Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
SIGNS : January 14, 2001
The City as Kurukshetra
The author is a film-critic and lives in Mumbai.
Film is pre-eminently the product of the city, in terms of sensibility, aesthetics and economics, besides the basic fact of technology. Not just here in India, or Mumbai in particular, but all over the world where films are made. But by a strange paradox, nostalgia for an idealised rural life and its uncomplicated certitudes has pervaded the imagination of film-makers. This is perhaps an unconscious impulse to clutch at comforting, comfortable old values when confronted with the double whammy of modernity, its challenge and threat exemplified by our love-hate relationship with the city as its abiding metaphor.
Thus there is continuity and hiatus, a fragile thread of ambiguity that connects landmark films celebrating different values. There are obvious examples like the connection between "Mother India" and "Deewar" with strands from "Ganga Jamuna" entwined into the narrative. Not so obvious is the echo-cum-homage paid to the urban, socialist romances of the early Raj Kapoor and cynical departures from the formula by later emulators like Aziz Mirza. The intervening years of corrosive economic reality have taken their toll even on the fantasisers and entertainers, who are normally cushioned from all reality except the cold numbers of box-office figures.
Hollywood has been the aspirational lodestar and inspiration for Bombay cinema. The Mecca of entertainment was not immune to these collective mood swings even as the well-oiled studio system churned out genre products for specific markets. If the Western, the true American genre, was the embodiment of the American Dream and its frontier spirit, film noir was the American Nightmare that came to haunt its criminalised cities. The Western was the Great Yes and film noir, its inversion: the despairing No.
Status-quoist Hindi cinema does not yield such startling contrasts, nor can it dare indulge in radical departures. The much celebrated all-inclusive embrace of eclectic India tries to blur such departures from a state of mythic innocence, from the Karmic inevitability and Dharmic norms of a hierarchical, rural patriarchy. That is why "Deewar's" Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) has this haunting memory of a home that is elsewhere, from which he has been driven out along with his mother and younger brother. From a shoeshine boy who will not pick up a coin thrown to him to the dockyard coolie who becomes a mafioso, Vijay has trudged the hard roads and slept on pavements.
He too, is a rebel against an unjust system like "Mother India's" Birju but does not have Birju's innate idealism. The Vijay of "Deewar" is an icon of Hindi cinema - the prototype who spawned the rebellious underdog down the decades - because he articulates the inarticulate despair of the deracinated migrant. This was also the time when the Emergency cast its crippling shadow and the Nehruvian dream of a resurgent India had soured. "Mother India," a celebration of the Nehruvian vision, ends with the matriarch opening a new irrigation canal. The mother, the upholder of Dharma - collective and individual - still continues to be the moral centre in "Deewar" and she continues to be the link to the remembered simple home that does not seduce you with the get-rich-quick temptations of the city.
Mainstream cinema draws from the narrative styles and moral wisdom of both epic and folk tales, adapting them to changing times with načve ingenuity and unexpected flashes of sophistication. This is evident when films deal with the city not only as the canvas for the unfolding action, but as an entity whose spirit seeps into the characters, shaping not only their dreams and destinies but percolating into their very psyche. Could there be a more archetypal city than Mumbai for Hindi films to spin out new mythologies for a more troubled age?
A very popular 1950s song cautioned: Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, zara bachke, zara hatke yeh hai Bombay meri jan. This song, hummed pleasurably even to this day, immortalised the city in the filmgoer's mind. For all time. The song yoked together the toughness of this city and yet, that word dil hovers tantalisingly on the edges of our mind. Bombay or Mumbai has a heart after all, it seems!
Unlike a Woody Allen celebrating the acerbic, exhilarating, supremely self-centred, neurosis-inducing hellish heaven called Manhattan, Mumbai which likes to call itself India's Manhattan has not spawned such an equally famous celebrant. Nor have there been Bombay equivalents of the two Calcutta trilogies, Satyajit Ray's ironic inquests and Mrinal Sen's revolutionary pamphlets. But this is the city which gave the world "Salaam Bombay," for it to salute the undying spirit of a metropolis which glories in its infinitely multipliable complementary contradictions: its grime and glitz, insularity and cosmopolitanism, arrogance and vulnerability, its indifference and unexpected caring. Bombay is a city which allows you to withdraw into your own little shell, clawed out of the concrete jungle even as the press of humanity crushes and catches you in its frenetic pace. It is the gateway to India and an escape from its intolerable paradoxes.
Bombay's films have not caught all these contradictions in all their maddening variety. Instead, there is a taken-for-granted familiarity with the city's landscape and its landmarks. The earliest studio-bound films never ventured into the unbelievably empty roads then. It is Navketan's "Taxi Driver" which first wheeled the cumbersome cameras out into the city's stunning landscape, and attempted to make a noir thriller centred round a cocky, self-assured and yet strangely vulnerable hero, who incidentally, is addressed as Hero throughout the film. Anyone who has had the good fortune(?) to sample a sub-species listed as cabicillum, genus Bombay, looks in vain for someone so heartbreakingly handsome as Dev Anand, and who, for a bonus, can croon Jaye to jaye kahan to touch your soul with feather-soft pathos.
It is hard to follow such a debonair act. There were no other notable cab-driver heroes in mainstream cinema. It is the angst, the anomie and isolation of the migrant which surfaces in the gritty re-telling of the cabby hero. Bombay is the city of the immigrant, who has left a piece of his heart in some distant corner of India - the South Indian's native place and the UP bhaiyya's apna gaon to which he knows he cannot return except for a brief reprieve. Muzaffar Ali's "Gaman" brought out this pathos with muted grace.
A couple of decades on, in the 1990s, this same hero played by the gravel-faced Om Puri now weaves his dreams of success in the sprawling squalor of Dharavi, dreaming of Madhuri Dixit for a sympathetic secretary before whom he struts and swaggers while the wife, a stoic Shabana Azmi, is hardened by the daily grind of earning a living. In all three films, the dream is centred round the escapism of cinema.
Even at the dawn of Nehruvian India, Bombay was seen as the city of illusions where innocence is corrupted, as the hero chases the chimera of instant success. "Shree 420" articulated the conflict for all time even as it romanticised the warmth and camaraderie of Bombay's vital street life, where the generous poor share their dreams and what little they possess. It continued to be part of the Raj Kapoor oeuvre and filtered down first into television, as the great Left Soap Opera, "Nukkad". The Mirza brothers parted ways in their tales of Bombay.
Saeed Mirza continued his probing into the origins of urban angst in his protest quartet, each film taking up a specific theme set in a specific ethnic group. The most searing of all is "Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro," where the ghettos of the Muslim underclass breed angry rebels who may tip over the edge into crime. They are totally alienated by the affluent, glittering, sea-fronting houses though geographically, the distance is just a bus ride away. But the alienation yawns like an unbridgeable chasm.
Aziz Mirza remade the Raj Kapoor original as "Raju Ban gaya Gentleman," with Nana Patekar essaying the acid-tongued chorus commenting on Raju's flirtation with the bitch-goddess success. "Yes Boss" sacrificed some of the sincerity for the mandatory European locations for the song-and-dance routines. A precursor of the globalising 1990s. And yet, some telling scenes and locations which exhale the familiar stale air of our city confer a rare grainy realism on films like "Ankush" and some rarer few Mahesh Bhatt-signed sketches. Nana Patekar's first Hindi film captured all the anger and frustration of jobless youth who find a brief intoxicating moment of power as they play macho games during the annual Ganapati immersion. The sequence remains etched in the mind for ever.
So does the sweaty smell of fear and the claustrophobic anxiety of unexpected violence that infect brooding passages from "Saraansh," "Naam," "Sadak" - films in which Mahesh Bhatt staked out his claim over deserted subways and lonely Ballard Estate with flashes of chilling violence. The city's underbelly versus the temples of capitalism? Ideology expressed through architecture is alien to the simplistic ethos of Hindi cinema, which has the knack of reducing debate to clichās and visual metaphors into simplistic short hand.
The current scenario is an urban nightmare where farce and tragedy intersect in a Quentin Tarantinoesque tale. The suave ad-world and gun-toting gangsters get inextricably caught up in a careening misadventure, all told in the hours of a Kafkaesque night. The film? Sudhir Mishra's ode to chaos, "Is Raat ki Subah Nahin."
Reality bites hard - down to the bone - in "Satya". Ramgopal Varma had made a breakthrough film not just because his gritty take on the Tarantino formula is grafted on to the Indian reality with style, but also for his sense of breathing in and exhaling the spirit of the city as a dark emanation of the soul. Unlike other protagonists who pour into the city with the memory of home, Satya is the quintessential loner who has banished all memory. Varma has been accused of an overdose of empathy for the gangsters, who are portrayed as ordinary men who have families and whose friendships run as deep as their fatal enmities. The whole gang - led naturally by the charismatic Bhiku Mhatre - are people you like and identify with, while the cops are chillingly impersonal executioners. The dark alleys and seedy chawls, the garish bars and smelly buffalo sheds, all reveal a side of the city that has never been shown in our cinema with such a graphic sense of doom and yet, vibrant with life and opportunity. Criminals and their political patrons have taken over the city, not as mythologised, larger-than-life villains, but as the ordinary men next door.
"Vastav" is not just a semantic variation of the truth of "Satya." Mahesh Manjrekar's souped-up version capitalises on its strong Maharashtrian ethos, reworking "Deewar", "Nayakan" and Brian de Palma's "Scarface" into its narrative. The fall-out from the textile mill-workers strike over the 1980s and the subsequent rise in crime in Bombay is simplified in three easy lessons for an undemanding audience. The corruption of a working-class wada pav vendor into a drug dealer who becomes an addict himself is orchestrated to the incantatory recitation of Sanskrit shlokas in the background. This precedes the un-apocalyptic carnage, and the story of Abhimanyu caught in a chakravyuha is updated to accommodate our criminalised society - but without the resonance of epic poetry or the troubling ambiguities of an earlier "Ardh Satya" or the recent "Satya."
International recognition has however bestowed the final accolade on Mira Nair, who made "Salaam Bombay" a slogan, a catch phrase, and an enduring metaphor not only for the sheer spirit and instinct for survival that animates its street children but for the city itself. There is tragedy, but there is also the triumph of the dogged, never-say-die spirit of a city which seems to swallow you up into its hungry belly. And still, if you have the will and grit, you survive. With dreams intact, if you are lucky.
There is a moon above the skyscaper,
The hands of the clock come closer;
The clock times the absent sun.
The clocktower is a Cyclops.
H. Masud Taj
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