Daddy may have missed the bus, but these Mumbai films do a fine job of capturing the city on screen
In the second half of Daddy, a relatively insignificant character is thrown into the rapidly mounting proceedings. Pamphlet Bandya, played by Deepak Damle, seemed to have stepped right off the sets of a Sai Paranjape film, stopped for a breather at a Sujoy Ghosh shoot and walked into Ashim Ahluwalia’s fabulous ensemble cast. Modeled after the real Bandya Adivadekar — part of Arun Gawli’s gang alongside Sada ‘mama’ Pawle, Vijay Tandel, Tembya Babu, Rajesh Roy and Sadanand Shetty, most of whom were decimated by encounter specialist Inspector Vijay Salaskar — Damle is spot on as the stoic (and delectably noir) Mumbai everyman. Soon after, Pawle (played by Marathi film veteran Shrikant Yadav) is wiped out in a public encounter post a car chase sequence.
Cinematographers Jessica Lee Gagné and Pankaj Kumar breathe authenticity into the brief scene, capturing working-class Byculla’s grimy, high-walled stone chawls, abandoned mills shrouded in neon green foliage and unsung Irani cafes. Like the rest of the film, the camera remains an observer. Perhaps it sees the shed in Byculla market where a 17-year old Babasaheb Ambedkar got married in the stealth of night (because nobody would conduct a Dalit wedding in daylight) that’s now cheek by jowl with a hipster café serving Bohri cuisine or glosses over the façade of the magnificent Bhau Daji Lad Museum. But it doesn’t play up the historic neighbourhood, focusing instead on Gawli hoodwinking the police and supari killer Pappu Borivali. The camera, in cahoots with the cast and crew, remains involved yet aloof, much like Mumbai. But Bandya’s terse intel on poker-faced, seemingly innocuous Gawli, “Woh jaisa dikhta hain, waisa hain nahi” also holds true for the city.
Ae Dil hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan
While Mumbai has played second fiddle to Delhi and small towns across the vast Northern belt over the past decade, it’s hardly a silver screen ingénue. From the '50s — when filmmakers from diverse oeuvres like Chetan Anand and Raj Kapoor showcased the loss of innocence and birth of resilience in the big bad city — to the '70s, where a newly-minted Bollywood’s prime auteurs Salim-Javed channeled suppressed angst of the working class against Prohibition-era corruption, poverty, injustice, but above all, idealism. The '80s saw fresh talent branching out to inspect insular pockets within Mumbai, notably Sai Paranjape’s Katha showcasing bitter-sweet, middle-class chawl life and Saeed Mirza's Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai that gave a glimpse into the atmospherics of Muslim and Catholic communities in the city, and Vijaya Mehta’s Pestonjee superbly chronicling the eccentric Parsi community.
The increasingly seamy megalopolis’s signature blend of squalor and survival — minus any filters — got its big international breakout with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, populated with druggies, pimps, prostitutes, child labourers and other legit Mumbaiwallahs. Idealism was clearly dead and rotting, and Bombay distant dystopian future — bred on life mottos such as “Jisne na peeya ganja, woh chakke ka bhaanja”.
Mumbai isn’t just a soul-crushing hellhole, off screen and on it.
Not too far from the brothels and deprived streets rose a lighter, more poetic look at 'Big Bad Bombay', leaning on the shoulders of the ‘aam aadmi’ star of the '70s, Amol Palekar. A troika of films starring Palekar offer a delightful insight into the city’s struggles and the dreams that play hide-and-seek with them. Gharonda — elevated by Gulzar’s sublime poetry comparing city streets to the endless stretch of umr (life) itself — showed the timeless search for a house of one’s own in Mumbai, taking its innocent couple, Palekar and Zarina Wahab from chawls in Vile Parle and matchboxes on Arthur Road to a dream built to soar and crash in Andheri. “Yeh Bambai hain, yahan, shamshaan ka raakh bhi bikta hain,” the film declared with a stoic resignation. Basu Chatterjee’s Baaton Baaton Mein, was more cheerful and showcased local train romance — Palekar with a hip Tina Munim this time — with a brevity and charm that others have struggled to achieve since then. But the most adorable ode to the romantic heart beating within every circumstance-weary Mumbaikar remains Chatterjee’s 1976 breezy romcom, Choti Si Baat. The film is a no-brainer for the most nostalgia-soaked darshan of Bombay icons. Palekar and Vidya Sinha’s romance blooms in BEST buses, chai at Café Samovar, Jehangir Gallery ramblings and Almeida Park walks. If you’re snagging a DVD of the film, it’s best to make a Chatterjee-thon of it, with the filmmaker’s other delightful odes to a wistful Bombay of yore — Khatta Meetha and Rajnigandha.
Tropes and tripe
Amongst filmmakers who roll out platitudes on the spirit and urban coolth of Mumbai, Ram Gopal Varma’s work stands out for its unabashed love affair with the city of dreams. Films as diverse in genre as Rangeela and Satya immortalised the street-smart, tapori Mumbai of the '90s, just before the wave of NRI-catered films swept the film industry and Mum-buh-ee went on a world tour only to return as Mum-bye. They also brought in their wake a cheat sheet of clichés and tropes that lazier filmmakers — and often, Varma himself — relied upon instinctively to showcase the ‘real’ Mumbai, like exaggerated Maharashtrian accents, even more irritating South Indian accents, corrupt cops, taporis and Bhiku Mhatre-apeing gangsters. The city had to wade through the high decibel '90s — Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, a love story on the backdrop of the 1993 communal riots, seems shrill compared to Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday in 2007 — for a return to low-profile realism in the last decade. Off the beaten underworld course, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox and Kashyap’s fantastic little gem, Ugly have showcased contemporary Mumbai without resorting to lazy clichés, or subverting them.
A look at ensemble casts reaps richer rewards in the quest for identifiable working class Mumbaikars. In Daddy, Aishwarya Rajesh nailed the real life character of Asha Gawli, a silent pugilist closer to the doughty Mumbai everywoman than Bombay’s simpering Manisha Koirala or Satya’s uber chipper Urmila Matondkar. Nishikant Kamath’s inspector (with the calmest body language since Nana Patekar in Ab Tak Chhapan) is so grounded, you can smell the fine dust of the city streets on his weather-beaten face.
The most memorable Bombaywallahs on screen (as off screen) remain the least important ones. Like the actor who plays the BRA gang’s jilted member in Daddy, seeking out vengeance by violently bashing his former friend to death. “What if someone recognises me?” the puny young man asks before his maiden gang bash-in at a den. “Who’ll recognise you?” the friend ripostes. “Tu toh har har Hindustani jaisa dikhta hain.”