Maybe Vikramaditya Motwane has a love song for Mumbai, but Trapped isn’t it.
Caught like a ghoul between a phalanx of highrises, it could be any suffocating smog, in any anonymous megapolis outside the flat in which Rajkummar Rao’s character Shaurya gets trapped in. “Delhi, Shanghai… the film would have worked anywhere, not just Mumbai,” Motwane said.
It’s a very recent urban reality for Mumbai though – moving into a building that’s not inhabited yet. We know the “why”. Motwane begins a familiar litany” “The building is ready but doesn’t have an OC [occupation certificate]. There’s a stay and the court hasn’t responded. Someone has gone and tried to scam the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation]. It will be one of the usual reasons. Basically, you moved in because you got a good discount.”
But Motwane also presents the “how”, a slightly more disconcerting acknowledgement of the precarious balance of ambition and optimism it takes to survive here. He suggests the thrumming menace with which a tiny glitch can tilt that balance into catastrophic desperation. Like a door slamming shut in the wind.
This is the Mumbai we know but not the Bombay we grew up in.
To tell a city story, in a place so familiar and now so in flux, is to confront certain realities. “The film is about isolation,” said Motwane, who has previously directed Udaan (2010) and Lootera (2013). “We didn’t grow up in 35-storey towers. The city has adapted into something completely new, alien. Of course, this is just my opinion. But after growing up in the city, I’ve seen a drastic change in its attitudes. It used to be a far more cohesive, united place – it belonged to everyone. Now it’s yours, it’s mine, but it belongs to no one. There’s a surge of humanity. There’s a lack of humanity. This is urban isolation.”
In the film, as day turns into night, you see signs of life, homes light up or strangers move in the distance. But the quotidian begins to seem callous, even sinister.
Maybe we’re doing it to ourselves, Motwane said. “It reminds me of Gurgaon,” he said. “So organised on the inside, security, signs saying ‘Go Slow, Kids Playing’. But outside those gated communities…no pavements, construction mud, it’s a jungle. And Mumbai is becoming like that in parts. We have built towers, hundreds of storeys, of complete isolation.”
And it’s not just the concrete that is cold. The city outside changes the city inside. “I’ve noticed unless you still live where you grew up, Mumbai people value their privacy,” he said. “They’ll be polite but there’s a certain distance they will keep. And then you have new kinds of isolation as the city grows. Your cell phones, your headphones, even families, couples in the same home, feel isolated from each other.”
Motwane grew up in a quiet lane in the Khar suburb in north Mumbai. “I used to love this city,” he said. “I mean, I still do, there are pockets that are lovely and we hang on to these and to our nostalgia. But, I’ll say this. Our outside world is all…” He hesitated with the word and then, “I’ll say it, it’s wrong. We now isolate ourselves in our air-conditioned bubbles – home, car, office, car. I remember when you walked everywhere. I started taking the bus at 12. So much has changed and it’s not a safety issue… It’s something else.”
That “something else” is what the average immigrant would feel. “It’s ruthless and cold – that spirit of Mumbai thing, it’s a bit of a joke now, isn’t it?” Motwane said. “This is a selfish city. People are here for selfish reasons. They tell you the city is yours… but then they tell you what you must do with it. Every metropolis needs a sense of belonging. It’s not about belonging to a certain cultural sub sect – you should want to walk the streets of a city to belong.”
Does he think a pattern will emerge in this new avatar of the city? Is there an order to be found in the chaos? Motwane stopped himself just short of a snort of derision. “It’s all chaos. Any order you see, that’s jugaad.”
So what do you do if you don’t want to give up on your city? “Get involved, push for a responsible mayor, start at the street level,” he said.
The larger, older, more disparate a city is, the more intriguing it becomes, the choices a film director makes, in the aspects of that city he brings to a film. Motwane admitted that as the city changes, it changes you too. “It used to inspire but now it frustrates on many levels,” he said. “There’s a loss of character, too much fragmentation and it can be a pain in the ass to shoot in.”
And yet, Motwane’s next film, Bhavesh Joshi, developed “while navigating traffic” in the Mumbai labyrinth, is inexplicably, “about hope.” When he started writing the film, starring Harshvardhan Kapoor, he was creating an alter ego of his own. “The story is based on a young man who loved the city and hated what was happening with it – a very angry person who talked and did nothing…” Motwane said. “But I matured very quickly. No one wants to hear that.” And so the characters changed, the plot evolved, but “it is still the same movie spiritually”.
Maybe The Spirit of Mumbai can’t be exorcised that easily.
“Even if you’re isolated, you will still survive,” he said about the statement Trapped makes. “In the graphic novel world, there is a thought that if something went too far, you burn it down to the ground. But [with Bhavesh Joshi] I want to talk about how there is hope and you can always set the dial back to utopia…”
Ultimately, the director’s antipodal releases, back to back, may not be the love songs to Mumbai we’ve been looking for. But there’s a chance they’re the rallying, unifying call to arms we need.
This article was first published on TheCityStory.com.