Bombay Showcase

Mapping the Maya Nagari on celluloid

Our Staff Photographer's picture shows a busy scene round Flora Fountain in Bombay City. The parking of cars in modern towns is becoming a problem though Indian cities are not yet as congested with cars as cities in the West. The problem is just beginning in Madras City where energetic measures are already being put into practice to tackle the steadily growing number of vehicles. (21/09/1963)   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mumbai, Bombay or Bambai: no matter what you call it, the city of pulsating action thrives on a millions' dreams and their lively pursuit. When viewed through the magical medium of cinema, this star-studded home ground of Hindi movies acquires the shape of a fascinating living being, a tricky conundrum characterised by seductive nonconformity and infuriating challenges.

For years, the city’s few but famous landmarks have untiringly contributed to cinema’s imagery in a manner so indelible that they’re now inseparable from the narrative itself. The acting bug bit Mumbai long ago. Unwilling to relegate itself to the background, the city has been coming alive on screen through the indomitable spirit of her diverse architecture, both colonial and contemporary. It has been laying bare the irony of her disparate lifestyles whilst offering a peek into her mysterious soul enveloped in its vast coastline.

The lure of the city

How many films would be robbed off their splendour in the absence of Gateway of India and the equally distinguished building it faces: the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Where a lungi-clad, paan-smacked Amitabh Bachchan raves about the ‘ Maya ki nagariya’ and its ability to change fortunes overnight in Don’s ‘ Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh babua’ or when Nana Patekar eloquently markets ambition to survive in the city of dreams in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman or when Govinda, Chunky Pandey and their pet monkey illustrate the city’s infinite potential to make a quick buck in the Aankhen song ‘ Bade kaam ka bandar’.

Materialism isn’t the only force that drives the fast and furious pace of Mumbai. Often, the camera slows down to soak in the sublime scenery of this very monument and the enormous water body it overlooks, documented in Arvind Swami-Manisha Koirala’s domestic bliss in Bombay, Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha’s demure dates in Chhoti Si Baat or when starry-eyed young lovers take shelter under its arch to dream up a disco-themed fantasy like Anil Kapoor and Amrita Singh in Saaheb.

Twentieth-century architecture is at its most effective in moments of high drama. Be it to mark the reunion of the estranged siblings in Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish, the lingering last shot of Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani’s throat slash gesture in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron or in providing a larger-than-life quality to the ferry face-off between brothers Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff even as their armed foes wait outside in a bid to attack in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda.

Frozen in time

A few kilometres ahead and Marine Drive reveals a stunning feature of Mumbai’s angular anatomy. Contemplation feels a lot more lyrical when staring into the depths of Arabian Sea, whether it’s the romantic pair of Ranbir Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma watching the sun go down in Wake Up Sid, Darsheel Safary skipping school to appreciate life outside a textbook in Taare Zameen Par, Mithun Chakraborty and Abhishek Bachchan enjoying a morning stroll on the neatly-build promenade in Guru or Sanjay Dutt’s golden-hearted tapori pouring his heart out to pal Arshad Warsi in Munnabhai MBBS. The Queen’s Necklace, as it is lovingly referred to, justifies its place of pride when beheld from Bachchan’s vantage view in Deewar.

Still further at Girguam Chowpatty, the attraction for Mumbai’s seaside is evident in the intimacy of a nariyal paani-sipping Amol Palekar-Zarina Wahab in Gharonda, and the roadside acrobat display of Dharmendra and Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta.

The other popular Chowpatty — Juhu — engulfing the plush suburbs of Mumbai, packs in its share of gyaan and glamour. Mostly, though, it’s a reminder of how clean our shore was in the 1970s. Be it in Sanjeev Kumar and Hema Malini’s beachside rendezvous ‘ Koi ladki mujhe kal raat’ in Seeta Aur Geeta or Anand’s ‘ Zindagi kaisi yeh paheli’, high on Rajesh Khanna’s graceful musings on life against the backdrop of a sparkling sea, spotless sand and a dozen red-yellow balloons.

Monumental moments

Head back into town and its statuesque offerings punctuate many an iconic silver-screen image. Nothing spells Mumbai better than the imposing framework of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or the erstwhile Victoria Terminus. It’s difficult to estimate just how many films open with a shot of its gothic façade and cut to the close-up of a newly migrated hopeful.

South Mumbai, or simply ‘town’ as we know it, is crammed with landmarks galore. Smile at the memory of Rajabai Clock Tower’s solid cameo as Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterji amble past the sprawling maidans of Mumbai refusing to let the rains to dampen their spirit in Manzil. Recall the raw rage of Sunny Deol walloping the life out of a ruffian amidst the congested traffic of Hutatma Chowk, still known as Flora Fountain to many, in Arjun. In complete contrast is daddy Dharmendra drawing crowds by publicly proclaiming his affections for Rekha on a crane in the Kahani Kismat Ki chartbuster ‘ Rafta rafta dekho’. Feel Farookh Shaikh’s melancholy amidst Mumbai’s legendary rush waiting for his fare in Churchgate in Gaman.

Not too far away is the location for another impressive edifice, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai. It forms the backdrop for Pyaasa’s most iconic scene when Guru Dutt arrives at the Town Hall to scoff at the hypocrisy of an event commemorating his memory. It wasn’t long before Bollywood turned the literary institution into a site for full-scale theatrics. And so Anil Kapoor and his faithful cronies court Madhuri Dixit to the beats of ‘ Ek do teen’ on its pristine white steps in Tezaab, Riteish Deshmukh and company get wasted at the exact same spot in Banjo, while Sonakshi Sinha demonstrates the power of peaceful protest as she single-handedly takes on the cops in Akira.

In Mumbai’s ever-expanding concrete jungle, there’s a tiny patch of green perched high up on Malabar Hill, namely Kamala Nehru Park and Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens, better known as Hanging Gardens. The terrace of the now-defunct Cafe Naaz in the latter offered a panoramic view of the city, and the sea in the romance of Jab Jab Phool Khile’s ‘ Na na karte pyaar’, Gharonda’s ‘ Do deewane’, Aashiqui’s ‘ Nazar ke saamne’ and the run-up to Shaan’s ‘ Jaanu meri jaan’ or Mohra’s ‘ Tip Tip Barsa’. It’s a never-ending list.

Successful or not, storytelling is all about taking characters out of their comfort zone to generate excitement or curiosity. Like when Big B channels his inner Barry Allen (aka the superhero Flash) to outrace the cops taking a shortcut route via the world’s largest laundry — Dhobi Ghat — at Mahalaxmi in Don. It’s both a metaphor and plot point in Kiran Rao’s directorial debut of the same name.

The dark, divine and charming

Our films also pulsate with the breezy ambience and throbbing rhythm of one of Mumbai’s most vibrant culture hubs — Bandra — and its hotspots like Band Stand and Castella de Aguada, a.k.a. Bandra Fort.

Memorably, Amol Palekar and Tina Munim’s easy-going, believable courtship in and about Band Stand is highlighted in Baaton Baaton Mein’ssweet celebration of its warm Christian community. It’s interesting to notice the changing scenario around Bandra Fort, pre and post the construction of the Bandra Worli Sea Link (BWSL). The BWSL is conspicuous by its absence when a brilliant Manoj Bajpayee announces himself as Mumbai ka king in Satya or Shah Rukh Khan grumbles about his unemployment to Juhi Chawla in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. But is there for all to see when Imran Khan hits the famed fort more than a decade later to appease his sulking pal Genelia D’Souza in Jaane Tu Yaa Jaane Naa.

Bollywood’s faith in divine intervention often takes it to Mumbai’s popular places of worship. Cupid strikes Amitabh Bachchan after one glimpse of Parveen Babi at Bandra’s Mount Mary Church in Amar Akbar Anthony. While in Parinda, Anil Kapoor sighs at the sight of Madhuri feeding pigeons in the courtyard of Charni Road’s Babulnath Temple.

Strategically located on an offshore inlet, the Haji Ali Dargah is part of some of Bollywood’s most intense imagery. One that immediately comes to mind is Bachchan’s dramatic, death-defying finish as he defeats the baddie and his bullets in Coolie with a little help from the power above. In Fiza, it’s Jaya Bachchan offering her prayers in the hope to be reunited with her missing son. Next, it’s Abhishek Bachchan’s turn to impress upon the viewer the splendour and serenity of the site against his more pensive moments in Bluffmaster

Incomparable as it is, Mumbai’s contradictions don’t make her an easy city to live in. Not all her landmarks are symbolic of history or seeped in pride. Some of its character stems from a darkness, its razzle-dazzle cannot conceal. It unfolds in the shabby slums of Dharavi, and the red-light district of Kamathipura in Salaam Bombay.

Urban lyricism

Mumbai-centric fare looms large in the compelling prologues of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir and Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak, in the picturesque drives of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Rajnigandha, Gaman, Talaash and Dhobi Ghat, in its telling dedications to the city (Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver) and people (Hrishi da’s Anand) of what was Bombay and in the warm, grounded togetherness that appears to exist exclusively inside Basu Chatterjee’s middle of the road cinema. The kind where Vidya Sinha and Dinesh Thakur cover most of South Bombay on foot and rekindle their old ties in Rajnigandha or Anil Dhawan’s eventful sightseeing tour for Jaya Bachchan that acquaints her to the city’s frenetic way of life in Piya Ka Ghar.

In the opening scene of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, big brother Ashok Kumar and his younger siblings Anoop and Kishore are struggling to get their old jalopy started. Right behind the troika stands a bronze equestrian statue of King Edward VII, after whom the now present art district is named Kala Ghoda. The Satyen Bose comedy released in 1958. Seven years later, the installation was pulled out of its original spot and stationed at the Byculla zoo. Names may change, scenes may too, but on celluloid, landmarks are indestructible. It’s what American comedian W C Fields once said, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to”. And Mumbai answers to “Action!”

Sukanya Verma is a freelance writer and film critic

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 5:11:51 PM |

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