24 June 2014

Bought on and Sold on Mutton Street

Bought and sold on Mutton Street
Cab drivers seemed mystified by my desire to go to Chor Bazaar
My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday:


Our columnist takes a historical detour through the antique pleasures of Pila House.

Last Monday I went to Mutton Street. I had spent a week in Mumbai, setting up 'work' meetings that were really an excuse to wander the city as a happy, giddy tourist of the Delhi variety. But one item on my Bombay agenda remained - a trip to Chor Bazaar: several streets' worth of dusty antiques. But at Mumbai Central, cab drivers seemed mystified by my desire to go to Chor Bazaar. Then, gently but firmly, one deposited me on a road lined with hardware shops, saying this was Chor Bazaar and I better find this Mutton Street myself.

I did. Having burrowed into uncarry-able and unaffordable mountains of old things, I settled not unhappily on two 1970s print advertisements. The genuinely non-sleazy shop man took me to an ATM on his scooter, past an old theatre showing a Mithun film, complete with brilliant hand-painted poster. Only on my way out did I realise what I had walked down was called Patthe Bapurao Marg. That was when it finally clicked. I'd been walking on Falkland Road.

From dates.sites, (a must-have compendium for film nerds and Mumbai fans, published by the Cinema City project), I knew that Patthe Bapurao was born a Brahmin, named Shridhar Krishnaji Kulkarni, underwent caste conversion in order to work in tamasha and married a Mahar dancer called Pawala. Among the other impressive acts to his name is a visit to Ambedkar in 1927, when, "flanked by two women dancers dressed in finery", Bapurao offered to contribute the proceedings of eight Tamasha shows to the Mahar Satyagraha Fund, a campaign for the entry of Dalits into temples. Ambedkar rejected the offer on moral grounds.

Bapurao died in poverty in 1941. In 1950, the Marathi director/actor Raja Nene made a highly successful biopic. As one of the central arteries of what was for many years Mumbai's entertainment district, Pila House, it seems only fitting that Falkland Road was renamed Patthe Bapurao Marg. Here's the entry in dates.sites: "Pila House-hybridisation of Play House-a cluster of theatres staging Parsi theatre plays and Tamasha performances - bordered on the east by red light area of Kamathipura (named after the Telugu-speaking community of masons), and on the west by migrant courtesans and other entertainment artists at Congress House (named after the office of the Congress Party nearby-is at its peak at the turn of the century."

While the theatres - the 'play houses' set up in the 1800s - gave the area its name, Falkland Road's association with an even older form of entertainment dates back to the 1700s. That was when brothels first emerged in the area, catering to soldiers.

In an essay called 'F**kland Road' (in another Project Cinema City volume), Bishakha Datta makes the connection explicit. She cites the background note of a (proposed) Union of Entertainment Workers of India that refers to the Arthashastra placing courtesans and sex workers alongside actors, dancers, musicians and bards. The note continues: "It is common knowledge that... sex...work is a form of intimate entertaining communication, involving some very subtle and complex combinations of gesture, language, play and relaxation."

This is, of course, true - though the argument might find few takers in the hypocritical modern world, where even bar dancers are refused their rights as workers.

But even if the cinema-sex equivalence is unlikely to fly with most people, Pila House has plied generations of (mostly) male, (mostly) migrant clients with both. Built before cinema existed, the 'play houses' are some of the last theatres still projecting film prints. They have specialisations, too: Nishat shows Bhojpuri blockbusters, New Roshan devotes itself to Mithun, Silver to sex films.

There was a time when the brothels of Kamathipura not only lived next to cinema, but in Bombay's cinematic imaginary. Realistic depiction was never the point. Even Gulzar's Mausam, or Sudhir Mishra's Chameli can only be called 'good efforts'. But the girls in the cages of Falkland Road were a legendary sight - when I interviewed her a couple of years ago, Deepti Naval described, with alternate shudders of excitement and distaste, her trip in the 80s to see them. Naval ended up spending half the night in a Nepali sex worker's room, and the experience inspired a performance years later.

Naval got me thinking: has any mainstream Hindi film ever let a girl from a "good family" meet a prostitute? Well, very recently. But of course Kangana Ranaut must travel all the way to Amsterdam to hang with an Indian sex worker, and make the startling discovery that she's not an alien. Ironically, just before Queen, Ranaut played a Kamathipura sex worker called Rajjo in a bizarrely retro film also called Rajjo, where the token 'contemporary' event is the brothel torn down by an evil consortium of politicians and builders to build a mall. Small industries have indeed replaced most Kamathipura brothels, with owners cutting their losses and leaving as the buildings they rented become prized real estate.

Whether Kareena was a convincing sex worker or not, at least Reema Kagti shot Talaash in Kamathipura. Rajjo chose to spend 5 crores 'recreating' Pila House on a four-acre-plot in Borivali.

Perhaps the last two films about Kamathipura -- one acts as if the place is already gone, and the other is a ghost movie. No Rani could ever show up to meet a Rajjo. In Falkland Road, there may soon be no more sex workers to meet. Not even the ghosts of them.

Post Facto -- Vernacular Claims: Malgudi, Modi and the Vox Populi

My most recent Post Facto column, for the Sunday Guardian:

A still from Malgudi Days
algudi Days had only to re-appear on YouTube for me to immediately surrender my afternoon to its warm, nostalgic embrace. The first episode of the 1987 TV series inaugurates the war between school ruffian Mani and posh new boy Rajam. Our unheroic hero, Swami, admires them both. Rajam, son of the town's police chief, comes to school in a spotless khaki uniform complete with matching cap, exuding a hauteur that many, including Swami, can only gaze upon in wonder. Clearly Rajam is the prince of this grubby schoolboy world, and his royal mien invites strong reactions.
But what Mani objects to is not Rajam's clothes, car, high marks or light eyes – it is his language. "Saala Rajam ka bachcha. Apne aap ko Angrez samajhta hai," he says, glaring into the distance as the object of his hatred disembarks from his chauffeur-driven vehicle. Our Shankar has more marks than Rajam, says Mani, but he doesn't speak English "hang-tang karke", with "firangi nakhre". But this is a British colonial universe, and it is also quite clear that much of the weight of Swami's father's letter to the headmaster lies in its impeccable English.
From Class I to Class VIII, I studied at a girls' school in Calcutta. It wasn't even a convent, but it was unremarkable to have teachers walk in and interrupt classroom conversations with the plummily-delivered injunction, "Girls, girls. No speaking in the vernacular." And this was an old-school school, which took language learning seriously. Bengali and Hindi were compulsory and you weren't let off for being — or pretending to be — unable to speak them, as you might in some fashionable schools today. In some ways, the vernacular is possibly worse off now than in Swami's times.
Structures of power embed themselves in language. Consider the word "vernacular" itself. The dictionary starts with a neutral "the standard native language of country or locality", but moves on to "the vulgar tongue of the masses." And "native or indigenous (opposed to literary or learned)". By the time you reach the etymological origin: "from Latin vernaculus, 'domestic, native' (from verna, 'home-born slave')", you can literally see English sitting fatly on the "vernaculars", squashing them with its weight.
uch airtime and newsprint has been recently devoted to what Prime Minister Modi's speechifying in Hindi will mean for our status as a world power. I'm not sure the world is that interested. But within India, Modi's choice of Hindi makes his speeches accessible to a much wider cross-section than Gujarati on one hand and English on the other might have done. A shift in Hindi's status — away from "vernacular" — is welcome. But the danger is that a language that feels so threatened by English might want to use this moment to flex its muscles — against other vernaculars? There are those waiting in the wings to renew that age-old controversial rashtrabhasha argument. And certainly, the reports congratulating the Congress's Mallikarjun Kharge for delivering his verbal set downs to the Treasury benches "in chaste Hindi despite being from the Southern state of Karnataka", or the AIADMK's V. Maitreyan for giving his fellow Rajya Sabha members "a pleasant surprise" by speaking in Hindi, would seem to suggest a political recognition that the linguistic ground is shifting.
Also language, it seems to me, has implications far beyond realpolitik. Certain ways of thinking and feeling are embedded deep within language. Would Kharge have used those Kaurava-Pandava analogies if he were speaking in English? I doubt it. Would Modi have said "temple of democracy" in English? Anointing Parliament "lokatantra ka mandir", calling it "pavitr" (pure, connoting sacredness): these linguistic choices connect seamlessly to touching his forehead to the ground as he entered Parliament — idioms most Indians watching would recognize as religious respect.
But even more than the implicit religiosity, I was struck by the register in which the Prime Minister chose to address the question of women. "Nayi sarkaar desh ke gareebon ko samarpit hai, desh ke koti-koti yuvakon ke liye samarpit hai, aur maan-sammaan ke liye tarasti hamari maa-behenon ke liye samarpit hai," said Modi. Sure, he could have said this in English, too. But try it: "The new government is dedicated to the country's poor, to the country's crores of youth, and to our mothers and sisters, aching for respect." Youth and the poor belong to "the country". Women are "our mothers and sisters". By casting women not as citizens, but in familial roles, Modi's words also implicitly transform his "hum" — "we" — into an audience of men. Women, meanwhile, are pushed into a position of "tarasna" — tarasna in Hindi is used mostly in a romantic context to indicate yearning, a kind of aching desire, sometimes the earth's desire for rain. An appeal tailored to a male citizenry, delivered in an idiom it understands — an act of communicative genius, or a depressing reminder of that Wittgensteinian thought: the limits of our language are the limits of our world?
Swami and Friends was written in English. And yet, when Shankar Nag — a Kannada actor and director, active in Marathi theatre — made the Doordarshan television series, he did so in Hindi. Later, it was also telecast in Telugu. On YouTube, there is a version in Tamil, in which a real-life Swami would have spoken. Lakhs of people in India who remember Swami fondly today would not know him if Nag hadn't broken the English barrier. And yet, Narayan made those acute observations on the linguistic politics of English in English. Clearly, we can be sensitive to political nuance in any language — and tone-deaf in any, too. It just depends on whom we want to speak to.

21 June 2014

Picture This: Remote Controlled

My BL_Ink column today:
Filmistaan isn’t half-bad. But it reminded me of a Bangladeshi film, also featuring a remote village, and the media as the central theme
Among the funniest sequences in Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan is one where the abducted Sunny Arora persuades his Islamic fundamentalist kidnappers to perform for the camera. The kidnappers hope that the evidence of an abduction — even if that of a single Indian aam aadmi, instead of the intended many Americans — will gain them some bargaining power. But none of them know how to actually operate a video camera. After some blaming and shaming among the group members for not having acquired prior training in this clearly important skill, Sunny speaks up: if the gentlemen don’t mind, he could do the recording?
The next thing we know, the unwilling abductee has become the very willing star of his first real film appearance. But after several rounds of ‘Rolling’, ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’, Sunny decides it isn’t him who should have the speaking part; the burly, kohl-eyed Mehmood Bhai, delivering his threat to Sunny’s life, is much more likely to create the desired cinematic impact. And so Sunny directs, and Mehmood Bhai acts.
Comic tone notwithstanding, the film is threaded through by a sense of mutual incomprehension between Sunny and Mehmood Bhai that constantly threatens to turn violent. Much of that incomprehension is because neither can grasp the other’s attitude to cinema. Sunny’s total adoration is evenly matched by Mehmood’s pure hatred. It is one of the film’s failings that we hear about that adoration in so much detail, and practically nothing about the hatred.
Filmistaan’s desert village has a faux-timeless, elemental quality that’s definitely bumped up by Kakkar’s decision to portray it as nearly media-free. There’s no television, no mobile phones, no computers or internet — even the radio (on which this particular bunch of Pakistanis listen to World Cup commentary) arrives aboard a colourfully decorated truck. All there is, rather too conveniently fitted to the film’s romantic aims, is a khatara VCD/DVD player on which a pirated version of Maine Pyar Kiya is played to a captive audience seated on the sands.
Filmistaan isn’t half-bad. But it reminded me of a Bangladeshi film I watched six months ago at the International Film Festival of Kerala, also featuring a remote village, and the media as the central theme. And Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s film is way better.
Television, as Farooki’s film is called, gives us a much more sympathetic figure to represent the Islamist perspective. The village’s chairman shaheb, a doleful old man who reads a newspaper specially covered up for him, has banned the villagers from watching television, since according to his reading of the Hadith, the depiction of any human image is haram. But when a Hindu family acquires a TV set, he cannot bar them. He froths and fumes as almost everyone in the village proceeds to go stand outside the house, requesting mirrors to be placed for their viewing benefit.
Running alongside this central narrative is a whole set of other events, all of which involve media forms of one kind or another. The chairman’s son Sulaiman is in love with a young woman named Kohinoor, and since it is hard for them to meet, a cell phone — and later Skype — forms the ideal vehicle for their budding romance. When we first see Kohinoor, she is speaking to her father from a cybercafé, and later enters an adjoining photo studio to meet her lover secretly. The cell phone and computer, like the romance, are kept secret from the chairman, but all hell breaks loose after the old man discovers her amid the Muslims watching TV at the Hindu family’s house.
The television is seized and thrown in the river, but when villagers start to cross the river to watch TV, the chairman’s men come up with an inventive solution, what they call a halal TV. A live theatrical performance is staged inside a massive TV-shaped box. But then the chairman, passing by, bowls his last googly: if the role of Akbar is played by Sattar, then that’s a lie. “But that’s imagination,” says his man Jabbar. “Imagination is very bad. It can take you to terrible places!” says the chairman, putting an end to the show.
All through the film, people are framed in windows and doors, seen through the slats of windows or parted curtains, as they might be on a TV screen. There are other marvellous ways in which Farooki evokes the television as metaphor for imagination. In one great scene, a man tells a woman that he has a private television on which he can imagine her, and on that television they have set up home together. The make-what-you-will-of-this tone here is an example of Farooki’s ability to weave a tragicomic tapestry, where recognising the absurdity of something/someone does not preclude sympathy for it/them. In the moving climactic scene (let me not give it away), the chairman is forced to confront the fact that the television as a form — or the imagination as a medium — is not deterministic. It is a powerful comment on what the media can mean.
And yet this is too optimistic a conclusion. Because if cinema and television can be essential to opening up the imagination, they are also avenues of colonising it.

17 June 2014

Bollywood and Partition

An edited version of this piece was published as last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:


Filmistaan is a film based entirely on a couple of ideas. If you keep that mind, it's remarkable how long it manages to make them work.

The ideas are these: Partition divided us. Bollywood unites us.

Sunny Arora (Sharib Hashmi), aspiring Bollywood actor and actual dogsbody on a documentary film crew, is mistakenly kidnapped instead of his firang crew members. They were shooting in the Rajasthan desert, and when he is ungagged and unbound, he finds himself in a desert village very like the ones he's been in. It takes some time before he figures out that he's isn't a captive in just any village.

“Yeh Pakistan hai?” he inquires of his burly turbanned captor (Kumud Mishra) with something akin to disbelief. “Abhi tak tujhe pata nahi chala?” comes the wry reply.
Sunny's answer is the first statement of the film's underlying philosophy about the subcontinent: predictable, but hard to deny – there's not much that difference between India and Pakistan.

In villages across the border from each other, people look the same, talk the same. As we find out later, in a scene between Sunny and an ancient hakeem ji, they even miss their old neighbourhoods in the same way. Like in that 2013 advertisement where Google and grandchildren unite two old men across borders, Filmistaan tugs on our sentimental subcontinental heartstrings with Sunny hearing his grandfather's Lahore-love in the hakeem's Amritsar memories.  

And finally, goes Filmistaan's message, everyone on either side loves the same movies.
Though for men like Sunny's Islamist captor, Bollywood is kufr, when the villagers sit down of an evening to generate their own entertainment, it is a stumbling cd of Maine Pyaar Kiya that lights up their dim small screen.

The Pakistan government banned Hindi movies from releasing in Pakistan for nearly four decades, only lifting the ban in 2008. The reasons were both economic – a desire to protect the increasingly small-budget Pakistani film industry from being completely wiped out by the big bucks competition from Mumbai – and cultural: some Pakistani commentators referred to Bollywood as a Hindu cultural bomb. In the last half-decade, after the powers-that-be in Pakistan agreed that it was better to gain from the legitimate sale of Hindi films than suffer the revenue losses caused by their illegal import, it is absolutely normal for multiplexes in Pakistan to be showing three Hindi films at a time -- Cinepax Karachi is currently showing Fugly, Holiday and Heropanti. The current hope is that the revival of cinema-going in Pakistani urban centres will boost not just multiplexes but attendant businesses, and that audiences who come to watch Hindi movies will also come to watch new Pakistani movies.

But even during the ban, people in Pakistan continued to watch Hindi movies anyway, and that thriving illegal trade in Hindi movies is personified in Nitin Kakkar's film by the character of Aftaab. The son of the house in which Sunny is kept captive, Aftaab is a film pirate and itinerant salesman of the border villages, supplying Sunny Deol and Sunny Leone according to demand – but in his heart of hearts, he is as obsessed with the dream of making a film as Sunny is with acting in one. No surprise, then, that Sunny and Aftaab forge a bond of friendship – they are, after all, true citizens of that country we have in common: Filmistaan.

Nitin Kakkar's film does the best it can with this winning thought. Sharib Hashmi plays Sunny Arora with completely believable filminess, and you laugh just as loud as the village kids when he breaks out into a heaving rendition of 'Maar Daala' in response to a real injury. If Sunny seems to overdo it, well, he's playing his “chalta phirta Bombay Talkies” right: as the child actor Partho in Bhootnath Returns recently assured Amitabh Bachchan, hamari filmon mein thodi overacting chalti hai. Inaamulhaq is superb as Aftaab, especially in the film's second half, when Sunny and Aftaab manage to persuade the terrorists that the film camera which was abducted along with Sunny should be put to use in service of the Pakistani nation, by means of Aftab making a film with a star cast from the village.

But outside of this richly-drawn central relationship – Sunny, Aftab and cinema – this nicely-shot film leaves everyone and everything a bit pheeka. The 'villagers' are pared down into too few characters, and we're given little to choose between Aftaab's sweet old father, the sweet old hakeem sahib and a crowd of sweet children, of whom none ever distinguish themselves by a clever word. No women appear at all, and the one little burka-clad girl who does, has no role. Kumud Mishra is good enough an actor to make Mehmood bhai's violent reaction to the too-bouncy, too-happy Sunny seem understandable even in silence, but his extremeness only makes the villagers appear as an even more unconvincing mass of people without opinions. I'd have liked the Islamist hatred of the cinema to be given a chance to express itself, but there could really be more content to the villagers' love of it, too.

Surely the Pakistani relationship with Indian films is more complex than simple adoration? If English papers in Pakistan worry about why they need Kareena Kapoor Khan to sell lawn salwar kameezes to their own citizens (I read a piece in a weekend supplement), surely there is some conflictedness to be thought about? When the lightly-clad ladies of Dhoom 2 strut across outsize screens in posh Karachi restaurants, what are the burka-clad ladies who watch them actually thinking? But these are not questions that are asked in Filmistaan.

Which is why Filmistaan is, in one way, an accurate tribute to the dominant traditions of Bombay cinema: a good-looking film, with heroes, villains, plenty of humour and its heart in the right place: just don't expect too much complexity.

9 June 2014

By hook or by cook

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:


Unlike most male cooks, in real life and reel, Aman Sachdeva's Kuku Mathur doesn't cook only to impress.

By the time you read this column, Kuku Mathur and his small-time problems would have disappeared off the few cinema screens they were allowed onto last week. Which is kind of sad. Because Aman Sachdeva's small-time film had a big heart. And not just that: Kuku could cook. 

Producer Ekta Kapoor apparently handpicked Siddharth Gupta for Kuku's role after watching him in a play at Prithvi, and it's a perfect casting. I have no idea why she then saddled him with a film title that most people think is something obscene. It isn't. 'Jhand ho gayi' is just a Delhi expression for someone being humiliated, or stuck in a bad situation. 

Kuku Mathur is stuck in a series of bad situations. He's just finished his 12th boards, he's even managed an unexpected 90 per cent -- but he can't get into any colleges in Delhi. Not even on Sports Quota. His mother is dead, his father thinks he's an ass, and he's screwed up his chance with Mitali from Seema Didi's Tuition Centre. Meanwhile, his bumchum Ronnie Gulati (Ashish Juneja) doesn't need to go to college at all. His grandfather, who has a sari shop, has gifted Ronnie a Matching Centre - a shop selling material for sari blouses. Ronnie's life looks set, while Kuku's is coming unscrewed. To top it all, Ronnie doesn't even have time for Kuku any more.  

Aman Sachdeva's film, naturally, must solve Kuku's problems. But how it does so is not really the subject of this column. The subject of this column is Kuku -- and all Kuku really has going for him is that he can cook. While the film insists on giving us some pointless shots of the let's-swish-around-the-gleaming-veggies variety, what's great about Kuku's cooking is that it isn't an event. Unlike almost all of the few men I know who cook, Kuku's cooking is not meant to impress people. We don't hear very much about what he cooks, but from what we see, it seems like regular ghar ka khana - and not even the chicken-mutton parts of it that male home cooks seem to inevitably gravitate towards. The only big deal about Kuku's cooking is that he likes doing it. And remarkably for a teenaged boy in a regular Dilli macho world, he doesn't seem the slightest bit affected by Mrs. Pasricha or anyone else telling him that he is "the mahila of his house". 

For a country of self-declared gluttons, our cinema is starved for films about food or cooking. On the other hand, since a woman cooking is no news, what exists of the genre is stuffed with men. The Hindustani chef-as-hero first appeared in Salaam Namaste (2005), with Saif Ali Khan playing his standard party animal role, and then came of age, literally, with Amitabh Bachchan in the May-December romance Cheeni Kum (2007). The figure had another youthful outing as Imran Khan's Abhay in Break ke Baad (2010). Of course, lest their mardaangi be threatened by their interest in such terribly female things as food, all three heroes had to channel their interest into restaurants rather than homes -- and those, too, in London or Australia. A restaurant here in India was still too low on the coolness quotient. 

In fact, none of these three films I just mentioned are really about the food at all. The idea of a chef has somehow acquired a cachet: a cool sounding new-agey job that somehow fits into the film industry's imagined sense of hat-ke-ness, without showing us any of the labour that goes into it. We've come a very long way from the homegrown pleasures of Bawarchi, in which Hrishikesh Mukherjee cast the biggest superstar of the moment - Rajesh Khanna - as the mysteriously adept domestic help who turns out to have remedies to all the household's ills. Bawarchi treats food as it should be treated, as the basis of our sense of wellbeing. And while never less than supremely entertaining, the film does not achieve this by shying away from labour. Food is an opportunity for the hero to display his skill-set, sure -- but that skill-set doesn't only include chopping vegetables at eye-popping speed. The khaki-shorts-clad Raghu scours filthy floors (also at eye-popping speed), while offering up bon mots about the joy of doing the work of others. He anticipates the desires of old men and young women alike. And he turns the ultimate budget housewife trick, too, making feasts out of what seems like nothing. 

Bawarchi certainly has moments when you know that the modern Indian housewife is being gently (and not so gently) chided for refusing to be the perfect drudge she once was. Every time the family patriarch wants to praise Raghu, he says Raghu reminds him of his wife. But by making his hero a servant, Mukherjee achieves an interesting class dimension. Rather than some nasty infliction of male discipline, the film comes across as a paean to the dignity of labour. 

Another charming food-related film that slipped under most people's radars when it came out in late 2012 is Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. The film earned points in my book for its warm, crackpot humour, but also for having its young Punjabi hero Omi decide to learn to cook with no shosha, nor any obviously foregrounded gender reversals.  

Unlike the fashionable chefs in the other films I mentioned, both Omi and Kuku have a financial imperative for their restaurants. Omi must discover the lost secret of his grandfather's famous chicken to revive the family fortunes he's helped sink; Kuku because he knows nothing else. Both films recognize that love isn't enough to make the world go round. And yet they also seem informed of that corny but undeniable truth: whether you're male or female, food is a form of love.

PS: My review of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is here. And here's a column about the disappearance of servants in Hindi cinema in which I talk about Bawarchi, among others.

1 June 2014

Haunted by Homelessness


When it comes to city housing, Hindi films have often painted a bleak picture, and CityLights is as dark as they come. But now even our fantasies only promise homes for the rich.

Hansal Mehta's CityLights returns us to what used to be a persistent theme of Bombay cinema: the search for a home in the city. An authorised adaptation of last year's British-Filipino film Metro ManilaCityLights brings its protagonists - Deepak (Rajkummar Rao), his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and their daughter Mahi - from a Rajasthan village to big, bad Mumbai. (In what is one of the first signs of the hoariness of the plot, Deepak is escaping the clutches of a moneylender.) Within hours of arrival in the metropolis, they have been tricked out of their savings by the promise of a home. 

The enormity of that first betrayal is depicted in an early scene that is bleak, and powerful. Rakhi has already started cleaning the empty flat as her own when the construction workers return. There is an unspoken, brutal marshalling of class here: seeing a woman squatting on the floor with a jhadoo, the city workers assume she is a hired cleaning woman. Because of course no-one who looks like a bai can possibly be at home in this relatively comfortable space. Bai, tum ghar jao, they say to the baffled Rakhi, who continues to sweep at first. Then, as realization dawns on her (and them), she roots herself to the floor. It is a harrowing moment of cinema: the frail young woman clinging literally and metaphorically to the ground beneath her feet, as the men try their best to drag her out of the flat.

Rakhi is removed, of course, and when we next see the family, it has floated into that vast amorphous population of the urban homeless. They move from pavement to pavement for a few days, until a bar dancer helps arrange temporary shelter in a half-constructed multi-storeyed building. "When this flat is ready, it'll go for three crores!" declares the tout with that strange pride in something he will never own. Then he pockets a hundred rupees a night to let the family sleep on the bare floor, amid the exposed bricks and beams and dangerous open parapets.

The shadowy spaces of the half-constructed building are a favourite locale for Bombay cinema: most often as the site of action sequences, or a villain's den. CityLights is perhaps the first film to use the space as ironic shelter for the homeless, the city view spread out below less grandly picturesque than cruelly anonymous.

Watching CityLights reminded me of Gharonda (The Nest, 1977), about another young couple's ill-fated striving for a home. Though of course that unusual Gulzar screenplay -- directed by Bhimsain -- was about middle class office-goers: people who did not have ready cash, but could conceivably save up for it. And Gharonda's protagonists do try, working overtime at odd jobs. Sudeep (Amol Palekar) puts up film posters at night, Chhaya (Zarina Wahab) takes on a modelling assignment. But the Rs. 5000 down payment they need to book an LIG flat -- via a munshi known to Sudeep's roommate - is too large to generate so quickly. Sudeep's monthly salary is only 600. So they borrow money to pay the munshi, and in the lovely song 'Do Deewane Sheher Mein', fill the half-done building with their dreams of domestic bliss.

But a house in Bombay is no place for dreaming. It is a matter of life and death. The munshi disappears with the money; Sudeep's roommate commits suicide; Sudeep himself, broken by the turn of events, turns bitter and desperate. And as in CityLights nearly four decades later, acts of desperation only drag you further into the quagmire. Sudeep ends Gharonda as a ghost of his former self - walking away into the horizon, dwarfed by the tall buildings of Bombay.

Amol Palekar as Sudeep in Gharonda
Abandoned buildings were also the scene of a very different sort of film about homelessness and injustice, earlier this summer. All across Mumbai, according to the Amitabh-Bachchan-starrer Bhootnath Returns, are apartment buildings on whom work has stopped because they are haunted. They are haunted by the ghosts of those whose lives were lost in their construction - from engineers who fell to their deaths to displaced jhuggi dwellers. The good ghost Bhootnath (Bachchan) combines forces with a little boy from Dharavi (Partho) to get these hapless souls justice, so that they go peacefully into the next world and our ghostbusters can get paid by the building mafia.

Once upon a time, mainstream Bombay cinema sold a dream - the dream of the poor boy who would grow up to be Amitabh Bachchan, and buy the building for which his mother had once broken stones as a labourer. Sometimes that dream was a mass one, as in the marvellous scene in Coolie when Bachchan smashes the villain's chandelier as he says, to give every coolie's house a light like that one. The middle class film in the same period - even a film as sensitive as Gharonda - simply did not encompass the labouring classes in its imagination. The one time that manual labourers appear in Gharonda, they pause their work obligingly to turn into a gigglingly indulgent audience for the middle class couple's song of home ownership. (It is another matter that the song's desires remain unfulfilled).


In 2014, Bollywood has offered us two visions. On the one hand, the darkly cynical denouement of CityLights, in which we learn that there is no such thing as a free gift - or a free home. On the other, a feel-good tale in which Bachchan -- now a ghost of his former self -- gives corrupt officials lessons in citizenry. But to what end? So that the work of building houses for the rich can continue. For the rest, a home in the city is no longer even held out as fantasy.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.