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Six Films about the Real Mumbai

Between Hollywood’s superficial love affair with Mumbai’s slums and underworld, and Bollywood’s cleaned-up version of its glossy cosmopolitan façade, the city may just be one of the most frequently portrayed cities in mainstream film culture. And yet somehow the rich complexities that draw so many filmmakers to the city in the first place often seem to get lost in the cut. But Mumbai is also home to a vibrant community of independent and documentary filmmakers and finds itself as the set and subject of many alternative films inspired by and exploring the city’s reality—as opposed to just its easily marketable attributes.

For the uninitiated, the Lab’s run in Mumbai was a fantastic crash course in independent Mumbai cinema. In the Mumbai Lab’s film series, Mumbai-based independent filmmaker Surabhi Sharma screened an amazing selection of films, mostly about or based in the city, that explored in a variety of ways the issues of privacy and public-private tensions that the Lab was addressing. Even within the other programs and presentations, and without intentional systematic curation, fascinating films and videos addressing the issues at hand consistently cropped up. When all pieced together, they presented a thorough and complex insight into the politics, emotions, struggles, and psyche of the city that put the B in Bollywood in the first place.

And so, without further ado, I’m excited to put forth a short but sweet BMW Guggenheim Lab rough film guide to Mumbai. Though by no means comprehensive, it’s a great start for those who care for a slightly deeper and more engaging glimpse than one might find in Slumdog Millionaire.

Cosmopolis: Two Tales of a City (Paromita Vohra, India, 2004, 13 min.)

A bizarre but humorous blend of fiction and documentary, Cosmopolis: Two Tales of a City is an enlightening and almost disturbing peek into the politics that surround food and clashing food cultures in the hyper-multicultural megacity that Mumbai has always been—and how modernization and societal shifts are fueling the fire. (You can watch Cosmopolis here—see the video at the top of this post.)

Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? (What Angers Albert Pinto?) (Saeed Mirza, India, 1980, 110 min.)

Though actually a Bollywood fiction, produced in the 1980s, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? (What Angers Albert Pinto?) wins points for its tender and humorous tackling of the socio-psychological politics of class aspiration in the city, its portrayal of working class life in the chawls, and it’s backdrop of a Bombay sliding into one of the city’s most defining and pivotal political and economic eras: the Great Bombay Textile Strike and the downfall of the city’s famous mills.

Annapurna: Goddess of Food (Paromita Vohra, India, 1995, 25 min.)

This documenatary shows a different side of mill life completely, telling the amazing story of a groundbreaking women’s food cooperative that was born in the ashes of policy-induced job loss, and has flourished to provide emancipation and economic liberty to thousands of Mumbai women. (See the trailer for Annapurna above.)

Bombay – Our City (Anand Patwardhan, India, 1985, 75 min.)
Vertical City (Avijit Mukul Kishore, India, 2011, 34 min.)

Typical portrayals of Mumbai’s slums often fail to recognize the rich and complex economic, industrial, and social networks that their typology supports, but two films poignantly illuminate the tragic consequences of breaking those systems without consideration, and question the logic behind it. The 1985 documentary Bombay—Our City documents and details the slum evictions and demolitions of the 1980s in a provocative style. The more modern Vertical City documents the appalling dysfunction of government slum resettlement plans in Mumbai. These plans relocate slum residents into entirely ill-suited high-rise building complexes in the city’s far suburbs, disconnected from necessary services and from other parts of the city. Many abandon the housing altogether, and those who stay find themselves confined to degenerated “vertical slums” far worse than where they came from in the first place. (Also, if you want to understand the often highly sophisticated system through which actual slum houses are created, listen to a slum contractor explain his process, watch RMC concrete being transported through Shivaji Nagar’s narrow lanes or check out other videos on URBZ’s Youtube channel.

Kaali Salwar (Fareeda Mehta, India, 2002, 120 min.)

And finally, the fictional story of a Mumbai sex worker, Kaali Salwar is set during an interesting time in Mumbai’s former mill district. Filmed in 2002, it caught the city in the fleeting moment that flashed between its industrial and rapid redevelopment eras, creating a post-industrial ambience that only a few remember, and others will never again experience. In her post-screening discussion at the Lab, director Fareeda Mehta called this “memory excavation.”

Enjoy the show!