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Since watching RedBull’s documentary series, This Is My Hood – especially the episode on Mumbai’s graffiti collectives turning empty walls into open air galleries – we started seeing walls in different light. Then the Love Aaj Kal (2020) trailer dropped, and apart from the memeable-moments and Imtiaz Ali’s personal-plagiarism, it was the walls that caught our eye.

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They not only serve as backgrounds for text, which itself is quite quirky and millennial, there’s also one featuring monkeys and a man and woman in traditional garb separated by verdant growth. Could this be a reference to Rockstar, in which Ali and his lyricist Irshad Kamil spun the Rumi quote “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field, I’ll meet you there” into a translated Rahman lyric?

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This isn’t new for Ali. Even in Love Aaj Kal (2009) Deepika Padukone’s profession involved walls, she was a restoration expert, adept at frescoes. 

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Walls have the curious nature of being backgrounds, but notice how film-makers and production designers use them to make statements that foreground the worries, and passions of the protagonist and the times they live in. In pursuit of this thesis, we set out to find Bollywood’s best walls. (Quick note: These walls are all in public spaces, if we were to talk of indoor walls, we wouldn’t know where to begin.)

Josh (2000)

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Chandrachur Singh’s first visions of the city are filtered through the graffiti he sees. The gothic existentialist angst behind gang wars in “Phuck” “Life Sucks”, “Hell” and “Kill <3” mingle quietly with old men playing billiards in the open and noontime oblations of alcohol foregrounding murals of the “The Goan Spirit”.

Rang De Basanti (2006)

For us, it wasn’t the reversing of the Nazi swastika, or the open calls for revolution, but the subtle “Go slow someone is WETTING for U” message that got this wall on our list. We could have never guessed that sex and traffic safety have an overlapping common message.

Saawariya (2007) 

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Trust Bhansali to have his Muslim heroine and an identity-less hero romance under a mural of Goddess Lakshmi in a town full of Christian notalgia, right before they dock their boat under a Buddha statue. All the Gods must see this love bloom and unfetter. 

Wake Up Sid (2009)

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In 1956, when then-editor of Vogue saw pictures of photographer Norman Parkinson’s fashion shoot across India she noted “How clever of you Mr.Parkinson, to know that pink is the navy blue of India.” It is wishful thinking that she would have exclaimed something similar looking at these frames, (or Konkona Sen Sharma’s pink polka dot pajamas) of pink bottles against a yellow background similar to that in Sharma’s room in the film- the inside and the outside becoming one. 

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019)

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Like its protagonist who refuses to grow up, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is steeped in nostalgia. Surya’s head not only buzzes with a mishmash of pop culture references, from Bata shoes to Geraftaar to Kung Fu Panda, it’s also reflected in his clothes, the soundtrack to his life and even his surroundings. When you view life through rose-tinted glasses, why should its walls be any less filmi?

Gully Boy (2019)

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“This isn’t art, it’s war,” says Sky (Kalki Koechlin). Armed with her weapon of choice – a can of spray paint – she takes aim at deforestation, the unrealistic standards imposed on women’s bodies and the fairness cream industry in a series of graffiti that’s as irreverent as she is. 

Mulk (2018)

Mulk uses the walls of Benaras to parallel how religious beliefs are celebrated and the ugliness of what happens when yours are used against you. Early on, when Murad (Rishi Kapoor) offers namaz and leaves for home, his route passes by a wall bearing a mural of lord Shiva, his trident and ‘Om Namah Shivay’. Later in the film, religion becomes weaponized – when Murad’s nephew is found to be a terrorist, the outside walls of his home are spray painted with hate messages such as ‘Go back to Pakistan’.

PK (2015)

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In Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, shortly after PK first meets Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), he demonstrates how he manages to ‘checks in’ to jails every night just so he has a place to stay. He takes her to a wall which says ‘yaha peshab karna mana hai’ and, with a police car parked close by, he does the needful and gets intentionally arrested. Could there be a wall (or action) more representative of India than this?

Parineeta (2005)

Parineeta is the rare film in which a wall plays a pivotal role in the narrative, especially its powerful closing scene. Here, the wall represents the class divide that separates lovers Shekhar (Saif Ali Khan) and Lalita (Vidya Balan). When Shekhar finally comes to his senses and realises love should triumph over what society dictates, he starts breaking down the wall with his bare hands and hammering away at the metaphor keeping them apart – literally.

Tamasha (2015) 

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Intense pain often tends to present itself in public places, amongst people going on with their seemingly ordinary lives. In the now-iconic Agar Tum Saath Ho scene from Tamasha, it’s the small bylanes of Delhi and their graffitied walls which serve as the backdrop to Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) and Tara’s (Deepika Padukone’s) aching separation, as she frantically chases him through the streets till she finds him sitting in the corner of an opening, against some dazzling wall art which somehow adds to the palpability of the scene. As if to say searing pain can happen in great places, and heartbreak doesn’t discriminate based on setting.

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