Juhu Beach United,” Dhaimade said. “Now these guys are pretty legendary. So one day I was wondering what would happen to these guys if they couldn’t play football at the beach? That was the jumpstart to writing the script.”

The film was initially titled Juhu Beach United, but since that title was already registered by another producer, Dhaimade dipped into the lyrics of one of the songs composed by Amartya Rahut for the new title.

Football serves as a starting point to look at the ways in which Mumbai has changed and continues to be transformed by its obsession with constructing buildings over every available inch of available land. The film is, however, not a dirge for the near-absence of an concrete-free stretch in the city. Tu Hai Mera Sunday also functions as a delayed coming of age narrative. All the characters are in their mid- or late twenties, but they have decided to drop out. Rather than chasing fat salaries and shimmying up the corporate ladder, each of the movie’s male characters is trying to delay adult responsibilities such as marriage and steady employment.

Sobti’s Arjun is a sweet-natured and laidback business school product who has quit his job to set up a consultancy firm. He lives with his sister’s family and falls for the senile old man’s daughter Kavya (Shahana Goswami) at first sight, but takes the entire film to confess his feelings to her.

Shahana Goswami and Barun Sobti in ‘Tu Hai Mera Sunday’.
Shahana Goswami and Barun Sobti in ‘Tu Hai Mera Sunday’.

The lack of outdoor space is mapped over the inner jostlings of Barun’s friends. Dominic (Vishal Malhotra) lives with his widowed mother and bristles when his brother returns from abroad with a girlfriend. Rashid (Avinash Tiwary) is a Casanova who finds himself drawn to his married neighbour (Rasika Dugal) and her hearing-impaired sons. Mehernosh (Nakul Bhalla) has a hellish boss and an exploited secretary to whom he is attracted, while Jayesh (Jay Upadhyay) is from a traditional, ritual-addicted family that he yearns to escape.

“Only when I got down to writing did I realise that I wanted to make it a more personal story and more than just about football,” Dhaimade said. “So I started adding bits and pieces from my life, my friends and my experiences growing up in Mumbai and meshed everything into this story.”

The characters and their easy camaraderie are echoes of people the filmmaker has known over his life in the city. “Diversity is the hallmark of Mumbai,” Dhaimade said. “Growing up, and then in college, I’ve had such a diverse bunch of friends. I have met such interesting characters that it would be impossible not to be influenced by all that. I used to play football in college and later I used to play with the Juhu Beach United gang. For me, the real memories were about the camaraderie after the games – when we all gathered together at an Irani, or at a tea stall. That banter is precious and it would be foolish of me not to exploit it.”

‘Tu Hai Mera Sunday’.
‘Tu Hai Mera Sunday’.

The screenplay’s first draft ran into 200 pages – as is to be expected from a cross-weave of characters and experiences.

“For me it’s one story, of space, seen from the perspective of different people living in this city,” Dhaimade said. “That helped me keep focus and fuse the characters seamlessly.” The naturalistic and slang-laden tone of the dialogue fell into place much more easily. “It’s not so difficult when your characters have been drawn from life,” Dhaimade said. “I love that kind of writing and am very particular when I write my screenplays to keep the language of the characters real. When dialogue is free of encumbrances such as plot and transparent motives, they automatically become conversational and less preachy.”

As the characters hunt for places to play football, they end up in a housing society complex, where, naturally, cricket is given preference. The characters travel to Goa, which seems to be the logical destination for the space-starved men and women, but it’s only a getaway, not a solution.

“Let’s leave Bombay,” one character says half-heartedly, only to be told that “All of India is becoming one big Bombay.”

Despite its light-hearted and fuzzy tone, Tu Hi Mera Sunday is a lament for a city that used to be gentler, less crowded and even, dare we say, beautiful. “The loss of personal space is the measure of prosperity for this city,” Dhaimade said. “Or maybe the people rather have tiny islands of happiness than one big happy island.” Mumbai is a mess six days of the week, but on the seventh, god rests, and optimism takes over.