Bombay has served as a muse to several filmmakers. From Guru Dutt to Shyam Benegal to Saeed Mirza, Anurag Kashyap and Zoya Akhtar, the city’s frantic energy and its visual intrigue has often found itself as a subject for cinematic exploration.
While many films have used it as a subject itself (Bombay, Salaam Bombay, Black Friday, Mumbai Meri Jaan), there are some films that have utilised the city as a subtext. A backdrop that’s not just incidental but weaved into the narrative, a character in the story the filmmaker is telling.
For instance, Student of the Year could be set anywhere without its narrative being affected much, but Wake Up Sid is a hyper-specific Mumbai story where characters and spaces interact to contextualise their own realities.
In that spirit, here are 5 movies that utilise Bombay as a narrative device, capturing its much-abused spirit in all its complexity and contradictions without falling into the trap of schmaltzy glorification.
Much before the State deluded its citizens with dreams of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai, Bombay resembled a sleepy suburb in search of a city. Going by the visuals cues provided by ’70s Hindi cinema, Bombay at the time was still coming of age, its roads not yet riddled with potholes and flyovers. The red double-decker stood imposingly tall, snaking around sparse streets yet to be clogged by the indulgences of a post-liberalisation economy.
Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat is a quiet romance that mirrors this simplicity. Amol Palekar’s Arun Pradeep is shy and reticent, a manifestation of the city itself, pining for Vidya Sinha’s Prabha Narayan, who works in the same office complex as he does. On the other hand, there’s Asrani’s Nagesh Shastri, a flamboyant and over-eager character who rides a car and who belongs to the other end of the confidence spectrum. Asrani’s character is a precursor of the times to come and what the city will eventually turn into: consumerist, self-indulgent, more about projection than authenticity.
From plans to have chai at Gaylords to walks around Fountain to dates at the iconic, now defunct Sarovar cafe inside the Jehangir Art Gallery, Chhoti Si Baat evokes a gentle, restrained picture of pre-congestion Bombay, where life, like the city, seemed much easier to navigate.
2. ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai’- Saeed Akhtar Mirza - 1980 (YouTube)
There was a time, not very long ago, when the struggles of the working class were reflected in Hindi cinema, a concern that has all but vanished from our mainstream visual vocabulary.
In Albert Pinto, a film featuring the formidable trio of Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, Shah played a car mechanic who is from a religious minority, the Catholic community. His political positions are confused and he often rages at the city’s mill workers who frequently go on strike to protest.
Things are complicated by the fact that his father, played by Arvind Deshpande, is a mill worker himself.
Through the lens of Albert Pinto, Mirza captures the city’s changing social and economic fabric and the human cost that it came with. The film is a fascinating character study: of Pinto’s political awakening and his anger finding a more specific outlet. From ranting on about how he doesn’t believe or participate in ‘strikes’ to acknowledging structural issues that make them necessary, it’s a holistically-written character, played with swag by Shah.
Throughout the narrative, Mirza’s cinematic gaze empathises with those at the receiving end of oppression while making a sharp comment on the politcal-corporate nexus that doesn’t care about worker’s rights, dignity or life.
Shot largely on-location, it’s a movie that looks at Bombay with a quiet intimacy rarely seen on film these days.
3. ‘Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na’ - Abbas Tyrewala - 2008 (Netflix)
Despite Hindi cinema using the college backdrop to spin tales of youthful romances, the perfect college caper that gets the context right, had eluded Bollywood since perhaps Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. This isn’t to say campus films weren’t made or didn’t work well.
In fact, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Ishq Vishq, both films set against the college backdrop, did well commercially, and yet, they had an element of superficiality alienated from the quintessential college experiences.
And then came Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na, a film firmly rooted in Bombay’s milieu, carrying a warm, lived-in familiarity that was immediately relatable, especially if you, like me, were in college at the time.
Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, like its wealthier cousin, Wake Up Sid, captures the city as a young beast with a restless heart that comes alive in the night after lazing throughout the day. The places it was shot in—the Bandra fort next to Taj Lands End, the Asiatic Library, the Gateway lane where Imran Khan’s Jai goes on a post-date stroll—evoked a universally-felt yet specific Bombay experience that wasn’t aspirational, but intimately real.
Its opening credits pay a beautiful artistic homage to the city, its nooks and crannies, its interaction with the sea, all of it establishing a vivid portrait of the world you’re about to step in.
Having an ensemble of all-new actors was refreshing and relieving. Perhaps the most real moment came when Genelia D’Souza’s Aditi tells Ratna Pathak Shah’s character, “Pata nahi college ka saara time kahan chala gaya”, to which Pathak says, “Phone pe, beta. Phone pe.” Classic.
4. Dhobi Ghat - Kiran Rao - 2011 (Netflix)
Despite serving as a backdrop in several Bollywood narratives, few have used Bombay as a critique of itself. Kiran Rao’s subliminal Dhobi Ghat tackled themes of big city isolation through several intersecting stories: a reclusive artist, a banker-turned-photographer, a laundry boy who harbours to be a Bollywood star, and a a Muslim woman who’s seen mostly through pre-recorded video clips.
Kiran Rao’s directorial debut works better as an atmospheric mood piece than a plot-driven drama. It employs an inward gaze where Bombay is a quiet spectator, witnessing the lives of people united by their proximity to the city, yet divided by its stratified class and caste lines. It’s a melancholic portrait whose effect is heightened by the muted sadness carried by its inhabitants and Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting score. While the nights are aflame with a simmering afterglow, is the city of dreams really a metropolis of thwarted ambitions and soft disappointments?
Backed by powerful performances by Prateik, Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra, Dhobi Ghat strips Bombay of the faux glamour and imagined optimism to paint a picture of a city that accommodates the dreams of a few while for some others, it doesn’t bother to allow them to grieve.
5. ‘Talaash’ - Reema Kagti - 2012 (Netflix)
As far as opening credits go, there’s perhaps no better film in recent memory that has done it as well as Talaash. Okay, it’s perhaps rivalled only by the director’s frequent collaborator, Zoya Akhtar, with Luck By Chance.
On the surface, Talaash, which trains its gaze on Bombay’s unnerving seediness, is a police procedural by way of a horror drama. Yet beneath that pulpy, pop-noir facade lies a very specific point of view: of the invisibilization of those who exist on the very margins of the societal order.
The opening song, Muskaan Jhooti Hai, spotlights them and hints at a major spoiler of the movie, revealing Kagti’s confident storytelling skills.
Like a cobra on a strategic prowl, K.U. Mohanan’s camera snakes around some of Bombay’s most photogenic lanes: a solitary Victoria galloping on Marine Drive, the Fort lane, Grant Road station, Colaba Causeway, Kemps Corner flyover, and the dodgy lanes of Kamathipura. By day, these places are populated by people stretched across ‘respectable’ vocations. But it’s in the nights that these spaces reveal themselves as hubs for the ‘others’: the junkies, the sex-workers, the drifters, the pimps, the peddlers, the petty thieves and the small-time criminals. It’s almost as if these characters can legitimately claim these spaces as their own only when they’re shrouded in the dark veil of the night.
As the film progresses ― a wounded, grieving cop is investigating the mysterious death of a Bollywood superstar ― it begins to reveal its layers. More than an expose about Bombay’s underbelly, it becomes a film about grief, about our inability to come to terms with loss and the myriad ways in which power structures in the city intersect to forge mutually exploitative relationships.
Everybody who wronged the sex worker at the start pays. But justice isn’t served in courtrooms. Far from it. Because how can someone who’s invisible to the system even be wronged?
Honourable Mentions: The Lunchbox, Bhavesh Joshi, Rangeela, Sacred Games