By Carl Bromley
There were 18 of us, touring India that Christmas and New Year, with a production of Romeo and Juliet. As soon as I boarded the bus from the airport, which took us to St. Xavier’s College, the city seemed to emerge, almost atonally, in short bursts of light, like flashbulb explosions. I was mesmerised by this otherworldly city, a city whose neon light breathed life back into me after a long, motionless day on a plane. I should have felt out of place. But I didn’t. I thought: If I had to be a city, I would be Bombay.
I was a maniacal teenage cineaste. I would make journeys to London and spend days at the Scala cinema in King Cross’s red-light district watching exploitation movies from all over the world. My identity was saturated by cinema then; it was my reference point for everything. During that first hour in Bombay, I thought I was experiencing the real life equivalent of the opening frames of Blade Runner with its belching flames rising from a vast industrial plain. I had, by chance, been thrilled by the Amitabh Bachchan film Amar Akbar Anthony one Sunday morning on BBC television. I fell in love with Amitabh when he burst out of the giant Easter egg and sang, “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves.” This playful, cheeky badmaash was the kind of hero I had always wanted to be.
When we were given our tour itinerary at St. Xavier’s, I discovered that we were going to be visiting a film studio. On the morning of our visit, I found myself studying a vast poster for Mr. India, the Anil Kapoor-Sridevi starrer that was big that year. I was on one of the lower slopes of Malabar Hill, near where my host Anuj lived. There was a poster for the latest issue of Stardust on a wall nearby. A film hero was having his shirt torn off by a starlet’s ruby-red claws. The starlet had her shoulder exposed and her fishnet stockinged leg wrapped around the crotch of the hero’s black leather pants. He was showing more flesh than the girl. I wondered if this was an augury of our trip to the studios.
But the studios struck me as an extension of the slum land we had passed. The walls were stained by fungus. Letters were missing from the Seth Studios sign. We were made to wait for a long time in the car park, trapped in the heat. Some of us were beginning to feel faint; others were bursting to use the toilets. Someone from our host group was negotiating with someone from the studio over the fine details of our entry. Eventually we were admitted. We were given two conditions. No photos. And definitely no talking to the cast.
As we entered the studio a man, in swift flight, marched past us, followed by his entourage. The girls from St. Xavier’s suddenly became more animated and excited. It was the superstar Mithun Chakraborty. That mullet of his! Those shades! I had seen him before. It came back to me: here was the film hero I had seen that morning on the poster, the one whose shirt was being ripped off by the starlet’s ruby-red claws. Later I noticed many of the kids on the streets of Bombay and elsewhere had styled themselves like Mithun: the mullet, sleeveless T-shirts, aggressively stone-washed jeans. His cult had spread everywhere. Amitabh, I learned, was yesterday’s hero.
We watched Mithun’s repeated takes on a vast, palatial set while the film crew kept a firm eye on us. They were quite officious. When Marian, a member of our tour who had a Annie Lennox haircut, wanted to use the bathroom, a peon insisted she use the men’s toilet. Likewise, when Gary, a Goth with flowing black locks, wanted to use the toilet, he was marched to the women’s bathroom.
As more of us used these toilets, we were getting more voluble about the state they were in. (“Once seen or smelt, never forgotten,” one of us said of the experience.) A pretty starlet was dispatched to say hello to us and calm us down. I used this opportunity to sneak onto the set and try and perfect the Amitabh act I had been working on in my head. If only I could have leapt up and swung from the candelabra. If only my shirt had a more floppy collar. If only my legs weren’t so pale and exposed by the shorts my mother had insisted on packing for my trip. I tried playing the patriarchal father. “You will not marry that man!” I shouted at a pretty Xavierite who had slouched on a chair. We were ushered off the set by an anxious stagehand.
Filming resumed and we were reminded how bloody boring film sets can be. Some of us were wondering what it would take to be cast
as extras in the film. Some of us were wondering what the starlet’s plans were that evening. Some of us were ogling Mithun’s fine knee-length leather boots. And one of our troupe, Lucy, started shouting, “Fire! Fire!” We concluded that it was just another way of getting attention. She continued shouting. Then she started jumping and gesticulating. One of the lights had caught fire and no one seemed to give a damn. Mithun was intensely in character. He could not be disturbed. But the technical crew started taking serious note of this burning lamp. After all, their careers would be over if Mithun’s mullet got singed. They started running around shouting. Eventually, one of them grabbed a blanket and threw himself on the studio light until the fire was extinguished.
That evening, as I recounted our experiences at the studio to Anuj who was driving us around Bombay, the city continued to work its black magic on me. I was reminded, again and again, of the billboards, of the curvaceous, primary-coloured filmi lovelies and leathered-up heroes that decorated them—painted in garish, oily green, red, yellow and pink colours. Notwithstanding the dodgy toilets and a nearly catastrophic fire, I felt that the film gods had sprinkled some of their stardust on me earlier that day at the studios. I would carry that dust as I travelled around India. I carried it for years after.
A few years later, I was living in Oxford. Flannelled shorts and Nirvana was the rage. Thom Yorke, the lead singer of a band recently renamed Radiohead, could be seen in the local pubs looking lonely and morose. A term, “Generation X” had crept over from America and my generation was being daubed with it. As hard as I tried, I could never recognise myself in that phrase. I was too busy with Bollywood, too haunted by Bombay. I was engaged in the first of two hundred attempts to write a novel about Bombay. I owned Nevermind but I listened more to the soundtrack of Maine Pyar Kiya. Channel Four had started showing Hindi films regularly. This was an opportunity for me to engage in a form of time travel back to Bombay. I reacquainted myself with Amitabh Bachchan’s grand style as an actor. His voice particularly, its extraordinary depth, the tall, slender, cool machismo, his versatility as an actor, as romantic, comic and angry young man. All filled me with a reverence bordering on the mystical.
But the Bombay that I experienced was elusive. With the exception of Amitabh’s Angry Young Man films, the Bombay of Bollywood and its magazines was mostly a plastic world, a microclimate removed from everyday Bombay. I became a beggar for a filmmaker who would just simply point their bloody camera at the Bombay streets and spend some time there. (There were exceptions. Some of Mani Ratnam’s films and Zafar Hai’s oddly neglected The Perfect Murder captured a genteel decrepitude and melancholy of the city that I savoured on my walks around Nepean Sea Road.)
Still, Bombay’s landscapes became my dreamscapes. Most of all, I was haunted by memories of Marine Drive, the boulevard that hugged the seafront on our way to Anuj’s. The memory of the sudden splash of buttery bright light that emerged before us as Anuj took a sharp turn into the drive would daze me all over again. The light seemed to coil and flame several miles up the coast, to the high-rise buildings of Malabar Hill. The skylines of the cities I had lived in England before and after were flat and ambitionless in comparison.
I would pore over maps to try and get a geography of my movements of the city. I used photographs to reconstruct memories but also slow down my experience of the city. Even when we were stuck in traffic, the city always seemed to pass too quickly. But the more I revisited Bombay in my imagination, the more territory I wanted—a city beyond my own limited travels. At first I read novels like Midnight’s Children and reports like Jeremy Seabrook’s Life and Labour in a Bombay Slum. Hundreds of books followed. In Oxford, I visited the India Institute library and pored through journals of geography and sociology. I would read the dense but brilliant analysis in the Economic and Political Weekly. None of this had any professional or scholastic bearing. I was more like a fanatical Dylan fan in search of another rare collectible.
Two decades haunting the video bazaars of London, Nottingham, Oxford and New York. Two decades trying to re-experience the city’s unique vapours in its literature. (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh satisfied this lust as did the short stories of Sadat Manto, Vikram Chandra and Rohinton Mistry. Antonio Tabucci’s Indian Nocturne captured the city’s eeriness; and in Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City the city found, finally, books that were its equal.) Reading Time Out Mumbai as if it was my local listings magazine. Hours spent on YouTube watching tourist videos of experiences on Marine Drive, Chowpatty Beach or in Colaba. An enduring interest in the city’s architectures, both interior and exterior. The cinema of the 1970s, the labour wars of the '80s, the rise of the Shiv Sena, the lives of Anglo-Indian actresses in early Hindi cinema, the city’s architecture? What wasn’t I interested in?
I didn’t get quite to the point where I could recite train timetables from Churchgate to Andheri, but I spent quite some time building an imaginary city in my head. I even imagined an underground subway system erected secretly by a 19th-century industrialist-turned-transcendentalist who wanted to build a metro that would link the city’s disparate places of religious worship. It was my homage to the old cosmopolitan city that seemed to be dying in the wake of the political rise of the Shiv Sena and the ruthless commercialisation of the city.
The opening of Maximum City has an extended personal history where the author recounts his childhood in Bombay and feeling severed from it when his family emigrated to New York City. His meditation made me examine my own demented fascination and ask the question, “Why Bombay?” Mehta had spent his formative years in the city. I had spent my formative days in the city. I was on the cusp of young manhood, in a strange place I felt oddly at home in. The city has been the conductor of my obsession. It was the city that sent me electric shocks of excitement. I often think of the experience of the girls who scaled Hanging Rock on Valentine's Day in Peter Weir’s film. Some of them vanished, those who survived were never the same. Bombay, my Hanging Rock.
Mehta’s book—much of which was set in the locale where I stayed in around Nepean Sea Road—made me think of Anuj, the young man who had been my host in Bombay. If only for a few days, he had given me the keys to the city. I could never forget the white Maruti Suzuki 800cc hatchback that he drove. It was known as India’s first
‘modern era’ car—the streets were still hogged by the stodgy but
reliable Hindustan Motors' Ambassador and the Premier Padmini—and something of a novelty. While the rest of the traffic seemed content to canter slowly, Anuj wanted to pile through it. But what had become of him?
Finally, after discovering that I had been spelling his surname wrong for years in my Google searches, I found a reference to him on a Campion School alumni site. But the reference to him was in the past tense. I wrote to Anand, the person who had written about him on the site, who I remembered as Anuj’s close friend. He confirmed my worst fears. Anuj was dead. In 1990, not long after my time in Bombay, he had fallen to his death in a tragic accident at the Kanheri Caves.
I spent the day in a daze. I remembered rambling around the lower slopes of Malabar Hill by Anuj’s building. A lot of the area was under construction but there was still enough of the lovely bungalows and arched villas, enough foliage to give the place a romantic, melancholy air. Certain sounds of birdsong or a building style still remind me of it.
By the time of my discovering Anuj’s passing, Amitabh Bachchan was no longer the film hero I wanted to be. I was watching less and less Hindi cinema as it became less heartfelt, less romantic and much more materialistic. I even missed the dishum dishum of the much maligned '80s cinema. (I thought the film that came closest to capturing the essence of my experience in Bombay was Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express.) Curiously, as filmmakers were far more focused on capturing a global (but rather shallow) desi demographic in their cinema, I noticed more films that caught the ambience of the city I remembered. Space seemed to be developing for a modest commercial cinema that seemed interested in the life of the city. Filmmakers like Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap embodied this shift.
Recently I came across the issue of Movie magazine that I had bought in Bombay. I remembered an article about the actress Smita Patil, who had died, almost a year to that day of my trip to Bombay, at the age of 31, due to complications following childbirth. She wasn’t one of the Bolly Dollies of the billboards. Her beauty was more subtle. I remembered gazing at pictures of her adorable, but sadly motherless, one- year-old son at his birthday party. Anuj’s mother, seeing what I was reading, remembered a year earlier, people lining up outside the hospital just down the road, to give blood to their dying goddess. Imagine then, my delight, while watching Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat—a beautiful film, which, like few others, was so acutely aware of the city’s atmospherics, its morning moods and sounds—that the young lovelorn protagonist in the film was played by Prateik Babbar, the son of Smita Patil, whose picture as a child I had found so curious that morning in Anuj’s apartment, once upon a time in Bombay.