Mani Ratnam’s Bombay Is An Eloquent Plea For Tolerance And Communal Harmony

Sooryavanshi, which got indefinitely postponed because of Covid-19, is a film about a few good men saving Mumbai from terrorists. Since we can’t see that, as a substitute, here’s another film about the city and terror – Mani Ratnam’s Bombay
Mani Ratnam’s Bombay Is An Eloquent Plea For Tolerance And Communal Harmony

Director: Mani Ratnam

Cast: Arvind Swami, Manisha Koirala, Nassar

Bombay's release in 1995 was accompanied by high-decibel controversy. The film, which was made in Tamil but dubbed in Telugu and Hindi, was an equal opportunity offender – Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray demanded and got cuts. Muslim leaders in the city demanded but thankfully, didn't get, a ban. Shrill accusations that the film was biased and would incite further communal strife and disturb law and order came from multiple sides. I remember that when it finally released, there were cops at theatres, in case viewers became violent. I also remember walking out, shaken by what I had seen and marveling at the magic of Mani Ratnam who created a love story that was tender, tragic, deeply moving and patriotic in the best possible way.  At the end, Shekhar Narayanan Pillai who is married to Shaila Bano, screams in anguish: I'm not Hindu or Muslim. I'm Indian.

Shekhar and Shaila have the sort of swoony, love-at-first-sight romance that is only possible in the movies and yet, Ratnam makes it utterly convincing. Shekhar sees Shaila as she steps out of a boat. It's windy. Her burkha flies up. Their eyes meet and their fate is sealed. This strictly forbidden relationship plays out in stolen glances and furtive meetings against the overcast skies of their small town near Madurai. The highpoint is the song 'Uyire Uyire' ('Tu Hi Re' in Hindi), in which Shekhar, standing at an old fort, waits for Shaila to come to him. The sea crashing on the rocks below mirrors his turbulent emotions. As Shaila runs to Shekhar, her burkha gets entangled. She removes it and goes to him, almost as if she is freeing herself from the shackles of her family, society and religion. The song sequence, shot beautifully by cinematographer Rajiv Menon, is an expressionistic rendering of extreme passion – they don't even kiss but you feel the crushing weight of their love.

The screenplay, also by Ratnam, skillfully builds to the meat of the movie. This isn't just a love story. This is a Hindu-Muslim love story set against the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the horrific riots in Bombay (it was not yet Mumbai) in 1993. Ratnam makes us emotionally invest in this couple – we desperately want them to live happily ever after. But he also seeds the turmoil that is to come. Their fathers, one an orthodox Hindu and the other a working-class Muslim, almost come to blows when they find out that their children are in love.  Shekhar's father, Narayanan, is temple trustee who tells his son: We are a respected Pillai family, don't bring home some Gujarati or Punjabi girl. Shaila's father, Basheer, is a brick-maker. Early on, Shekhar's father goes to him to buy bricks that he will donate to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

In Bombay, Shekhar and Shaila create a cozy home for themselves and their twin boys, an oasis where religion doesn't matter – so one is named Kabir Narayan and the other Kamal Basheer. But the sharp divisions and hate rupturing the country and the city eventually engulf their little world. The riot scenes are hard to watch – in one sequence, the boys are surrounded by rioters who demand to know what their religion is. When they are unable to answer, they are doused in petrol and almost set alight. In another sequence, one of the twins, who is sheltered by a transwoman, asks her – what does being Hindu or Muslim mean? The child's gaze puts the brutality into perspective.

The miracle is that in such a thorny, ripped-from-the-headlines story, director Mani Ratnam manages to insert so many unforgettable songs

Ratnam doesn't take sides.  His narrative finds room for all views – Hindu and Muslim hardliners and leaders, the police who struggle to exert control, the men and women on the street who are butchered in the name of religion. Which makes the second hour of Bombay choppy – scenes are strung together to make points rather than to serve the plot. And the climax is so optimistic that your eyes might roll. But despite these flaws, the film works as an eloquent plea for tolerance and communal harmony.

The acting – Arvind Swami, Manisha Koirala, Nassar and Kitty as their respective fathers – is stellar.  And the miracle is that in such a thorny, ripped-from-the-headlines story, Ratnam manages to insert so many unforgettable songs. From the exquisite 'Kannalane' ('Kehna Hi Kya') to the haunting Bombay theme music, this is A. R. Rahman at his finest.

At one point in the film, one of Shekhar's sons has a panic attack. He can't get over the horror of what he has endured. He feels his skin is being set on fire by the rioters. He hugs his father and asks – is it really over?

Twenty-five years later, the answer sadly, is still no. Which is why this film needs to be watched again and again.

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