The most common reaction to an aerial video of a locked-down Mumbai that has been widely shared this week is a single word: “surreal”.
There have been other responses to the video, which was made with the help of drone cameras by Kushang Dholakia and Omkar Phatak: “Never seen Mumbai like this.” “So sad to see the city so empty.” “Can’t believe my eyes.” “The city that never sleeps is finally sleeping.”
India’s financial capital and arguably busiest city stops in its tracks only very rarely, most often for the wrong reasons – communal or caste riots, a natural disaster such as the 2005 floods. The recent aerial video reveals the architectural splendour of Mumbai’s heritage district, but also indicates that despite the restrictions on movement to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the roads are not entirely empty. In the video, we even spotted a rat sprinting across a street – a true-blue Mumbai resident who cannot contain the urge to be out and about.
Mumbai’s irrepressible spirit, famed frenzy and embrace of restlessness have inspired scores of films and documentaries, as we find in the latest edition of our Home Theatre series. The city’s love for activity also manifests itself in more abstract ways too – in the constant movement of people, goods, produce and cash; in the desire to scale the social ladder and move on to the next big thing; in the underhand dealings of criminals and crooked government functionaries and politicians.
In Mumbai, a train can get you from Point A to Point B within minutes, while hard work or a criminal bent of mind could help you make the leap from a chawl into a solid building in a single generation.
This is is what Mumbai looked like in 1970, when it was known by a more beautiful name, Bombay. The Films Division maverick Pramod Pati is at work here, using a technique known as pixilation to create a dazzling summary of the average day in the city when it is not forced into slumber.
Mani Kaul’s documentary provides a ground-level view of the invisible labour that ensures food in the belly and a roof over the head. Arrival (1979) examines the entry of food and humans into the city. Densely packed frames show Mumbai’s bustling produce markets and abattoirs, many of them staffed by migrants. It soon becomes hard to distinguish between the beast that is trussed up for slaughter and the human who slaves away at bazaars and construction sites.
The character of the taxi driver in Hindi movies gives literal expression to Mumbai’s peripatetic ways. Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1954) stars Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik but makes sure to list “the city of Bombay” in the credits. The locations that have been filmed from moving vehicles include Fort, Marine Drive and Juhu.
Where to watch: Sony Liv.
Another taxi driver, this time less romantic and more real than the one portrayed by Dev Anand in the 1950s. Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) is about a deeply familiar Mumbai character – the migrant from Uttar Pradesh, eking out a living while his family in the village waits for his meagre earnings and occasional visits. Farooque Shaikh plays the man behind the wheel, dreaming about the wife and mother he has left back home and worrying about where his next meal is coming from. As he winds his way past traffic, Mumbai and her tough-love ways whiz by. The plangent song Seene Mein Jalan, Aakhon Mein Toofan Sa Kyon Hai is set to visuals of Mumbai residents scurrying about, heading somewhere and nowhere.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.
Way before Baby’s Day Out (1994), there was Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat (1966), in which an adorable tot is left to his own devices after his mother tragically dies. The curly-haired Bunty (Master Bunty) discovers Mumbai by foot, managing to evade scrutiny in a city that has no time to stop and stare. Bunty crawls into the back of a taxi, wanders through a construction site, perilously crosses a railway track and survives on food scraped off the streets. Jal Mistry’s astounding cinematography, much of it handheld, is complemented by a jazzy soundtrack.
Mobility in Mumbai has another name – aspiration. In Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), the desire for a better social station derails its hero. The Chaplinesque tramp Raj (Kapoor) arrives in Mumbai with shining eyes and Mera Joota Hai Japani on his lips. He soon falls prey to the city’s crooked ways, becomes a confidence trickster, and abandons his impoverished and pure lover Vidya (Nargis) for the fake charms of high society.
The distance between Raj’s past and present is summed up by another great song, Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh, in which Maya (Nadira) reminds Raj that the world belong to the one who looks ahead.
Where to watch: MX Player.
Shree 420 had a “happy ending”, in which the hero is redeemed by self-awareness and love. By the 1970s, the optimism of two decades ago had given way to despair and a grim reckoning. In Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), written by Salim-Javed and shouldered by Amitabh Bachchan, two migrant brothers choose starkly different paths. Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) chooses to stay rooted, becoming a police officer and the exemplary son. Vijay (Bachchan) decides to climb upwards by whatever means possible, leaving his family and his conscience far behind.
Vijay’s rise is all about movement – from a slum to the docks and then to his new perch in a high-rise on Mumbai’s Marine Drive promenade. The fall is equally steep.
Raj Khosla’s CID (1956) is full of zigzag movements – between the light and the dark, the overground and the underworld, crime and punishment. This Hollywood-influenced thriller, in which a police inspector (Dev Anand) investigates the murder of a newspaper editor, includes chase sequences, journeys into underlit dens of vice, and characters with dubious motives. Everything is on the move here, including morality. CID gave the city its unofficial Mumbai anthem Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan, whose cheerful tone masks a warning about the city’s unreliable ways.
Where to watch: Shemaroo has a link here.
In Jabbar Patel’s Marathi-language movie Sinhasan (1979), Mumbai is a chessboard and the players are numerous. There is the chief minister receiving anonymous threats, the opposition leaders snapping at his heels, and his own party colleagues trying to pull the rug out from under his feet. The politicians make their moves even as the city seethes with poverty and labour unrest, and Nilu Phule’s newspaper reporter is the last honest man standing.
In 2008, the Cinema City project examined the connections between urban development, labour policies and cultural practices. Shrikant Agawane’s Sin City was one of six short films created for the project. Sin City revisits one of the best-loved characters in Hindi movies in the 1970s and ’80s – the smuggler, who is forever shining a torch into the Arabian Sea from a hideout on a sandy beach. Before organised crime, there was disorganised crime, the film suggests – yet another example of Mumbai-style entrepreneurial energy.
Chhoti Si Baat
Mumbai takes its work ethic very seriously, but love finds ways to bloom and blossom in this concrete jungle. Romance can occur mid-movement, on the way to work or while clearing an important file at the office. Arun (Amol Palekar) meets his intended Prabha (Vidya Sinha) every day at the bus stop while waiting for route number 86 at 9.05am. (If you’re missing Mumbai’s sturdy red-and-silver BEST buses, this is the film for you). But alas, Arun’s confidence is at floor level, so he travels outside Mumbai and scales a hillock or two for courtship lessons from a retired colonel (Ashok Kumar).
The locations include the now-shuttered Samovar Cafe, Flora Restaurant in Worli, Flora Fountain and Marine Drive. Arun’s exertions finally pay off, and in the bargain, we get a tour of Mumbai in the 1970s – less hectic, less populated, and, dare we say, beautiful.
Where to watch: Sony Liv.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro
It all begins in a darkroom in Kundan Shah’s cult satire from 1983. Two photographers (Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani) are hired by a compromised newspaper editor to collect the dirt on a rule-bending builder. They become pawns in a larger game that involves the city’s municipal commissioner. Mumbai proves to be a hotbed of lawless activity – a neighbourhood park is a crime scene, a printing press is a deal-making zone, a flyover is a graveyard. Even a routine stage adaptation of a mythological becomes an occasion for another kind of corruption, this time of the Mahabharata epic.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Movies, Google Play.
In Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut, love travels through misdelivered missives. A mix-up by the food delivery service ensures that notes left by a housewife for her husband end up with an elderly and single accountant. The food is delicious and the messages even more memorable, leading to an unusual bond between two people who have never met. Mumbai’s dabawallas, who almost never get their orders wrong, are among the groups of workers who have been forced into unemployment by the lockdown.
Where to watch: Netflix, YouTube Movies, Google Play.
In Zoya Akhtar’s fairy-tale of aspiration and achievement is all horizontal and vertical lines. Mumbai is a grid with clear but not unbreakable lines, the movie suggests. Just beyond the gates of wealth and fame is talented slumdog rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh). Somewhere in the middle is MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi), who gives Murad a leg-up and hoists him into a world that gives him recognition but takes him away from his sweetheart, Safina (Alia Bhatt).
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video.