Hey Bombay! You still there?

FirstPerson: A Students' Notebook

Between cinematic fantasies and realism, it's a dream sequence which must go on, despite chauvinistic politics and the sound of gunshots

Ankita Chawla Delhi

I GREW UP in India in the 1990s. I've fed myself on Bollywood movies -- melodramatic, colourful, unbelievable and it all happens in Bombay. Though Switzerland always seemed to be a dream song sequence away, life always goes on here. The fights, the ‘attempted' love affairs, the ageing actors stuck in college, more often than not St. Xaviers, and crucially, the Juhu beach, Chowpatty, a lot cleaner  than possible on a regular day. I've been to Bombay in the mind, never lived in it in person. It is a part of every movie-watching Indian's corny, glamour-loving, over-romantic consciousness. It's a part of mine for sure.

When the names Santa Cruz, Colaba or Lokhandwala are pronounced, it isn't Latin for anyone here. You've been there. If the phrase were to be changed to "Ab Bombay door nahin" it would stand just as true. When you reach the part of the movie where you arrive in Bombay you see the glorious Victoria Terminus - VT. For years, this is where your story enters the showground -- it is the theatre, the stage, the canvas, and the rest of us -- the audience. The Indian Railways is spread out across the land like veins in our body. In a country where from remote villages and big urban centers, "All Rail Roads lead to Bombay" it is logical that VT serves as the headquarters of central railways. Come to or go from Bombay, the act becomes worthy of a chronicle, and your establishing shot is always the Gothic colonial structure; a blend of Victorian and traditional Indian architecture. In its very make it seems to consolidate the spirit of the city it introduces to you, very international, cosmopolitan and yet an essential point for the country. A mix of all that's new and an account of all that passed.

They don't say Bombay dreams for nothing. It holds within itself, the Gateway of India. And beyond it the boundless sea. Scores of thousands of people, young and old, have ventured in to fulfill their filmy aspirations here. Even though the legacy of the mammoth entertainment industry flows with heredity, it doesn't deter a gazillion dreams each new movie that hits the screen fosters in the hearts of the gazillion. Though cleverly stated in Raj Kapoor's Shree 420: "Yeh Bombay hain meri jaan, yahan rasta batane ke bhi paise lagte hain", it does not discourage the same gazillion who prefer to struggle and sweat their guts out in the city of dreams. 

It seems from such a state of affairs to be a place for anybody. No class, caste, religion; only the dream and the passion to fulfill that farfetched dream. The need to define oneself as to fit in as a social entity is derided by the outlook of being a person wanting enough to be surviving in Bombay. The local trains become another trademark image adding fuel to the enchanting idea of Bombay. While movies upheld the idea almost every Friday, television went a step ahead, entered your homes and made Bombay a place everybody lives in. Like a dreamland, it is where you would float above the surface, fly and for once not look for roots.

In movies every festival is celebrated with equal excitement; whichever part of the world you are from, it's all colour, noise, music, crowd in equal measure. Also, somehow language is not an issue. Everybody understands everyone else in movies. The much advertised "bambaiya" language is almost where the slang dictionary of India could originate from. Everything is "bindaas" in "apun ka Bombay!" If we follow what the screen shows, this is one place where regionalism is positive.There could have, however, an obviously economic side to it all.

Gregory David Robert's Shantaram overfed us (me at least) on Bombay. What does that book not have? Romance. Check. Action. Check. Mystery. Check. The Mafia. Check. Even a War. CHECK! Though it has been shelved for now, Mira Nair's intended movie with Johnny Depp based on the novel, would have been a total masala flick, in Bombay. Bombay is the one place where the author could glamourise the poor, the slums and the marginalised. Everything about the city was perfect there. The pain, the jail, the guns, the black market. If it's Bombay, it seemed justified. Ram Gopal Varma's "Satya" started his long drawn tryst with replicating underworld, and even there we do not rationalise terror. We are sad when "Bhikhu Mhatre" or "Satya" die a sudden death.

The flip side is supported by the fact that Bombay is where the money is, it is where the moolah lies and in abundance! In a conversation about Bombay a few days ago, it felt strange when a friend pointed out that Mumbai was the trade capital of the country. As this becomes the first touch point as far as Bombay is concerned, a lot of the dreamy ideas constructed of the city in the mind starts to question itself. When "wonderland Bombay" becomes the center of the country's stock exchange, it starts to precipitate a lot of the reality merrily ignored on the silver screen. And when economy enters, then politics can't be left behind. In 1995, Bombay becomes Mumbai and in 1996 the all welcoming VT becomes Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal. Defining the spirit of Bombay, sorry Mumbai, must've been problematic as it is composed of too many spectrums, flavours, languages and colours, coming in from all directions and all corners of the country, becoming one synthesis, cosmopolitan, human, a vibrant chaos in harmony.

This changing idea of Bombay somewhere deconstructs the image we all are conditioned to create in our minds. Bombay as we see through the camera lens isn't what can be touched and felt now. When a group of men take out their guns and start killing people at random, at a place as characteristic as Cafe Leopold, it hits at the basic level. I have spent exactly a day-and-a-half in Bombay, and it was pouring and so all I remember is the salt in the air. I saw Café Leopold from the outside, a passing glance. Yet I maintain that the life and times of Bombay have been for more than long a part of our popular culture. Many of us wish to someday go and scan the roads of the city, sit at the Marine Drive in the middle of the night, run on the clean beaches we aren't very likely to find easily, and hope to believe what we all have heard all our lives "Bombay is safe!".

The happy Filmy Bombay -- consciousness clashes with the in your face reality of terror, regionalism and excessive chauvinism of cold-blooded and shallow politics. In the face of it all, a Bollywood buff like me, would like to ask, Hey Bombay... You still there?

The writer studies at Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi