Tag Archives: Bombay

Desires of the undesired

I watched Margarita With A Straw last night, and it’s still on my mind. Most frequent moviegoers will acknowledge that that is quite a rarity in today’s times. Margarita is beautiful. It is the story of a girl with cerebral palsy, and her experiences as she explores her sexual desires. It is natural, understated and heartfelt. At the center of the film is Kalki Koechlin, who shines like a thousand stars in the role of Laila. Laila, who is restricted to her wheelchair and has speech impairments, is out there. She’s in Delhi University, she’s in New York University, she’s doing a creative writing program, she’s hitting on men, she’s dancing with her family and in a NYC club, and she’s also dealing with layered relationships – with her caring parents who get a little overprotective at times (for good reason), with her friends, with her crushes, with her partner. Sounds familiar? Absolutely! It’s about what you, I and everyone “like us” go through. We’re just able to enunciate our sounds better and walk on our feet.

Margarita, apart from being an endearing work of art, is also important in many different contexts. First, while its protagonist is physically challenged, the movie treats that as a fact and as a backdrop. There have been good films in India about physically and mentally challenged individuals – Gulzar’s Koshish back in the 1970s explored the marriage of two deaf-and-mute people; Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was a take on the travails of a child with dyslexia; Bhansali’s Black was about a girl who was blind, deaf and mute. All of these were beautiful movies and important in their own right. But they were essentially about the disability of the protagonist. The disability wasn’t a mere backdrop, it was the story. Margarita, on the other hand, has a most natural way of dealing with the disability. The fact that Laila goes to class every day on a wheelchair, or she makes music and performs in concerts, or the fact that it does not take a lengthy dramatic scene between her parents to decide that she will go to NYU – all of these could be happening in any home. The adjustments her limitations call for – such as her father driving a Matador van that can hold her wheelchair, the peons carrying her up a staircase when the elevator stops working, are also weaved in effortlessly, without arousing any sympathy in the audience, and yet presenting an alternative way of life.

Second, Margarita is about sex and sexuality – and not in a way that most Indian movies understand those subjects. There are no full-busted women coming out of water, or hot men doing peekaboo of butt-cracks. It breaks paradigms all over the place – a girl, a physically-challenged girl at that, is attracted to men and women along the way, and explores that side of her. In a country and an industry where the concepts of sex, women, and homo/bisexuality are bigoted and convoluted, Margarita is the most human telling of this undeniable emotion that makes us living things.

Third, Margarita is important because, yet again, it has proven that good cinema does not need male superstars. In recent years, Bollywood’s women have taken it upon themselves (of course backed by a small bunch of great directors and writers) to cleanse the stinking industry, that sees disgustingly artless and regressive movies starring 50-something actors in 20-something roles make Rs.100 crores in opening weekends. Movies such as English Vinglish, Queen, Kahaani, Lootera, Highway, NH10, Mary Kom and now Margarita will change that slowly and steadily. If this trend continues, in five years’ time, we may be able to get rid of the senior citizen brigade thriving on teenage buffoonery. Hopefully, the girls will also serve as a lesson for the new boys (Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, etc).

English Vinglish Movie Stills

queen nh10

Last but not the least, Margarita is important because it will do well internationally. It will win prizes, be screened at film festivals, and be talked about. It will finally present India as a place where specially-abled people CAN go to college, CAN have friends, CAN have supportive parents. It will also open up to the world a country of understanding fathers and male friends, empowered women making their own decisions, and a sensitive and cultured society. Of late, India has been in the international news for its crime against women, attacks against minorities, and culture policing. This film will work as one of the many little things that will reveal another side of India. We may not want a Western stamp of approval on everything we do, but that does not mean we would like to be known to the world as barbaric and criminal. The American boy in the film asks Laila – do I have to marry you if I kiss you? We’ve all had to answer such idiotic questions – a Dutch professor once asked me in the middle of a viva voce if I was treated specially in India because my surname signified my ancestors were priests. Hopefully, with the likes of Margarita, we can do away such eye-roll moments.

One last thing – superlative works of art always remind us of other good works. I’d like to mention two here. One is the film Amu, made by the same filmmaker as Margarita. I don’t think it got a big release back then, and many might have missed it then. Do watch. The other is a book called Trying To Grow by Firdaus Kanga, that is a beautiful autobiographical account of a physically-challenged boy growing up and exploring his sexual preferences within the confines of a Parsee family in Bombay. It isn’t that readily available. I had read an excerpt of it, and had placed an order for the book at Singapore’s National Library. They promptly got it for me. Even today, it costs a bomb on Amazon, or is only available as used copies. It is imperative that we preserve such alternative literature. This one already seems to be hitting oblivion. But times have changed. Margarita will stay and be remembered for a long time to come.

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The Tale of Two Cities

My flights to Delhi are usually in the evening (after a day’s work) and by the time I land and am in a cab to my destination, I am typically swearing away, cursing myself for making the same mistake again. “Why do you do this to yourself?” I ask, “Didn’t you promise yourself to land during the day or early evening?” Around me, Delhi is by 9pm a ghost town. The taxi driver is typically an illiterate smart-ass with zilch humility. He does not know his way to the most popular places though he claims to be driving for 11 years in the same city! He keeps calling Defence Colony “Difference Colony” till you give up correcting him (and no, he doesn’t shut up even after that). He swerves dangerously and cruises at speeds unheard of on Indian roads through the empty Delhi streets. But wait, your ordeal is not over yet! Because once you reach “Difference” Colony, after multiple phone calls to friends and colleagues and keeping your eyes fixed on any sign that pops up along the way, there are blocks, sectors, stages, round markets that you keep circling for 30 minutes because there is not a soul to ask, and when you find a few drunk men lounging around, all they can tell you is – “pataa nahin” (don’t know). Coming from Bombay (yes, again, I will call it Bombay. Please leave me alone!), this is almost unrealistic. When I fly back to Bombay, I ask for the latest flight of the day so I can complete all my work without rushing. I know when I land at midnight, the city will be as bustling with people, cars, vendors and shops as Cairo is on the eve of Eid. Yes, that’s true. Every day is Eid in Bombay, and every night is national mourning in Delhi. That is how far apart these two jewels of India are. They are not two different cities, they are two different worlds.

In Bombay, your worst-case taxi driver is the guy who drops hints that you should pay him Rs.50 extra for off-loading your saamaan. In Delhi, your best-case taxi driver is the guy who takes you on a ride of the city while you hide your laptop, phone and ipod into the deepest pockets of your backpack. In Delhi, I wake up on a Saturday morning at 11am to my host pleading with his plumber on the phone to PLEASE come repair the pipe in the bathroom. In Bombay, I wake up at 8am on a Sunday morning to my doorbell ringing incessantly and find my domestic helper, plumber, carpenter, presswaala waiting to do business and move on to earning more bucks. In Delhi, your best-case landlord is one who fights with you at the time of leaving the apartment for not returning a pair of scissors you borrowed six months ago. In Bombay, your worst-case landlord is one who turns up once in six months, and only when your rental cheque has bounced. In Bombay, your worst-case co-passenger does not follow the queue at the pre-paid taxi stand and hovers around you while you make your payment. In Delhi, your best-case co-passenger knocks you down when he spots his suitcase a mile away on the conveyor belt. What is it about Delhi that makes its people so naturally aggressive that even the most suave diplomat shows his rustic inner self? What is it about Bombay that makes its people so tolerant that even an uneducated auto-driver shares with you how he is struggling to pay the school fees of his children with tears in his eyes? The story goes that when a migrant worker (from wherever in India) lands in Delhi, he is constantly cheated and robbed until he is smart enough to survive, while the same migrant worker in Bombay is hosted by friends in their less-than-modest homes and served food by colleagues in the slums before he learns to survive. Interesting, isn’t it?

But then, what is it about Delhi then that every time I leave the city to come back to Bombay, instead of heaving a sigh of relief, I let out a gasp of sadness? That is because I know I’m leaving the most beautiful city of the country to go to the ugliest; I’m leaving the tree-lined margs and diving head-deep into a shit-hole; I’m trading the smells of guavas and tea leaves and mughlai chicken for the smells of smoke and dust and dirt; I’m leaving a city that has history at every corner and crossroads to go to one that is homogenously brown and dilapidated and on the verge of collapse (spare me the Victorian architecture of VT, I think we’re done with it for a lifetime).

My friend Dev once said – Bombay air smells of filth. It does! You smell it the moment you walk out into the city. You smell it on a relaxed Sunday evening while shopping in the upmarket locality of Bandra. You smell it just outside the posh Infinity mall. One evening in Delhi, my friend Rajshree-didi and I bought a box of baklavas from the Defence Colony bakery and sat in the nearby park to savor them. We couldn’t stop talking about how quaint the market and the park and the neighborhood were: individual bungalows, trees all over, people out on walks, young couples dressed in their best winter clothes, their beautifully sharp Punjabi features causing heads to turn from all around. And as if all this was not enough, Delhi sprung another pleasant surprise on us! The fountains in the park went off, and Rajshree-didi and I had to keep our sides from aching as we laughed at how a “park” in the poshest Bombay locality would mean a stretch of tired green you could walk in under 10 minutes. Funnily, when we came back to Bombay and told this story to a quintessential Bombay’ite, she remarked unperturbed – “are you sure those weren’t sprinklers?”. The idea of fountains in an urban park was too much for her to fathom, I suppose!

Both Delhi’ites and Bombay’ites will swear by their street food. When still new to Bombay, I eagerly went up to a roadside stall to try the famous vadaa pau. After much jostling and screaming and throwing my money in the guy’s face (just to make him notice me, I promise, and also because that is what everyone else was doing), the guy picked up two pieces of bread, shoved two miniscule vadaas between them, dipped his hands wrist-deep in two sauces and threw the vadaa-pau at me in projectile motion. It did taste good, but only as good as food can taste when you’ve punched 5 people, elbowed a few others, screamed yourself hoarse and hurt your feet for it. Just outside Chandni Chowk Metro Station in Delhi, I decided to try the rabri falooda. Having lived in Bombay for a few months then, I kept peeping over the counter to see why the guy was taking so long (clearly, I was looking for another projectile coming my way). Well, his annoyed look told me, I’m still preparing it. You want good food, you wait mister! So I waited while he mixed, added pistachios and almonds, gave me a little to taste and tell him if I needed a little more of anything, and finally, with a royal gesture, handed me the falooda. I still haven’t forgotten how good it tasted!

When I say Delhi has history at every corner and crossroad, I’m not exaggerating. It’s no mean feat to pull off a Humayun’s Tomb, Mirza Ghalib’s house, Nizamudin’s dargah – all reminiscent of Delhi’s rich heritage, within walking distance of each other. Nor does it happen in any other city that you can walk down by the national Parliament, past the Prime Minister’s office, right into the vast Mughal Gardens which is basically the backyard of the President’s Palace! Maybe an obvious extension of this is the culture that Delhi still breeds in its bosom. Walk into Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri on a spring weekend and watch for free one of the many celebrated Indian classical maestros performing! Wander around Connaught Place and catch the most fascinating art and photography exhibitions. Amble into Habitat Centre and right there in the amphitheater is an unknown singer whose chaitis, thumris and drupads sound so awesome that even foreigners are swooning away. A free concert by the best Odissi dancer of the country on a random Tuesday evening in Kamani auditorium. In Bombay, I’d have to pay thousands to watch these people perform, if they do, that is. But let me not make it sound like Bombay does not breed culture! The theater scene is always hot – like the weather of the city. The best actors of the country do justice to their creative juices and leave their legacies behind on the stages of Prithvi Theater and NCPA.

You are probably really confused by now, aren’t you? I haven’t been able to make a case in favor of any of these cities, and I don’t intend to. I love them both for what they are. I love Bombay for its easy-going convenience and filth. I love Delhi for its rich culture and high-handedness. I love the down-to-earth crowds of Bombay and the full-of-themselves people of Delhi. I love the endless sea in Bombay and the endless monuments of Delhi. No other city in this mammoth country of mine has as much character and covers as much range than these two do. They are the two women every man loves, and doesn’t know whom to love more. While Delhi is the cultured lady of the house, clad in her silk saris and gold jewelry, soft-spoken and appearing in front of only important guests yet very subtly wielding power over family business and politics, Bombay is the prostitute on the street, loud and outspoken, unapologetic of her lust for money, dressed in cheap fabric and tawdry trinkets, spitting out her paan as she suggestively tucks bucks away in her blouse. And just like a man needs both these women to make him feel complete, so does India need both these cities to be what it is.

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Mumbai Manoos

If 80s was the decade of the Taj Mahal for Indian tourism and 90s was that of the Kerala backwaters and Rajasthan forts, the 2000s surely belong to Mumbai. With Gregory Davis Roberts’ book Shantaram becoming a bestseller and Slumdog Millionaire making it big at the Oscars, Mumbai has never before enjoyed as much limelight as it does today.

My visit to Mumbai (I don’t know why I still feel like calling it Bombay) was not supposed to be an out-of-the-world event. It was not my first time in the city. I’d been there for sleepovers twice before, on my way to other destinations. There was nothing touristy charted out for this trip, since there’s only a limit to things you can see in a city really. I was looking forward to a relaxing holiday at my sister’s place. Well, very relaxing it was, but, at the end of it all, I realized that Bombay really doesn’t let you feel like you could be in any other city of the world. There’s something electric in the air, something about the winding dirty lanes, the throngs and throngs of people, the rush-hour traffic and the unbelievable energy in just about anyone I came across that charges you up too.

My friend had once told me, in Bombay, you need to be THE best to survive. Even a vada-pau waala (street fast-food vendor) needs to have enough competence to be selling his stuff on the streets of Bombay. Very true! The second most populous city in the world is home to 19 million people, each fighting for his pay, his livelihood and, most importantly, his own space under the Bombay sun. This truth is as evident as is the never-ending traffic and the swank malls that dot the city everywhere. When BBC made its list of the cities in the world with the fastest walkers, I was surprised not to find Bombay in the top 5. But now, I know why. It’s because people in Bombay don’t walk, they run!

But first, coming back to how Bombayites are the true survivors of the rampant mayhem that urban living often causes in the developing world. The monsoon season in Bombay is famous all over India for its volume and brutality. With the Arabian Sea on one side and the Mithi river on the other, Bombay is perched on a sensitive water table that can give way to floods the moment the clouds decide to get generous. Along with the rains comes dangerously strong breeze. Since I was visiting in July, the peak of monsoons, I got ample chances to get up-close-and-personal with the phenomenon. I had heard and seen photographs of Bombay monsoons before, but what I wasn’t expecting was for street vendors to remain put where they were, storm or sunshine. Under wildly-swerving fragile umbrellas fixed to their carts, they continued selling their wares; some making vada-paus, some covering cigarette packs from getting drenched and some, nonchalantly taking in the chaos around them. They would just remain right there, braving hours of ruthless rainfall and waterlogging, because they know Bombay is a city that never rests, and even in such harsh weather, there might be a drop in, but never a dearth of customers.

Local trains are the lifeline of Bombay. In a city that has its roads always clogged with traffic, the trains are the fastest and most reliable means of commuting. There are multiple lines running in different directions, intersecting at certain strategic stations. Trains are spaced out within a maximum of 5 minutes, and there are fast trains that jump stations. There is a separate compartment for ladies and a first-class compartment for people willing to pay more. But for a pakka Mumbaikar, the embellishments of a first-class compartment mean nothing. The push-and-shove at the train doors, three people on a seat of three noiselessly making place for a fourth fellow-passenger, a guy playing pathetic film songs on his phone at full volume, groups of youngsters hanging their torsos out of moving trains to get some air (and to impress the girls) – the second-class compartment of the local trains is where the activity is. And if you are settling in for first-class comfort, you are missing out on the Mumbai magic. I was amazed by how people would rather struggle to get into the most crowded train than wait for the next train that is due in 3 minutes! It surely says something about the eternal hurry to get to the workplace (or to get home), the story of travelling long distances from a personal space under the Mumbai sky to a professional one. Or maybe it’s just the kicks they get out of being able to enter any train at all, no matter how many people are in it. Once in, all passengers are comrades. They help to keep others’ bags on the luggage shelf, help you with what the next station is, which side the platform will appear on, what you should do once you get off. You don’t even need to ask! They have an eye for newcomers. It can be unsettling at first, to know that you are being watched and tracked. But a couple of train rides, and you are already feeling secure that this multitude of unknown people are making sure you don’t end up lost.

Interestingly, even though local trains are the lifeline of Mumbai (I’m trying hard not to slip into Bombay), the train stations happen to be tucked into the remotest of locations. You will have to traverse through lanes and by-lanes, vegetable markets, old tailor shops, rundown temples and a dozen stray animals in order to find your way into a dilapidated entrance. There is clearly no time for glamorization, no time to pay attention to unnecessary details. There is work to be done, mouths to be fed. One day, when I walked out of the Goregaon train station and it began raining real heavy, there was such a “traffic” jam of umbrellas in the narrow lane outside that people decided, by a unanimous tacit consensus, that it makes more sense to simply keep the umbrellas folded. So there we all were, brothers and sisters-in-arms, bravely walking in the rain and high-jumping over gigantic puddles, drenched to the last centimetre. It didn’t feel bad at all! In fact, it gave me so much food for conversation once I got home. If life were to be the same everyday with nothing new to talk about, wouldn’t that be boring? Well, now you know what keeps Mumbai going – the myriad stories that you gather in your head everyday to come back and share with your nears and dears.

There is no substitute to having a sea by your city, and Mumbai has many such sea-faces. Be it the Marine Drive or the Juhu beach or the Worli Sea-face or Chowpatty, you can always sneak out for a gush of fresh air and a little wet touch of the waves on your feet. The government has done a good job of cleaning up the beaches and I was impressed by how much more beautiful they looked than the last time I’d seen them. The sea made me miss the pleasures of open-air fun, and the big fan of sea-breeze that I am, I could simply sit there for hours “watching the world go by”, as they say.

Night-life in Mumbai rocks. It’s better than Delhi, because it does not carry the extra baggage of attitude that Delhi painfully drags along with it everywhere. You could be in a dhoti-kurta with paan in your mouth and yet walk into a club and dance your way onto the floor! In Bombay, they all mind their own business. The fun they have is hard-earned, and they don’t want to waste time analyzing and finding faults with people around them. I desperately wanted to dance to Hindi music (the only type of music in the world you can dance to impromptu and yet end up looking like a professional). I’d heard complaints from Bombayites about how DJs are angrezi babus and only play English music. But the DJ at Red Light (in Colaba) must’ve guessed I was coming, because all the time I was there, he played all the latest Hindi hits while I danced myself into a trance. And then, at 1:30am sharp, the lights suddenly came on and we were all caught in our half-dancing positions. Funnily, people remained like that for a few seconds, waiting for the lights to go off again. But sadly, they didn’t, the reason being that the police (Pandu hawaldars, in Mumbai slang) had arrived to close the place down. The legal time for ending the party had been 1am!! Well, we all got our alcohol poured into paper Coca-Cola cups and walked out in a single file. A tipsy guy even went to the extent of saluting the cops. Then we had our own little party downstairs on the street, while we finished our drinks.

For a Hindi movie buff like me, Bombay means far more than just a city. It means a city where the dream factories work overtime everyday to feed into imaginations of people like me. In spite of the filth, the slums, the poverty and the struggle, it is in this city that the most popular, and sometimes, the most superior, form of Indian art is created day after day. It is in this city that some of the biggest stars, whose posters adorn hoardings and hang from the walls all over the country, slept on platforms and travelled in local trains to get where they are today. For movie-crazy people, the air in Bombay, the smells of Bombay, the colloquial slang of Bombay, the names of places in Bombay; everything is familiar and yet new because I’ve seen and heard all of this on a 70 mm screen before my senses seeped into the Bombay fabric. And even though I came away without seeing a single celebrity (not even a small-fry, can you beat that?), I felt like a celebrity myself, boarding the flight from this never-sleeping alive dynamic eternally-charged city.

Bombay is not about walking around and taking photographs (well, you could do that, but only for a couple of days). Bombay is not about visiting. Bombay is all about living, and even as a tourist, you have to make sure you live in Bombay.  You gotta ride in their trains, you gotta walk on their promenades by the sea, you gotta eat their vada-pau on the street, you gotta pray like them at the auspicious Siddhivinayak and Mahalakshmi temples, you gotta be on the lookout for people whom you can help find their ways… and then, my friend, you’ve known what it is to be a Mumbai manoos.

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