Actor and writer Anand Tiwari’s directorial debut Love Per Square Foot, starring Vicky Kaushal and Angira Dhar, makes its debut on Netflix on February 14. The movie’s title gives away its theme – the aggravating world of Mumbai housing.

Is it worth faking a relationship just to be able to buy an apartment, as the characters in Love Per Square Foot do? In Mumbai, the city of apartments that are only slightly larger than packing cartons and yet cost as much as mansions elsewhere, of course it is.

The housing problem drama is a well-established sub-category of Hindi films set in Mumbai. Over the years, a great many films have examined the crisis faced by nearly every Mumbai resident – how is a home to be obtained without selling body and soul? Extortionate rents, unaffordable homes, nosy landlords, shifty brokers, crooked builders, unfair housing policies, the proliferation of slums, dilapidated apartments on the verge of collapse, poky residences that do not afford any privacy – Mumbai filmmakers have examined these realities with varying degrees of insight.

One of the most enduring movies about the link between house buying and soul selling is the four-decade-old Gharonda, directed by the acclaimed animator Bhimsain, written by Gulzar and based on a story by Hindi writer Shesh Kumar. Bhimsain’s award-winning short films were regularly broadcast on Doordarshan in the 1970s and ’80s. He also directed a few features, starting with Gharonda in 1977. Gharonda, meaning nest, features top-notch performances, a sublime score by Jaidev, memorable camerawork, and an unsentimental account of the ethical dilemmas faced by its leads in their quest for their dream home.

Zarina Wahab and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).
Zarina Wahab and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).

Mumbai is shot beautifully in a movie that cautions viewers about the perils of trying to posses a place of one’s own in the megapolis. The credits roll over a skyline that has long since been transformed. The camera sweeps over mill chimneys that tower over apartment blocks before zooming into an office that is expecting a new typist, Chhaya (Zarina Wahab).

Chhaya immediately captures the heart of her colleague Sudip (Amol Palekar), and they make plans to marry and buy a house. A co-worker who reads Chhaya’s palm warns that she will marry a much older man, but the sun is out and Mumbai still has enough public spaces for frolicking lovers.

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Tumhe Ho Na Ho, Gharonda (1977).

Sudip rustles up the seed money to pay for an under-construction apartment, and there is still enough time for another lovely song, Do Deewane Sheher Mein. Gulzar’s lyrics are brimming with optimism, speaking of a time when stars walk on the ground and the earth meets the sky. When poetry can flower in the midst of Mumbai’s concrete jungle, what else is there to do but whistle your worries away?

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Do Deewane Sheher Mein, Gharonda (1977).

An early hint of the oncoming train wreck is offered by the couple’s boss, Modi (Shreeram Lagoo). Modi has hired Chhaya for a reason – she resembles his dead wife. Modi’s undisguised lechery and offers of financial help to Chhaya repel her. When Sudip is swindled by the builder and he sinks into debt, he comes up with an idea befitting his despair. Marry Modi, he tells Chhaya. The older man is a heart patient in any case. How long before Modi croaks and Chhaya is reunited with Sudip?

Zarina Wahab and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).
Zarina Wahab and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).

The ethical dilemma faced by Chhaya, her decision to accept Modi as her life partner, and Sudip’s descent into the abyss are movingly summarised by the song Ek Akela Is Sheher Mein. The track is the obverse of Do Deewane. Sudip is now alone in the city, wandering by himself on the pedestrian overbridge where Chhaya and he once exchanged smiles and dreams together. Of all the locations, the overbridge offers the most vivid metaphor for the quandary faced by Sudip and Chhaya. Previously a vantage point to a bright future, the overbridge comes to represent the chasm between illusion and reality.

The city’s streets are as long as life itself, stretching on without end, Amol Palekar sings in Bhupinder Singh’s plangent voice. The optimistic whistling in Do Deewane Sheher Mein now has the tone of a dirge. Chhaya has carried out his devious plan a bit too perfectly.

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Ek Akela Is Sheher Mein, Gharonda (1977).

Although the hard-headed Modi comes off as a predator in the early sequences, he isn’t the villain of the piece. Sudip is a tragic figure, undermined by circumstances beyond his control. Chhaya’s compromise is in keeping with her submissive character. She marries Modi in part to enable her brother to study abroad, and some of the suave businessman’s ruthless pragmatism rubs off on her too. When Sudip confronts her about her decision to become a prosperous housewife, she demolishes him with a single sentence: I left you because you were broken from within.

The real enemy here is Mumbai, the city that is forever forcing its residents to take hard decisions, lower their expectations and discount their dreams. Bhimsain and cinematographer AK Bir offer numerous vistas of Mumbai’s beauty in the ’70s. Most of the sequences are set in iconic city locations, including the Bandra Fort, the now-defunct Naaz cafe, the beaches and the Charni Road overbridge. The movie plays out mostly during daytime, making the darkness that envelops the characters and swallows up Sudip all the more poignant.

Shreeram Lagoo and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).
Shreeram Lagoo and Amol Palekar in Gharonda (1977).

Although Sudip revokes his decision to leave Mumbai and stays back to fight, the climax is an uneasy mix of defiance and compromise. Sudip’s retreating figure, framed between under-construction high-rises, is a reminder of the true meaning of the much-vaunted spirit of Mumbai. It involves making do, never winning completely, and somehow always surviving.