Bombay in Bollywood: The Breathing City

The cinema set in the city emerged as an allegory of the urban experience that Mumbai offered.

Bombay in Bollywood: The Breathing City Bombay in Bollywood: The Breathing City Source : Poster


"It was the crisis of Indian nationalism in the 1970s that led to Bombay cinema's reflection on urban life in terms that had not been possible earlier. By the 1970s, the dreams of the "development decades" held by the new leadership of post-independence India had run aground. Unemployment rose rapidly and social movements with strong urban referents emerged throughout the country. For the first time, the confidence of post-independence nationalism was shaken.
While political, consumption, and lifestyle movements today take the city almost as a given, the cutting edge of this new concern has come from the world of cinema. This has not only generated critical contradictions within the cinematic narrative but has also allowed for a certain distinction from the nationalist narratives of the past. Shock, anxiety, and the tactile pleasures of urban life are now experienced by millions, something that has accelerated rapidly and radically after globalization. With the explosion of urban crises, city spaces have become focal points of critical reflection.


The ‘urban delirium' is a complex configuration or a "buzz" that exists like a "shapeless substance into which politics and gossip, art and pornography, virtue and money, the fame of heroes and the celebrity of murderers, all bleed". The context of the Indian city as a metaphor, as a space, as a conundrum of diverse human experiences, and as an imaginary landscape of deep psychic dislocations is one of the casualties of what Gyan Prakash has called "the historicist discourse of the nation". In the field of cultural production, however, this paradox is complicated, because literary creativity, artistic expression, and popular perceptions have created an entirely different kind of articulation.


The city slides into the terrain of the urban experience where the historical, the political, the anecdotal, and the textual coexist and unfold in the magical world of popular cinema. "The city" was the typical space of modernism, usually seen through the visual map of iconic figures: the flâneur, the prostitute, and the avant-garde artist. The "urban experience" is of more recent vintage, which, while recognizing earlier references, privileges the contemporary. Debates on the urban experience have the merit of drawing in various forms of the popular, not just through the iconic references of the past, but through the reinvention of hybrid, polymorphous, and performative figures."


Between Hollywood's fake love affair with Bombay's slums and gritty life, and Bollywood's massy version of its glamour and glitz, the city may just be one of the most frequently portrayed cities in mainstream film culture. And yet somehow the rich complexities that draw so many filmmakers to the city in the first place often seem to get lost in the cut.


Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? (Saeed Mirza, 1980): Saeed Mirza's Albert Pinto is famous for its tender and humorous tackling of the socio-psychological politics of class aspiration in the city, its portrayal of working-class life in the chawls, and its backdrop of a Bombay sliding into one of the city's most defining and pivotal political and economic eras-the Great Bombay Textile Strike and the downfall of the city's famous mills.
Life In a Metro (Anurag Basu, 2007): The film narrates the stories of 9 different residents of Mumbai. Themes of extramarital affairs, love and marriage are explored by Basu as he weaves all the stories into an entertaining whole.


Shootout at Lokhandwala (Apoorva Lakhia, 2007): An action crime film based on the 1991 Lokhandwala complex shootout, which involved a real gun battle between gangsters and Mumbai police force. The film traces the life of Mumbai's top underworld dons and the events that led up to the final attack by 400 policemen of the Mumbai police on the gangs that were holed up in Lokhandwala Complex.


A Wednesday! (Neeraj Pandey, 2008): This is a thriller based on the 2006 Mumbai local train blasts. It depicts the events that unfold from the perspective of the police commissioner when a common man decides to take revenge on the terrorists for the blasts. With not a single song or any loose ends, this movie is an extremely gripping ride and keeps you on the edge of your seats for the entire runtime.


Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008): Danny Boyle's Oscar winning movie needs no introduction. The film follows Jamal Malik, an orphan living in the slums of Juhu in Mumbai. Visually dazzling and emotionally resonant, Slumdog Millionaire is a film that's both entertaining and powerful. "With its timely setting of a swiftly globalising India and combined with timeless melodrama and a hardworking orphan who withstands all manner of setbacks, Slumdog Millionaire plays like Charles Dickens for the 21st century," wrote Ann Hornaday.


Once Upon A Time in Mumbai (Milan Luthria, 2010): Milan Luthria takes you to the 1970s Bombay which was ruled by a kind smuggler named Sultan Mirza and how his downfall led to the rise of a ruthless gangster, Shoaib Khan, who eventually goes on to conduct the bombings and creates a global smuggling empire. The movie also describes the events that led to the 1993 Bombay Bombings.


The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013): Ritesh Batra's heart-touching drama film explores how a rare mix-up by the city's ‘dabbawalas' leads to a chain of events between two lonely people in the city. The Lunchbox celebrates and critiques the city's overwhelming and active nature.
Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, 2019): Zoya Akhtar explores the underground rap scene of the city in this inspirational, adrenaline-rushing drama loosely based on the life of rappers Divine and Naezy.


Bombay Beyond Bollywood: The film city is also home to a flourishing community of independent and documentary filmmakers and finds itself as the set and subject of many alternative films inspired by and exploring the city's reality-as opposed to just its easily marketable attributes.


Bombay - Our City (Anand Patwardhan, 1985): Typical portrayals of Mumbai's slums often fail to "recognize the rich and complex economic, industrial, and social networks that their typology supports, but Anand Patwardhan's documentary poignantly illuminates the tragic consequences of breaking those systems without consideration, and question the logic behind it and details the slum evictions and demolitions of the 1980s in a provocative style."


Annapurna: Goddess of Food (Paromita Vohra, 1995): This documenatary shows "a different side of mill life completely, telling the amazing story of a groundbreaking women's food cooperative that was born in the ashes of policy-induced job loss, and has flourished to provide emancipation and economic liberty to thousands of Mumbai women."


Kali Salwaar (Fareeda Mehta, 2002): The fictional story of a "Mumbai sex worker, Kaali Salwar is set during an interesting time in Mumbai's former mill district. Filmed in 2002, it caught the city in the fleeting moment that flashed between its industrial and rapid redevelopment eras, creating a post-industrial ambience that only a few remember, and others will never again experience."


Vertical City (Avijit Mukul Kishore, 2011): Vertical City "documents the appalling dysfunction of government slum resettlement plans in Mumbai. These plans relocate slum residents into entirely ill-suited high-rise building complexes in the city's far suburbs, disconnected from necessary services and from other parts of the city. Many abandon the housing altogether, and those who stay find themselves confined to degenerated "vertical slums" far worse than where they came from in the first place."


Other movies that portray the breathing city life of Bombay:


Katha (Sai Paranjapye, 1983)

Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1998)

Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995)

Rangeela (Ram Gopal Verma, 1995)

Satya (Ram Gopal Verma, 1998)

Chandni Bar (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2001)

Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)

Bluffmaster! (Rohan Sippy, 2005)

Ek Chalis Ki Last Local (Sanjay Khanduri, 2007)

Taxi No. 9211 (Milan Luthria, 2007)

Aamir (Raj Kumar Gupta, 2008)

Mumbai Meri Jaan (Nishikant Kamath, 2008)

Kaminey (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2009)

Dhobi Ghat (Kiran Rao, 2011)

Shor In The City (Raj & DK, 2011)

CityLights (Hansal Mehta, 2014)



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Reference: Ranjani Mazumdar-Bombay Cinema-An Archive of the City-Univ Of Minnesota Press, (2007) and guggenheim.org