In the recent Amazon series Jubilee, Jay (Sidhant Gupta), an aspiring director, pitches a film to ascendant movie star Madan Kumar (Aparshakti Khurana). “A man comes to the big city looking for work, falls in love, drives a taxi,” Jay narrates. Betraying the impatience of movie stars obsessed with their own image, Madan tells him to ditch the full narration. “What is my first shot?” he demands instead. So Jay changes tack. He describes a gripping opening scene with the hero escaping in a car. “And then the film’s title...”, he announces in an animated voice, “Taxi Driver”.
Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and written by Atul Sabharwal, Jubilee is full of nods, hat-tips and affectionate salutes to the classics of Indian cinema. The title of Jay’s film, for instance, is a direct tribute to a 1954 film starring Dev Anand (the series unfolds in roughly the same period). Later, when Madan refuses to star in the project owing to ego clashes with the financer, Jay decides to go solo, a likely homage to the homegrown ethos of Navketan Films, run by brothers Dev, Chetan and Vijay Anand.
Yet the Taxi Driver reference is notable for another reason: it celebrates a long strain, now fast diminishing, of cabbie movies in Hindi cinema.
The sub-genre found ignition in the post-Independence era with Chetan Anand’s black-and-white romance, Taxi Driver. In the film, Mangal (Dev Anand), a raffish, carefree taxi driver, spins around Mumbai helping strangers in need. Everybody calls him a ‘hero’, but he is really a working-class hero, an idolised representative of the city’s huge blue-collar workforce. This points to a contradiction already embedded in the popular imagination: motorcars, when privately owned, were symbols of status and wealth, yet not quite so when engaged as taxis. It perhaps explains Mangal’s indignation when the film’s heroine (Kalpana Kartik) takes him for a rich man, since he owns a car. “Motor amiro ki naukar hoti hai, taxi garibo ki annadata,” he says. (Motorcars are slaves of the rich, taxis benefactors of the poor).
In Taxi Driver, Mangal spends much of his time giving the slip to local goons. An opposite fate awaited Guru Dutt in Aar Paar, also released in 1954. In this comic noir, Dutt’s character, Kalu, is already in jail when the film begins. He has been arrested for rash driving; the taxi’s owner, a Parsi man, won’t reinstate him when he gets out. To make ends meet, Kalu falls in with some criminals, becoming their getaway driver for a bank heist. He is part of a tense rehearsal followed by the actual execution of the crime. In both scenes, Dutt’s dryness is like a funny 1950s counterpoint to stiff, nervy Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011).
After Anand and Dutt, it was a very different actor’s turn to get behind the wheel. Comic legend Mehmood is well remembered for his tonga-and-rickshaw-pulling scenes in films such as Chhoti Bahen and Kunwara Baap. Yet, in 1968, he played a taxi driver named Bajrang in Sadhu Aur Shaitaan. The film, a remake of Sadhu Mirandal (Tamil), coasts on Mehmood’s trademark clowning, yet there are moments of pathos and insight like when Bajrang reveals he is well-educated but could not find a job in a brutal economy. It is also a film that offers us a glimpse into taxi unions: Bajrang and his friends organise a charity play for the PM’s fund, and the final sequence is a fleet of black-and-yellow taxis racing to Bajrang’s rescue.
Speeding into the 70s
Taxi films held sway over the decades. In 1973, Dev Anand’s nephew, Vishal Anand, starred in his own Taxi Driver (co-incidentally, both this and Hanste Zakhm from the same year feature an honest cab driver hailing from a rich family). And in 1976, it was Dev Anand in the driver’s seat again in the remake of the original Taxi Driver titled Jaaneman. It was a weird affair: Anand, then in his 50s, was an awkward match for twins played by Hema Malini, then 28. The primary pleasure of the films from this era was the appearance of the Fiat Premier, the defining model of the Mumbai kaali-peeli.
1976 was also the year Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver released. Paul Schrader’s screenplay — about a Vietnam war veteran cruising the streets of the New York City — sent shockwaves around the world, permanently rewriting the DNA of the broody and impressionistic cab film. A year later, in Taxi-Taxie, Amol Palekar played his own version of ‘God’s lonely man’. Like Travis Bickle, Dev (Palekar) lives in a crummy one-room apartment. While the big, bulging metropolis signifies hell for Travis, Dev finds comfort in the company of strangers. He never gets into any violence, yet his ending, in a roundabout way, is comparable to Bickle’s: reunited with an ex-flame in his taxi.
For long, taxi drivers in Hindi films had been migrant Hindus. Then, in 1978, a reluctant Muslim made an appearance. In Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman, Ghulam (Farooq Sheikh) migrates from his village in Uttar Pradesh to find work in Mumbai. Through an old friend, he is inducted into the city’s taxi trade. Unlike the fast-moving narratives of other taxi films, Gaman sets its own rhythm, reflected in the soft, temperate movements of its leading man. In one scene, Ghulam wearily sits in his cab as a party unfolds in a high-class mansion. The scene has an echo of Ranveer Singh (playing another Muslim driver) waiting in his car in Gully Boy (2019).
Of men and machine
Taxicabs in films are more than just vehicles of conveyance; often, their drivers share a deep connection with them. The protagonist of Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958, Bengali) is a gauche, irritable recluse played by Kali Banerjee. His only bond is with his car, nicknamed ‘Jagaddal’, whom he grooms, feeds cooling water, and occasionally talks to. In fact, at times, ‘Jagaddal’ exudes a life of its own. This anthropomorphism of a motorised vehicle was taken to the extreme in a dream sequence in the Hindi film Khud-Daar (1982), where Amitabh Bachchan glided over the Mumbai cityscape on a flying taxi. It’s a lovely ode to the wonder and uplift of travel — the taxi as magic carpet.
Khud-Daar and Taxi Driver (1954) are connected by scenes where the hero rescues a woman in distress. This trend persisted into the 90s. In Sadak, a remake of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Sanjay Dutt liberates Pooja Bhatt from the clutches of a sadistic pimp. And in Raja Hindustani, Aamir Khan caps his shielding of Karisma Kapoor by lecturing her about her dress. The cliché of the taxi driver as a champion of women’s safety was undone by Ashutosh Rana in Dushman (1998), where he played a violent rapist.
The new millennium introduced us to the NRI cabbie: Emraan Hashmi in The Killer, Rajpal Yadav in Bhagam Bhag. The best iteration, nevertheless, was a local specimen. In Taxi No. 9211, Nana Patekar played Raghu — a blunt, insufferable, speeding ticket of a man. A remake of Changing Lanes, Milan Luthria’s comedy held up a mirror to the economic contrasts of Mumbai: while John Abraham’s brat is awaiting his inheritance, Raghu has changed multiple jobs and is finally plying his taxi. Patekar, who had a minor role in Gaman, makes no bones about his character’s frustrations in life. You are more likely to run into a Raghu than a Mangal or Dev on the streets of Mumbai.
There hasn’t been a great taxi film in recent years. Khaali Peeli, a comic thriller released in 2020, was difficult to buy, hamstrung by the incongruous sight of star kids, Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday, zipping around in a taxi.
Ek Villain Returns (2022) had John Abraham approximating an Uber driver — another absurdity. Instead, the authentic Mumbai taxi-wallah now exists in short films. There is a wealth of them on YouTube, from light romances to cautionary tales to gritty social commentaries.
In Jubilee, Jay’s Taxi Driver is a success (just as Dev Anand’s eponymous movie was in its time). We see a young couple, at an open-air screening of the film, stealing a hug in the dark. It’s like they are pretending to be in the backseat of a taxi, gently romancing each other, concealed yet mobile, away from all prejudice and spite. They are in the safe hands of the heroic taxi driver.