Bombay has always been the metropolis of choice for Hindi cinema. As any self-respecting Indian film-goer could tell you, when watching a Hindi film, if the locale was urban, it was safe to assume that it was Bombay. Strangely, though, films set in Bombay weren’t always interested in the specificity of the city. Film scholar M. Madhava Prasad suggests that this may have been because ‘Bambai’ was always invoked in opposition to the village, as “the generic metropolitan other”. While other cities were too specific, Bombay somehow managed to be “Bombay plus The City”. But having to bear this burden of symbolic city-ness meant that it was only in the 1970s, with a film like Deewar, that Bombay came into its own on screen, with identifiable locales, language and street culture.
Since then, of course, there’s been no looking back. The fetishization of “Bambaiya” speech, specifically through films set in the underworld, has been the cinematic obsession of our times. The gritty realist gangster flick created by Ram Gopal Varma continues to thrive, while giving rise to comic riffs that play on our underworld fascination, like the Munnabhai films. Varma and his Factory have also been responsible for a series of tributes to Bombay as the city of cinematic dreams: Rangeela, Mast, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Naach. More recently, films like Life in a Metro have sought to rediscover a “middle class” Mumbai of office romance and failing marriages.
Mumbai Cutting makes this showcasing of Mumbai a self-conscious venture. Produced by Niyati Shah of White Cloud Films, the film consists of eleven shorts, with Mumbai as the common thread. Several films seek to capture something quintessentially Bombay by recourse to public hangouts: bars, cafes, clubs. Ayush Raina’s Bombay High revolves around the kind of seedy neighbourhood bar that probably doesn’t exist in any other Indian city – where small time gangsters share space with an after-office group that includes women. The only thing identifiably Bombay about Jahnu Barua’s badly-named Anjane Dost is an Irani Café that’s seems meant to serve as both locale and premise: but surely the meeting between strangers can happen in any city, anywhere in the world? Then we have Rahul Dholakia’s stylishly-shot Bombay Mumbai Same Shit, with Jimmy Shergill as a rich brat whose nocturnal wanderings weave the nightclub and the pavement together.
The two women directors, Revathi and Ruchi Narain, place women at the centre of their narratives. In Revathi’s tightly-edited Parcel, Mumbai appears as a series of insurmountable hurdles to a Bangladeshi woman en route to the Middle East – Sonali Kulkarni in a stellar performance. Narain’s quirky, part-animated Jo Palti Nahi Woh Rickshaw Kya shows an NRI woman’s relationship to Mumbai’s pleasures – and dangers – as mediated by auto-rickshaw rides.
Despite the genuine effort to depict different locations and social classes, several shorts end up recycling Mumbai clichés – mafia, the monsoon and local trains – without doing much with them. Sudhir Mishra’s The Ball has a child witness the gang murder of a man during an evening cricket match. Shot predictably in the thick of the city’s Muslim neighbourhoods (under the JJ flyover, going towards Bhendi Bazaar), the film never transcends its gimmicky opening. Manish Jha’s And it Rained, about two people brought together by the Mumbai monsoon is ambitiously dialogue-less, depending instead on Euphoria’s Jiya jaye na track, but ends up feeling like a music video. Kundan Shah’s Hero (also without dialogue) does better with its take on the daily battle to get on the local train: Deepak Dobriyal (of Omkara fame) plays the flagging commuter with an exaggerated Buster Keatonesque comic automaton-like quality that nearly works.
But for the large majority of Hindi film buffs, Bombay is not a lived space whose traffic lights and nakabandis we negotiate every day. It’s the mythical Bombay of mafia dons and glamorous starlets that we’ve seen on screen all our lives. So while some of these latter shorts are extremely watchable, the two that really succeed are the ones that set out, self-consciously, to play with the Bombay of popular lore and filmic memory.
The first is Anurag Kashyap’s Pramod Bhai 23, which does a brilliant job of showing you this mythical Bombay as it lives in the mind and heart of a 12-year-old juvenile delinquent. Mushtaq lives in a world defined by knowing someone who knows someone who knows Chhota Rajan, a world marked by traffic light encounters with a lady in dark glasses who’s definitely “Karan Arjun ki Ma”. The second is Rituparno Ghosh’s Urge, a gentle tongue-in-cheek look at Bombay’s place in the popular Indian imagination. The humour owes a lot to the self-referential treatment – the family seems straight out of a TV serial (clues are provided: the mother whines about having to give up her “last two serials”), and the Stardust-reading police inspector is clearly inspired to play detective by watching Bombay films. It is this ability to view the city bifocally, to see how the mythical Bombay feeds off the real one (and vice versa) that makes Mumbai Cutting a true benchmark in the long line of Mumbai films.
(An edited version of this article appeared in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 34, Dated Aug 30, 2008)