Every year, Mumbai enfolds thousands of new people into its sweaty embrace. The dreams and actions of these newcomers and old-timers reimagine the city and give it the romantic aura that it has. In cinema, Mumbai has come to represent everything from the quiet grace of growing up and finding one’s passion to being the cradle of crime and securing mobility. It has been the site of rain-soaked declarations of love and the place where modernity and tradition can exist without friction. We sift through the cinematic myth of Mumbai to see how four films viewed India’s city of dreams.
Played by a young and lanky Naseeruddin Shah, sporting prominent sideburns and an upturned collar, the titular Albert Pinto seems to be a posh hero in the opening scene of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyu Aata Hai, as he drives around south Mumbai. The bubble bursts when the man next to him asks, “Kaisi hai gaadi? (How’s the car?)” Just like that we realise this car does not belong to Albert. In fact, Albert probably can’t even dream of owning such a car in his lifetime because he’s a mechanic. He holds on to the belief that if one works as hard as they can, success will find them despite seeing his brother turn to crime and his mill-worker father’s futile fight to secure better pay and work conditions.
Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyu Aata Hai opens with a peppy joyride around south Mumbai. Later in the film, director Saeed Akhtar Mirza offers a striking contrast to this romanticised portrait of the city when he presents a terrific montage, showing Mumbai’s empty mills and the faces of mill workers, their eyes screaming defiance. At one point, the music fades but the montage of faces continues, only to be interrupted by the sound of a man ranting, “Saale namakharaam. Sab ko bahar phenk do (Bloody traitors, all of them should be thrown out).” The film cuts to the speaker – he is a car owner who stands behind his shining white car and talks about the money he’s lost due to strikes by workers, these “low elements” who are ruining the country. Mirza reveals that his audience is the mechanics who work in a garage. Among them is our hero, Albert Pinto.
Mirza’s film shows no grand transformations in the system – in fact, everything remains the way it was in the beginning, except for a few key changes. Albert is still angry, but by the end of the film, now his rage finds reason in the workers’ fight. Where he was once defending Hindi cinema’s ability to help workers lose themselves in its imaginative but often escapist narratives, Albert now questions what he sees on-screen. The climax shows him being kicked out of the theatre for rebelling against lies about the mill workers being shown on-screen.
In Reema Kagti’s Talaash, Mumbai transforms into a no man’s land between the living and the dead, where mysterious accidents occur on an eerily deserted Marine Drive, seances are performed in ordinary houses, and incandescent spirits save men from the depths of the Arabian Sea.
Many films have depicted Mumbai as a hotbed of illegal and sordid activities, but few have captured it with the stirring dreaminess of cinematographer K.U. Mohanan’s camera. During the day, Talaash’s Mumbai looks like any other metro city – bright, crowded and bustling. It is the public stage for the hero, Inspector Suri (Aamir Khan), as he investigates a murder and occasionally goes on joyless outings with his wife (Rani Mukerji). Come nightfall, the city dresses up in sensuous golds and reds. The red-light area, where much of Talaash plays out, turns into a hazy swirl of warm lights and glittering women. Fittingly, it’s at night that the insomniac Suri meets Rosie (Kareena Kapoor Khan), a sex worker with whom he feels a strange affinity.
Rosie is a curious mix of glamour and sorrow, a tricky balance Khan achieves effortlessly. Always gloriously dressed – low-cut backless dresses and sheer shirts over snug skirts – she snares men effortlessly. Yet there’s something more under the playful surface. Her riddle-laced dialogue hints at a deep loss, which comes to the surface when Suri starts talking to her. Under the light of his care and concern, Rosie’s mask slips to reveal long-held agonies.
The big reveal in Talaash is that Rosie is a ghost, roaming the physical world to avenge her undignified death. It’s a poetic touch to have a dead woman who radiates vivacious energy embody a city that’s obsessed with making a living.
True to the tropes of supernatural fiction, Rosie’s spirit almost always wanders out at night, giving Talaash an excellent excuse to explore Mumbai after dark. Kagti and Mohanan’s interpretation of the city’s midnight is that of a spiritual haven: A time when lost souls – both human and paranormal – can step out and look for connection, away from the harsh, cold light of the day.
After being carefully prepped, the emerald-green lump of the dabba leaves Ila’s (Nimrat Kaur) house at the same time every day, pinned to the cycle of one of Mumbai’s many dabbawallas. It gets wet in the city’s pouring rain and dries itself in the sunlight that streams into the local train. It listens to the dabbawallas singing. It bumps into other brightly-coloured dabba bags before reaching the table of Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan), a grumpy widower. Only that’s not his dabba, and a mistake turns into a miracle.
Although the essence of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is human connection – that tenuous bond that can occur despite the distance of staggering loneliness or a wide ocean – the film’s greatest strength lies in the portrait of isolation that it offers the viewers. Knowing Ila and Saajan spend their days almost entirely alone make their letter exchange even more provocative and intimate. We see their estrangement – from their loved ones, their surroundings and their own life – and we hope desperately that the two will find each other.
Some of The Lunchbox’s most poetic moments are nestled in the everyday. Take, for example, Ila’s house. Her kitchen, where she cooks most of those mouth-watering delicacies for Saajan, is a quintessential Mumbai kitchen: Cramped and economical. Almost every shot has something partially-obscuring our view of Ila – a wall, a washing machine, a line of clothes hanging over her house’s hallway. The cinematography speaks to how trapped Ila feels not only in tangible terms of living in the small apartment but also in her loveless marriage. In one unforgettable shot, Ila sits for dinner with her husband and daughter. She faces the camera while her husband watches the small TV that’s above her head. Only his back visible to us. She gazes at him and we can tell he barely notices her.
In contrast, Saajan’s house is all about openness and space. Wide shots establish the empty chairs in his home, the rotting bicycle on his balcony and his lone, cigarette-puffing figure. He spends his time gazing through the window, at a neighbour’s family having dinner. Despite their obvious differences, both Ila and Saajan’s houses reflect the same mood– the loneliness of being alone despite being surrounded; the loneliness of a big city.
Anchoring director Kiran Rao’s ode to the idea of Mumbai being “multiple cities in a city” are the four protagonists of Dhobi Ghat, each one from a different class and social background. Munna (Prateik) is a dhobi who moonlights as a rat killer and aspires to be an actor. Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker on a sabbatical. Arun (Aamir Khan) is a tortured artist with a broken past and Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) once lived as a tenant in the house where Arun now lives. They’re all riveting characters and the neighbourhood of Dhobi Ghat — a place where clothes of the richest and poorest are washed in the same water — becomes a metaphor for Mumbai as the great equaliser.
Yasmin’s story is particularly haunting. Generations of Hindi cinema protagonists have found themselves in the City of Dreams and made it their own, but there are few depictions of those who continue to feel like outsiders. We’re introduced to Yasmin through old videotapes she leaves behind in the house, which Arun begins watching. The tapes seem to be messages for her brother, Imran, whom she left behind when she married and moved to Mumbai. Yasmin learns about the city and we learn about her. In the beginning, she is awed and startled by the city, by the neighbouring woman who whips up food in mere minutes, the sea which buries its visitors’ secrets, the incessant rain. Slowly, as the newness starts dulling into familiarity, her loneliness seeps into the film. We realise Yasmin is almost always alone. Her newly-wedded husband is absent and the only human presence in her videos is “Bai”, the domestic help who comes to clean the house. At one point, Yasmin cuts a birthday cake in silence and offers it to the camera.
Yasmin’s story is one of someone who couldn’t find home in Mumbai, but who nevertheless remains woven into the fabric of the city. Her ultimate and tragic suicide is reminiscent of the homesick pain in Muzzafar Ali’s Gaman (1978), in which Ghulam Hasan (Farooq Shaikh) leaves his mother and wife in Uttar Pradesh to earn a living in Mumbai. He has no idea if he’ll ever move back and his anguish is beautifully captured in the film’s ending where Ghulam drives around the city aimlessly in his taxi. Similarly, Yasmin remains immortalised in a loop of memory made up of those video tapes, eternally young and cocooned in longing and melancholy. If Mumbai is a city that people come to with their dreams, it’s also a patchwork of memories of places people call home.
“Yeh sheher sawaal nahi poochta (this city asks no questions of you),” said Saadat Hasan Manto about Mumbai in Manto (2018). Manto lived in Mumbai for approximately 12 years, in two stints, and is widely held as one of the city’s most evocative chroniclers. He would move to Pakistan in January 1948, but in ways that feel oddly reminiscent of Yasmin, it feels as though there was a part of Manto that continued to haunt this city that gave him tough but undeniable love. “You can be happy here on two paisa a day or on hundreds of thousands of rupees,” Manto wrote in an essay that’s riddled with longing for Mumbai. “You can also be the world’s most miserable person, regardless of what you earn. It will be entirely up to you. Here you can do what you like, no one will speak ill of you. No matter how difficult things become, you will have to deal with them yourself. You and you alone will take every important decision in your life, without interference or help.” And even if it feels like no one else sees you, Mumbai will be here to witness it; and as these films show, the city remembers.
Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyu Aata Hai and The Lunchbox are available on YouTube.
Dhobi Ghat and Talaash are streaming on Netflix.