Revisiting Basu Chatterjee's Bombay, a city that valued sustainability and small joys over relentless ambition
Basu Chatterjee's Bombay, in films like Piya Ka Ghar and Chhoti Si Baat, was a city that was more than the sum of its parts
In Basu Chatterjee's second film — his first set in Mumbai — Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Jaya Bhaduri plays Malti, a woman who relocates from an unidentified village to the metropolitan city. In the song, 'Bambaee Shahar Kee', her excitement is at its peak as her wide eyes, like KK Mahajan's curious camera, try to take in as much as they can, while whooshing through the city in a kaali peeli taxi and walking briskly to the next destination with her husband Ram (Anil Dhawan).
A young woman, apprehensive of showing skin to her new husband in their cramped home, splashes sea water on him with abandon at Chowpatty and smiles widely at the animals in Byculla Zoo. When an offended monkey launches heaps of sand on the peeping couple from across the bars, she skitters away as if during a game of catch-me-if-you-can.
Malti on that Mumbai darshan was me in my initial days in the city. I was overawed by the enchanting mix of sea (my native state is Rajasthan), the British hangover in the architecture. The last thing on my mind was the trip back "home" (if I could call it that) — a dormitory on Princess Street.
Malti's struggles were manifold. After living comfortably in a village haveli, she had to put up in a chawl with a joint family, where she barely had a room to herself. In such circumstances, the consummation of her marriage posed its fair share of challenges, with concerns about peeping Toms in the mohallah or sounds wafting through the wafer-thin walls of the chawl and into the keen ears of a nosy sister-in-law. To repeatedly turn down a man genuinely in love with you because of circumstances out of his control was the dilemma Malti grappled with incessantly.
It is thus organic that she would gravitate towards the world outside her too-humble-abode. In a telling scene, when Ram is trying whisper sweet nothings to Malti, she runs to the window and looks up at the sky, staring at an airplane go by with uninterrupted attention. It reminded her of her village, she says, where rushing to the farm and gazing at a passing airplane was an event.
Owing to the close proximity to an airport in Mumbai, the planes taking off would give those new in the city a chance to witness their flight from up close. I distinctly remember a friend from my hometown not fretting over missing a flight because she would be busy gawking at the airplanes taking off when stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Western Express Highway.
The airplane also symbolised ambition, a feeling often associated with Mumbai. The films of today paint the City of Dreams as the go-to place for every kind of ambition, from business (financial capital of India) to Bollywood. Even before the mills became malls, and Bombay transformed into Mumbai, the city has been a rite of passage for any Indian hoping to "make it big".
When I moved to Mumbai, I discovered that all the fuss about its 'work culture' was not misplaced. When a friend visiting the city asked, it was difficult to explain to him why everyone was constantly on the run, why everyone was getting late for work, why everyone had to catch that 9.10 local train, and why it was imperative engage the first kaali peeli in sight.
Now that I have been confined to my hometown, away from all the running around, I realise I do not miss the Mumbai I was surviving in for all these years. When a friend reminisces about the city, I shake my head vigorously and say I do not want to go back to that Mumbai again. Calmness has been reinstated as a virtue in my value system because of the months-long lockdown, and given Mumbai's cliched-yet-true resilience in "bouncing back", one does not need foresight to conclude that the city will revert to its frenetic self again.
But the photos of the empty roads, deserted footpaths, cleaner sea, flyovers devoid of cars, and railway tracks without local trains (often called the 'lifelines of Mumbai') captured during the lockdown does make me want to visit that Mumbai again. The Mumbai I never imagined I would witness, and the city that I know from my mother's stories, who grew up here, and from Basu Chatterjee's cinema.
Chatterjee was born in my home state of Rajasthan, in Ajmer. He lived in Mumbai for over 20 years before he directed his first film Sara Akash, set in Agra. His second film, Piya Ka Ghar, was produced by another Rajasthani — Tarachand Barjatya, who founded Rajshri Films. Both men tapped into their long-ago past to tell a story through the lens of a migrant, who moves to Bombay for a better life but realises just how tough living in India's "Maximum City" is.
This dilemma was also touched upon in Chatterjee's follow-up film, Rajnigandha (1974). The prism through which it was explored in Piya Ka Ghar was marriage but in Rajnigandha, it took the form of a geographical love triangle. Deepa (Vidya Sinha), a postgraduate preparing for PhD in Delhi, is dating Sanjay (Amol Palekar), a graduate with a modest salary. She visits Mumbai for a job interview, and starts hanging around with an acquaintance Naveen (Dinesh Thakur).
In this film, when Deepa goes out for sightseeing with Naveen, her eyes are not fixated on the wide expanse of sea or the view of Marine Drive from Hanging Garden. Rather, she persistently looks at Naveen from the corner of her eye. She is more interested in the company than the new city. There is a telling shot of her sari pallu being blown towards his hand because of the wind, when they are seated in a kaali peeli.
The conflict here is choosing her man: a humble Delhi man with limited means or a Mumbai fellow, deeply influenced by the hippie culture, a short-lived symbol of ambition and modernity (Naveen literally means 'new' in Hindi). Deepa chooses to return to Sanjay in Delhi, though only when she learns his salary has been increased.
After addressing the conflict between ambition and humility among migrants in Mumbai, Chatterjee turned his focus on the locals. In the 1976 film Chhoti Si Baat, produced by BR Chopra, Prabha (Sinha) and Arun's (Palekar) romance blossoms in BEST buses. As they take a bus from the same stop (which has a banner of Chopra's 1975 film Zameer), Prabha and Arun engage in occasional small talk, when they are not blushing and stealing glances at each other. But when Arun fails to catch the bus that Prabha boards, the voiceover blames 'Bombay discipline' for separating the two: "Had it been Delhi or Calcutta, Arun would've jumped the line to get into the bus."
The impediment in his material progress becomes a hurdle in their romance as well. When Prabha's friend Nagesh (Asrani) offers her a ride to the office on his yellow scooter, she gives the bus a miss. Before he misses the bus figuratively, Arun buys a second-hand scooter — only to be fleeced in the process. He then seeks help from retired Colonel Singh (Ashok Kumar) to groom him so he can pose as a modern man and woo Prabha.
Amol's insecurity as a man who lags behind in a rapidly developing city like Bombay reeks of the same desperation as Nancy (Tina Munim) in Baton Baton Mein (1979). A Bandra-based working woman, Nancy is persistently coaxed by her mother and an aunt to get married. Public transport becomes a key role in the romance here as well, as she finds Tony (Palekar) in the 9:10 ki local. While it is unimaginable to imagine a romance brewing in a local train today, Nancy and Tony hit it off very well, and the rest is history. ("Kahiye suniye kehte sunte baton baton mei pyar ho jayega").
Both of them seek respite from their interfering families when they meet at the sea face. I can relate to the sea serving as a refuge from the commotion of daily life, whether it is one's noisy family, a long day at work, ceaseless traffic jams or the year-round sultry Mumbai weather. It feels liberating to turn your back towards the city and stare into the emptiness of the sea.
What was also fascinating in Chhoti Si Baat and Baton Baton Mein were the offices brimming with hushed water cooler talk, and how the idea of going out had more to do with the company than the experience. Metro Cinema was a constant motif in Chaterjee's movies. The excitement in Arun's voice, for instance, is palpable when he asks Prabha, "Movie at Metro, and then tea at Gaylord?"
The 'tea date' brings me to their eating-out experiences. When Arun and Prabha silently sip on tea at an open restaurant in front of Gateway of India, the splendid historical structure looms in the backdrop as a symbol of stillness. It feels as if time has frozen, and Prabha-Arun are just drifting like the ferries on the shores of the Arabian Sea.
And when Chatterjee's people are not catching lunch together at the now-shuttered Samovar restaurant in Jehangir Art Gallery or a Chinese meal at Metro, they just visit a fancy, quaint restaurant and share a bottle or two of cola. Yes, they could have just bought the cola from a booth shop outside, but the idea always is to sip it slowly and spend quality time with each other.
These may be lessons on scrimping and saving for me but for Chatterjee and his characters, they were a way of life. They might have been more ambitious than their ancestors, but were always mindful of the extent to which they could indulge in luxuries. Chatterjee's Bombay thus was a city that thrived on sustainability, rather than unadulterated consumption. The sparkling music and derivative lyrics underline his focus. Take for instance, the evergreen song 'Thoda Hai Thode Ki Zaroorat Hai' from Khatta Meetha (1978).
That innocence and the quality of looking out for each other can still be found in some random acts of generosity, like a passer-by guiding you to your destination while walking with you against the direction they're headed towards, or an otherwise unruly pack of men making space for a woman in the general compartment of the local train ('ladies' ko aane do), or a vada-pav vendor lathering extra chutney on your snack.
These small mercies allow you to tide through the tough days in the city. Once you come to terms with the fact that you are in Mumbai for goals bigger than material ambition, the city has a lot to offer. Reeling back to Piya Ka Ghar, once the family decides to give some space to the newly wedded couple in their chawl and lock them inside with a Harrison ka taala (the do-not-disturb sign of those days), Malti and Ram embrace each other uninhibitedly. When he pokes her to peek outside the window and gaze at the airplane, she does not budge. Because unlike the airplane, she is here to stay.
All images from YouTube.
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