In the hours immediately following the Bombay train blasts of 11 July, we saw much of the city’s generous and resilient spirit. Ordinary people briskly took the injured to hospitals, donated blood, handed out biscuits and water bottles. We also saw commuters getting into the trains again, coming to work, attending school and returning to normal life. We cheered: Salaam, Bombay.
And yes, the city deserves our salaams. It has always been a slightly unreal city – heroic, with a great heart. The city of dreams and dreamers, the city of Bollywood. And yes, India’s commercial film industry has helped to create the myth of Bombay.
In one familiar kind of film, the young hero arrives in the city, struggles for a while and then achieves success. A variation on this has the young hero meeting a girl, romancing her, struggling for a bit and then winning her over. In the second kind, the gritty ‘realistic’ crime film, the young antihero arrives in the city, struggles for a bit and then slips into – well, not quite ‘failure’, but a life of crime. Indeed, in such films, this is just another kind of success.
In short, one kind of Bollywood film shows us the Bombay that is a firmament, studded with stars and starlets. The other kind, meanwhile, takes us into a version of the underworld. As for the city’s 24/7 news channels, they are generally busy on another battlefield – warring for soundbites and ratings whenever the city is in a crisis, unwilling to give the time and space needed for a deeper analysis of Bombay’s problems.
At a time like this, in order to look for the ‘real’ Bombay, one turns instead to documentaries. Take, for example, Anand Patwardhan’s two-decade-old documentary classic Hamara Shahar, the story of the city’s four million slum-dwellers (that number has now increased to over six million). It is about their daily struggle for survival, not only for water, sanitation and livelihoods, but also for their space in a city that is constantly displacing them, pushing them further to the fringes.
This writer thinks of the wet and grey evening of this past 11 July, when young men from the same slums pulled bedsheets from their shanties to carry the wounded and the dead.
This writer also thinks of Where’s Sandra?, Paromita Vohra’s search for Sandra, the goodtime girl of Bombay films – not the bashful heroine, but the girl in the dress. On a local train in Bombay, Vohra finds a happy group of women, all secretaries, some knitting, some clapping their hands, singing: “Darling open the door / darling open the door / Why are you angry so?” Surrounded by the ads of the women’s compartment – the earlobe-stitching, the work-from-home – and the sound of the train, they sing the chorus: “I will take you to Bandra and show you my Sandra…”
And the women get off the train, leaving the handgrips swinging from the ceiling of the emptying compartment. As the narrator reflects, there is a little bit of Sandra in all of us – the part that runs to catch the train to work, makes ‘train friends’, claps hands and sings.
Think of Arun Khopkar’s film about Narayan Surve – his mill, his streets, his poetry and his city. And also of Paromita Vohra’s Cosmopolis, which tells two tales about Bombay. The first, “The Forgotten City”, is about the hush that fell over Girangaon, Bombay’s mill district, when the mills fell silent. “The name of this poem is Mumbai,” says the poet, for whom the city itself is a tragic poem: “Slapping a shawl on his shoulder / My father came down the hills / He stood at your doorstep / Gave you his labour…”
The camera rushes along the train tracks, but the mills fall silent. We are left instead with images of frenzied partying at what is now called High Street Phoenix.
Discrepancies of food and toilet
The second story, “Defeat of a Minor Goddess”, is about the defeat of Annapurna, the goddess of plenty, by her wealthy sister Lakshmi. Annapurna is charmed by her first meal of Bomdil curry and rice in this city by the sea.
But then the façade of easy camaraderie, the good-neighbourliness, the ‘I love Bombay’ myth begins to crack. Food habits become an issue. “The smells are very strong and the beliefs are very strong,” says one woman, sharply defending the vegetarian discrimination that stretches from Nepean Sea Road to Chowpatty. “Wealth is clout.” Standing on the balcony of her vegetarian ghetto, she smiles thinly, conclusively. Even for a vegetarian, there is something chilling in her fundamentalism, this determination to sanitise the area of “people like that”.
And suddenly, we are in the midst of a political meeting. Katenge bhai katenge, Machchi jaise katenge is the slogan being chanted: “We’ll cut them up like fish.” The anger is directed against the immigrants from UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, who come to Bombay to work. One part of the city, turning upon the outsiders. Of course.
Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, a film about toilets in the city, notes that, “The city of the future appears around us, in pieces, like a dream.” But who is dreaming this dream, wonders the film, moving from the glass-and-steel facades of Bandra-Kurla, to the refuse lying on the beach, to the men queuing up at the public toilet, including the women’s section. “So many men on the beach,” explains the attendant.
In a slum, a young girl takes the film team to their public toilet. There is just one light bulb; the women carry candles and matches, just in case. Elsewhere, a Bombay municipal schoolteacher explains that, while girls in the second and third standards still use the toilets, from the fourth standard onwards they try to “control themselves”, often going for seven hours with little or no water.
At a vocational training centre where they are taught to set hair and pluck eyebrows, the girls say that they avoid public toilets. We go by a system, says one trainee – the system of self-control. Would free toilets make women free, the film wistfully wonders.
Ocean of stories
And finally, Madhushree Datta’s film Seven Islands and a Metro, her new documentary about Bombay, uses eminent authors Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai as interlocutors to take us through the city. Although Manto decided to leave for Pakistan after the Partition-era riots, he loved Bombay; apart from his film work, some of his most powerful short fiction is set here. Although Ismat did not write about the city, she lived and died here. Harish Khanna and Vibha Chibber play Manto and Ismat, taking us through the different lives of the city. Nevertheless, despite the power of their narration, this framework has a kind of self-conscious staginess about it.
But the film works because of its several other narrators, the real-life inhabitants of this city. The bulldozer driver who must demolish the houses of slum-dwellers, including his own. The window-washer who would not mind staying in his perch above the city. The chaiwalla who cycles about the city streets at night, who came to the city after a failed love affair with a girl from another caste. Here, he is making a few rupees a day; back home in the village, the girl killed herself.
“It was an ocean of stories,” Salman Rushdie wrote about Bombay in The Moor’s Last Sigh. “We were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once.”
What do documentaries like these do? They set sail on this ocean of stories to look for these narrators, and they listen. They are not perfect, but their commitment is remarkable. They set out with a camera, walk into the city’s bylanes, sometimes just filming the empty street in the middle of the night. They let the dispossessed speak, and they stand back. They deconstruct the facile myths of the city – not to explode them altogether, but to discover the tiny, fleeting narratives of courage and resistance that are far more precious. As columnist Girish Shahane wrote recently: “They don’t pay lip service to the worth of common people, but instead present complex, interesting personalities who make us feel that worth. In doing this, the documentary filmmakers take their place among the inheritors of Gandhiji’s legacy to India.”
One image from Datta’s film comes to mind, that of small, stamp-sized photographs floating in water. Although perhaps a clunky image, it is all the more evocative after the recent train blasts in Bombay. Life seems so fragile in this city by the sea, where six million people travel in the suburban trains every day, clinging on by their fingers, occasionally falling, some dying while crossing the tracks. Inside the cars, they travel tightly packed – some become friends, singing bhajans, sharing intimate family stories, even cutting vegetables. When there is a crisis, they rush to help each other. Other days, the moment they separate, they atomise into the city, as people of different classes, genders, ethnicities, eating habits, smells and stories.