Its 6.30 am on a mid-May Sunday morning in Bombay, India’s favourite metropolis-on-the-sea. Like a sudden gift from a dying relative, an unseasonal chilled breeze is blowing in from the ragged beaches of the city. I put my sandals on and go downstairs from my flat to meet three friends; all of us having decided to do what Bombay dwellers do periodically – use a Sunday to make friends with the city again, to momentarily cease the war that rages, unbidden, every other day of the week.
We set out from Goregaon, driving southwards on the Western Express Highway – the main pipeline joining the suburbs to ‘Town’ – the original Bombay, the place of first habitation. On weekdays the Highway is an unending crush of vehicles, pushing southwards by day and in the reverse direction by dusk. This early on a Sunday however, there’s a soothing emptiness on the road and around it. To my right is the main track of the famous local train system of Bombay, running parallel to the Highway and dividing the suburbs into East and West, so when you tell a Bombay native you live in Goregaon, or Andheri or Malad or Borivali, she will always inquire, ‘East’ or ‘West’? On the left of the highway I spot the lush green of the Western Ghats behind countless rows of high-rises. At one point I know I’m looking in the direction of Bombay’s Film City – studios, film sets and offices dug into the side of the Ghats, hidden from view by dense acres of trees, cushioned against the industrial din of traffic on the Highway. At one end of the Film City is the self-aggrandisingly named Kamalistan – director Kamal Amrohi’s sprawling studio, spread over sixteen acres of forest. Much further down south is Chembur, the home of RK studios. Suddenly, a conversation from last evening comes to mind. My friend Suresh – a graduate from the National School of Drama and a supremely talented storyteller – is narrating an incident from the time he lived in a ramshackle one-room flat in a colony at the edge of Film City.
The colony, a gloomy, shabby collection of tiny flats built as part of a slum resettlement scheme, is popular with ‘struggling’ actors and film technicians because of its low rents and proximity to the Film City. In this Dickensian landscape is played out the classic Bombay film industry story – outlandishly talented actors, writers, musicians and technicians from all over the country, often the most promising of their siblings in their middle-class homes – living in poverty and obscurity, surviving for years, sometimes decades on shared rents, itinerant bits of work, the shame and relief of a cheque from home and of course the flickering hope of a proper break. Suresh’s story was very much the same; having moved slightly up in life, he was able to look at his struggling years with a finely-honed, relentless sense of humour, gentle and indulgent at times, harsh and self-deprecating at others. During the past six months that I’d made Bombay home, I had sensed the same story each time I met somebody from ‘the industry’, played over and over again, and each time I would be reminded of Marx’s insight – that the more successful production is under modern capitalist conditions, the more it requires a reserve army of skilled and unskilled labour. An army of talent (human resource in corporate language) to dip into every time demand expands, to fire when demand contracts and at all times to keep wages and hence costs down. The Bombay film industry is one of the most successful industries of independent India, so I can see it all adds up. Actors who never get paid because they are supposed to feel grateful for the break, assistant directors who are little more than glorified slaves, pulling 36-hour shooting schedules on one meal, working for years on end without pay, with only a miniscule fraction of them ever getting to direct their own film, technicians (sound recordists, camera assistants, boom operators, spot boys) who’ve been chasing production houses for years for their cheques, cheques that bounce, first-time directors whose films never get released because the priority of the producer changed or because he/she was trying to write off the film as a loss for tax purposes…and every day hundreds of hopefuls come in to the city by air, road and rail, fed by Bollywood mania and the most robust myth of our times – rags to riches. The story won’t change, the actors may move in and out. Most of Suresh’s audience yesterday had the same story, so every time the room exploded at one of his brilliant punchlines, an acrid smell of loss floated in on the air afterwards.
Still on the highway headed southwards, we drive past the Juhu-Lokhandwala area, home to the legendary Prithvi theatre, whose tiny amphitheatre-like auditorium and outdoor cafe held the most concentrated distillation of acting ambition per square foot I had seen anywhere in the city. Yesteryear movie stars, television actors from a time when Doordarshan was the great national hope, one-hit wonders, theatre bigwigs and of course dozens of young actors looking at theatre as a route to the ‘bada pardah’ – the shimmering big canvas of mainstream cinema – all hang around at the Prithvi endlessly – days, weeks, months, years…looking around nervously, wangling invitations to premieres and music launches, above all covering with swagger and gossip The Thing that makes them vulnerable. One piece of news likely to be avoided at these endless gossip sessions was about somebody having done the Unthinkable – given up on the industry and returned to their hometown. Rare as it was, there seemed to be consensus that merely mentioning such an event had the power to damage the elaborate edifice of semi-truths and lies that the industry is founded on. This is after all a place where every veteran of a million auditions and rejections, when finally and miraculously given a leading role is presented to the public as a lucky son-of-a-bitch who just happened to catch the director’s eye at a party. This, of course, on the rare occasion that the director didn’t feel like casting a star child. On my last visit to the Prithvi to see a friend’s performance in a play, somebody dutifully pointed out Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow nearby, along with the road that led to Shah Rukh’s…the pilgrimage mustn’t be incomplete.
It becomes apparent by the time we reach Bandra on the highway that the real estate is getting more expensive by the inch. Of course, as most of us know, Bombay remains interesting as an urban space for the reason that unlike many other cities in India, in almost no part of the city can the rich entirely segregate themselves – the working class and poor are always nearby somewhere, reclaiming pavements and empty lots, hanging up washing; and setting up parallel networks of goods and services. At Bandra we take the glittering new Bandra-Worli bridge over the Arabian sea to cross into Town. Immediately, on the other side of this new Lakshman Rekha the difference between Town and suburbs hits us. South Bombay is, to repeat the cliche, a ‘world unto itself'; so much so that south Bombay denizen Shobha De felt aggrieved enough a while ago to publicly defend it against accusations of snobbery and insularity. While the poor of Bombay are here too, the rich seem to belong to another order of wealth altogether – private, entrepreneurial wealth and old money, congealed and secure – some behind elegantly mossy high modernist architecture from the 1960′s and others inside the steel and glass skyscrapers made iconic for me by the 80′s television serial Khandaan. The older film stars and directors live in South Bombay, tucked away in villas and bungalows in a city where even established newer stars and directors live in flats in the suburbs.
On Marine Drive we walk quietly by the sea – lulled into a welcome mindlessness by the incessant sound of the waves. On the road a strange caravan of black cat commandos and a lone government jeep is moving slowly, blocking the steadily increasing traffic on one side. In the midst a portly man is jogging in slow motion, commandos close on his heels. We find out its the deputy chief minister. On the seaside pavement a starlet with a recent smash hit is hitting the ground hard with her spirited running. Further ahead a crowd has gathered around a car, presumably belonging to a star. Celebrity is everywhere in Bombay, and the love for it real enough among the city’s natives. When I first landed here six months ago I made the supreme mistake of assuming that in a country in which Bollywood constitutes the default form of popular culture in every street and building, gali and mohalla, natives of this particular city would be comparably immune to stardom. Reality was restored early on in my stay in the city during a visit to the neighbourhood mall – the normally sedate ground floor of the mall was packed; and the air was thick with anticipation. I went up to the food court on the second floor for a quick bite, and got into the lift coming down. Just as the lift doors were shutting a man rushed towards me, motioning for me to hold the door, which I did. Once he got in, he shook out his arms and legs, pressed the creases out of his uniform – he seemed to be an employee of a store in the mall – and ran his hands through his hair, smoothening the rough ends. At the end of this rapid exercise, he looked critically at himself in the polished inner walls of the lift. Satisfied with his appearance at last, he let out a long breath, nodded stiffly at himself and muttered something that sounded like ‘Salman Khan’. I had been curious enough to take a good look at this man through his self-absorption, and had realised I had seen perhaps hundreds of young men in Bombay that looked exactly like him – muscle-bound body, rolled up short sleeves (even in uniform), freshly shampooed hair combed high and back, tight pants/jeans, flashy shoes…an aspiring film star. Probably from Meerut, or Nashik or Guwahati – what are called in our wonderfully hierarchised policy circles ‘tier 2 cities’. Maybe even tier 3. But when this man said ‘Salman Khan’ I thought this is a bit much – why is he repeating the name of his hero to himself like a chant, in the privacy of a lift? It was when I reached the ground floor that I realised what I’d been missing – the great Khan was due to arrive in the mall shortly, on a promo appearance for his latest film. Our young man had sensed some opportunity, wangled a break with his fellow employees at the store and rushed downstairs in a state of nervous devotion. Downstairs it was mayhem – people were pushing and shoving each other, yelling for attention and space, swinging their children on to their shoulders and climbing on to every elevated surface available. The mall cleaning and security staff, their undernourished bodies floating inside their absurd uniforms, their eyes glazed by the tamasha, were timidly trying to restore some order on the fringes of the crowd. Nobody, of course, paid the slightest attention.
After a couple of hours near the sea, my friends and I turn inland along the historic, incredibly atmospheric little streets of old Bombay, finally ending up by 11 am at an ancient Irani cafe for chai and bun maska. Heading back to our soulless suburbs, we pass Churchgate Station, teeming with passengers from all over the country. Judging by the appearance and expressions of at least some of those passengers, I know they’re bound for ‘the industry’. The breeze has turned characteristically warm and fetid by now; my friends and I hurry home.