Jerry Pinto on Mumbai: ‘We Have Been a Storytelling City’

Pinto’s novel Murder in Mahim has been adapted into a series that is currently streaming on JioCinema.
Jerry Pinto on Mumbai: ‘We Have Been a Storytelling City’

Born and brought up in Mumbai, writer Jerry Pinto loves his hometown so much that his username on Instagram is @mahimkajerry. That said, his 2017 novel Murder in Mahim, which has recently been adapted into an eight-episode web-series, explores a darker side of both the neighbourhood he knows and loves, as well as the City of Dreams. Directed by Raj Acharya and starring Vijay Raaz, Ashutosh Rana, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Shivaji Satam in leading roles, Murder in Mahim (streaming on Jio Cinema) follows a police officer-journalist duo as they investigate a series of gory murders targeting the city’s queer men.

Pinto spoke to Film Companion about his relationship with Mumbai and his expectations from the screen adaptation of his novel. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

What is it about Mumbai that inspires you as a writer?

I happened to have been born here and I’ve lived here all my life. And I think what really inspires me about the city is its energies. This is really the cumulative energies of all of us, including you and me. We bring our stories to the city. And then you eventually realise that the city cannot be summed up in a story, because it is only stories. And we have been a storytelling city. Bollywood is here, TV is here. So I think it attracts storytellers as well. So new storytellers keep coming in and new energy is infused into the city.

Vijay Raaz and Ashutosh Rana in Murder in Mahim
Vijay Raaz and Ashutosh Rana in Murder in Mahim

Mumbai is often romanticised, seen as a city of hope and dreams. What was it like tapping into the darker and grittier side of the city in your writing? 

If a city is ever called the City of Dreams, it’s because people bring incipient dreams here. It’s not like you walk into the city and it’s a welcoming and wonderful paradise.

Everybody who comes to the city comes with a certain aspiration. And that aspiration is fundamentally part of the driving force of the city. But for every dream that is realised, 99 dreams fall by the wayside. So all of this gets changed into something very different. And that, I think, is part of the city. You just have to be fluid in the way that the city is fluid. You have to learn to flow with the tides. So the dark side of the city is always there in the people whose dreams have not been fulfilled. That’s where the darkness begins to set in. And that’s where the changes begin to happen. 

What did you keep in mind while writing your queer characters?

It’s not like a queer person is a completely different person from the rest of us. They have the same needs, they have the same wants, they have the same desires. They just have a non-standard, non-heteronormative sexuality. Otherwise, anger and passion and tenderness and gentleness — these are all to be found everywhere on the sexuality spectrum. So if you reduce a person to their sexuality, you do the sexuality and the person a disservice, and you also do your novel or film a disservice. Because then that person just becomes a peg. They’re not a character that will live in people’s heads. So I think, fundamentally, to try and produce round characters? Characters who have many motivations, characters who have many dreams and ideas and goals. I think that’s what the novelist tries to do all the time, to produce real people inside the pages of the book.

Shivani Raghuvanshi in Murder in Mahim
Shivani Raghuvanshi in Murder in Mahim

How involved were you in the adaptation process of Murder in Mahim?

I was not very involved at all. I believe very much that all my books are my babies. And I’m a very hands-off parent. I send my babies off to go to school, and to learn how to become a film. And other people will do that. I’ve learned to trust that there are other people who have greater skills at this, and a greater understanding of how this is to be done. And I allow them to do that. That’s not my skill set. My skill set is not visual storytelling. It is about telling stories in words. I see my books as platforms or diving boards from which someone else must take off. And you can’t go hanging on to the edge of their kurtas and say, “No, no, no, no, no.” That impedes the arc of their creativity. 

So this is how I see it: I wrote a book. And maybe all the characters begin to take life and become people in your head. Now when a film director reads it, they become people in their head and they begin to see them in a completely different way. Now, for me to interfere and say, “Well, no, that’s not how I thought it,” I think, is a recipe for disaster. I don’t think it’s right. I think we should let the experts get on with what they are doing. 

Shivaji Satam in Murder in Mahim
Shivaji Satam in Murder in Mahim

So are you prepared to be disappointed? 

I will approach the entire thing with bright eyes. I’m trying very hard not to imagine what my book is. I’m trying to see what this person has seen of my book. The fact that someone’s willing to take it up and make a film of it is an act of love in a way, and I don’t think people will willingly trample on the essence of the book. … I think one of the fundamental acts of reading is an act of reinvention. I’m perfectly happy with the idea that some very creative people got together with some great actors. I’m sure it’ll be different and it’ll be a surprise. 

Many people have said that Murder in Mahim had cinematic qualities, that it had more description than I normally do, that it was very tightly plotted. Okay, thank you so much. But all that is not front and centre when you’re just writing a book. Now, someone comes along and says, “Hey, we’d like to make a film out of it.” And your first thought is “Really?” Because so much of my book really exists inside people’s heads. How are you going to bring that out? And then you think, “Okay, good, it’s your problem, not mine.”

Do you think there’s a bias towards crime thrillers when it comes to our adaptations? 

I think one of the things that is required is tension and release of tension, for a film to be made. And crime and romance are the two genres that allow for tension to be built up and tension to be released. “Oh, is she going to turn back? Is she going to look again?” So romance is love and crime is death, and those are the two fascinating things. 

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