Saturday, 4 June 2016

A Love Song to Celluloid Bombay: A Litany & a Fantasy

What can i say about this city that has not been said before?
Ayesha (Wake Up Sid, 2009)

Zara hutth ke, zara bach ke, ye hai Bombay meri jaan. But don’t take this too seriously: for perhaps its only when you, against all good sense, don’t go “hutth ke, bach ke”, that you can have your Bombay moment.

You can, for instance, fight dock mafias and grow up to be Vijay Verma.

You can go to sleep in a romantic community of the destitute at Bori Bunder — you are homeless and each coolie here is your secret keeper: ik ik coolie yahan ka, hai raazdaan hamara.

You can bump into a complete stranger, insisting that he is your lost fictional pal Murarilal, and end up making friends with Johnny Walker, who will recognise you right back as the equally fictional Jaichand.

You can give in to impulse, forget about how old you are, and finally rush off to meet that young housewife who has been sending you letters in lunch dabbas that come to you by mistake.

The city of gold and silver, ‘Sone chandi ki nagariya’ (Don, 1978). The city which never sleeps and dreams even when awake, “jo jagte hue bhi sapne dekhta hai” (Satya, 1998). The city where a destitute migrant kid with burning eyes refuses to pick up his earnings from polishing shoes when these are thrown towards him. Inevitably growing up to be Amitabh Bachchan: “Main aaj bhi phenke paise nahin uthaata” (Deewar, 1975). Where a slum kid, desperate to see the same Amitabh Bachchan can jump into a pool of shit to get across to his hero (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008). 

You never have to be told it is Mumbai. Nowhere else in the country do films get to show you this horizontal watery expanse combined with this dizzying vertical skyscraping assertion. These relentless local trains and resounding Ganapati Pujas. These bar dancers, smugglers, film stars, slum dwellers, chawl denizens… this sea face, this crowded beach, this vada pao.... 

The city’s most iconic landscape and architecture stands guard over moments that are like rites of passage in cinema. A destitute Nirupa Roy coming to the big city holding the hands of two kids at Marine Drive in Deewar; cancer-struck Rajesh Khanna letting go of a bunch of balloons and singing cheerfully about the meaning of life, at Juhu Beach in Anand (1971); Gangster Jackie Shroff taking his unaware younger brother Anil Kapoor to Gateway of India, to explain the harsh truths of life (Parinda, 1989); construction tycoon Pankaj Kapoor rising high in his highrise and gesturing disdainfully towards the sea and the shanties near it (“And the higher you rise, the lower they fall” comments a journalist) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983). 

Indeed, VT alone deserves an essay. “I’ll wait at the VT station, 5 o’ clock, every day, until you come”, Jamaal (Dev Patel) says to Latika (Freida Pinto) in Slumdog Milionaire. She is in a gangster’s captivity, he has just a moment to fix a way out for them, they have no way to contact each other, but Victoria Terminus is the answer. Their meeting culminates in ‘Jai ho!’, the Oscar-winning song shot in the station (at night, when local trains do not run). Mostly, the extravagant Gothic beauty of the terminus is a portal for those cinematically entering the city. Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee in the eponymous Bunty aur Babli arrive at VT reaching the dream city after many machinations. A Muslim Manisha Koirala runs away from her village to the big city and waits for her forbidden Hindu lover at VT, alone amid the overflow of people, in Bombay (1995). Having killed the policeman who murdered his father, a young Velu Nayakan (Kamal Haasan) arrives at teeming VT in Nayakan

Mumbai’s most definitive songs express the angst of the underclass in a big city: ‘Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan’ (My heart, it’s difficult to live here; CID); ‘Ek Akela is Shahar Mein’, where the middle class lovers cannot marry for lack of affordable housing (Gharonda, 1977); ‘Cheen-o-Arab Hamara’, which ironically celebrates ‘rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara jahan hamara’ (we are homeless, so the whole world is ours; Phir Subah Hogi, 1958); ‘Seene mein jalan’ which asks, ‘iss sheher mein har shakhs pareshan sa kyon hai’ (Why does everyone in this city seem so troubled? Gaman, 1978).

As Satya would have it, “insaano ke beech isi fark ne ek alag duniya banayi”, these disparities between man and man invented a new world: “Mumbai underworld”. “Mumbai ka king kaun? Bhiku Mhatre!” And indeed, Vijay Verma, Velu Naicker, Bhiku Mhatre, Malik, Sultan Mirza rule the screen with their razor sharp wits, ferocity, nothing-to-lose and devil-may-care. Respectively, Amitabh Bachchan (Deewar), Kamal Haasan (Nayakan, 1987), Manoj Bajpai (Satya), Ajay Devgan (Company, 2002, and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, 2010), told sagas of the real world Haji Mastans, Vardarajan Mudaliars, Dawood Ibrahims, and Chhota Rajans, with a whole line of Maya Dolas (Vivek Oberoi in Shootout at Lokhandwala, 2007) and Manya Surves (John Abraham in Shootout at Wadala, 2013) to follow. My favourite gangland moment, though, is Abbaji Pankaj Kapoor dancing at his daughter’s wedding, like an awkward reptile with fatherly feelings (Maqbool).

And then there’s ‘ordinary life’. Cartoonist Amol Palekar falling in love with pretty office goer Tina Munim (Baton Baton Mein, 1979), even as he sketches people in the rush hour ‘locals’, the trains that run up and down this narrow, lengthwise city and are its lifeline. Jaya Bhaduri getting married and arriving in her married home, a one-room house, only to share it with her husband, his parents, his two brothers, a sister-in-law, and family friends (Piya ka Ghar, 1972)! Amol Palekar and Zareena Wahab trying to have a house of their own, and how the failure dehumanises him (Gharonda, 1977). The shy clerk Naseeruddin Shah heartbreakingly in love with chawl neighbour Deepti Naval in (Katha, 1983). Tamil migrant Kamal Haasan and the child-prostitute Saranya falling in love, as pigeons take flight around them (Nayakan, 1987). Brothers Nana Patekar and Mazhar Khan nostalgically having chicken at a roadside stall in Angaar (1992).

A young and elated Akshay Khanna and Sonali Bendra taking all kinds of transportation through the water-logged and jammed monsoon streets of Bombay, to meet each other on their first date (‘Saawan barse, tarse dil’; Dahek, 1999). Shilpa Shetty and Shiney Ahuja taking a bus to Churchgate (Life in a Metro, 2007). Migrant Gujarati youngster Gurukant Desai – and we know Abhishek Bachchan is playing Dhirubhai Ambani here –  emerging from a tram and trying to get a foothold in the cloth market. Incidentally, it is Abhishek Bachchan’s Bunty who sums up the small town aspirant’s vision of Bombay: “It is the only place where a person can rise from the streets to become a billionaire. If Dheerubhai Ambani, Ratan Tata, or the Birlas had been in Lucknow or Kanpur, they would be wasting away in Ambani General Stores, Tata Flour Mill, and Birla Paan Bhandar” (Bunty aur Babli).

Then there is small time computer trader Kay Kay whiling away his days of no work in a tea shop, while Tamil tea seller Irrfan Khan sneakily tries out free perfume samples in malls (Mumbai Meri Jaan, 2008). And Irrfan again, having to fight his way into a ladies compartment (“Yes, I know it’s a ladies compartment” quoth he, “Meri lady kho gayi hai”!) to get Konkona Sen Sharma in Life in a Metro. Lame pimp Nawazuddin Siddiqui, desperately trying to play a ‘game’, and escape with someone else’s blackmail money to make a new life with the prostitute he loves (Talaash). Pirated books dealer Tusshar Kapoor giving his much-loved new wife, Radhika Apte, an upbeat tour of the traffic lights where his books are sold by urchins (Shor in the City, 2011).     

And who can forget the eternally-defeated, ever-hopeful Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (Ravi Baswani) of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron repeatedly catching the last local from Marine Lines station, finally forced to travel ticketless because their money was extorted by a policeman.

For film watchers all over India, its possibly the seaside that really ‘creates’ Bombay like little else does. Way back in 1956, Dev Anand paid street singers to play a love song as he followed Shakila down the Worli seaface (‘Le ke pehla pehla pyaar’, CID). In 1964, a lovelorn Kishore Kumar haunted the sea by the Gateway singing ‘Mere mehboob kayamat hogi’ (Mr X in Bombay). Struggling singer Amitabh Bacchan and Moushumi Chatterjee got ecstatically drenched by the seaside (‘Rimjhim gire saawan’, Manzil, 1979). Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai) and best friend Satya (JD Chakravarthy) made life changing decisions next to the sea in Satya. Aamir Khan has had many ‘on the rocks’ moments by the sea: coming to terms with his love (Urmila’s) success and his irrelevance to her life in Rangeela and lamenting his dead child and haunted by his confusing feelings for a call girl in Talaash (2012). Both Sid and Ayesha process their coming-of-age moments, and finally find each other, near the sea (Wake Up Sid).

Aasman pe hai khuda, our zameen pe hum, and somewhere in between I nurture a fantasy Bombay of my own. This Bombay has a chawl. In the chawl Deepti Naval is threading a sky blue ribbon through her two tight plaits. On the road behind her, Amol Palekar is walking with “inn umr se lambi sadkon ko, manzil pe pahunchte dekha nahin” playing in his head. He needs to be liberated from this pain. Which is why Neeraj Kabi had decided to stop eating and perform Santhara. But now, with profound peace within him, he accepts to himself and the world, “I am not ready”.  The moment he says this, it starts raining. Waheeda, raw and untutored, has to take shelter under a tree and Guru Dutt offers his coat to her. 

The sea sprawls near the chawl and Tabu is standing there, laughing, forcing her reluctant lover Irrfan to call her “meri jaan”, literally at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the last local goes past and Smita Patil alights. The tall young man walking her home asks her, aren’t you afraid to live alone? “When i am alone, there is just me”, she says, “and why would i be afraid of myself?” Hearing this gives even more energy to failed actor Nawazuddin, who now entertains his sick daughter in sheer exhilaration, flailing his arms in pantomime, skipping like some divine emu that has been given flight, as the screen retreats and swells with my love for it.