First published as 'Beyond Bollywood' in Intrepid Times
In Mumbai, a multitude of masala films are produced each year mixing crime, romance, action, suspense and comedy into a three hour long film. These Bollywood blockbusters are beacons of hope within Indian society. The lower classes deflect their own economic struggles for the instant pleasure of watching bold and beguiling characters take on the fantastical world around them on a screen bigger than their shanty homes.
Once we landed in Mumbai and descended the plane, we were greeted by an intense humidity. Almost suffocating. Beyond the wired fences surrounding the landing strip stood slum dwellings, undisturbed by the giant international planes flying out each hour. Our accommodation was located in Goregaon east, about 17km north of Mumbai. Staying next to a large Islamic mosque meant that we awoke each morning at 5am to the exotic, yet beckoning first call of prayer over the loudspeaker. The baritone sounds calling the city to arise and face the new day.
Prior to leaving Australia, I immersed myself into Indian culture. With homemade chicken curry and roti I watched the 1957 epic, Mother India with its realistic exposure to the raw elements of Indian life. You could say this is the Gone with the Wind of Bollywood cinema. Mother India disturbingly showcased the hardships of a mother and her strive for survival amongst enormous odds. This was exposure to a place far removed from the comforts of my familiar sofa and middle class suburban home. Certainly well worth watching prior to any Indian experience.
As a filmmaker this two week study trip to Mumbai was an adventure that would privy me to interact with established Bollywood filmmakers, visit unique film sets and even create a short documentary with a few other friends.
Over the next few days we explored the city by auto rickshaw, crowded mini bus and by foot. We gazed in awe at the grandeur of Victoria Terminus, its Gothic architecture overshadowing the bustling city streets beneath it. Shopping at local market stalls was a must-do. I stocked up on a plethora of intrinsically designed shawls for family members back home. Bartering soon became the norm and second nature to me.
Whilst strolling along the waterfront we caught sunset glimpses of the Gateway of India, which was built during the early 20th century in commemoration of the first British monarchs to visit the country. It stood strong amidst a sky of pink splendour. Onwards, we escaped by boat to Elephanta Island, home to Hindi cave temples carved out of rock during the 5th century. Our adventures never seemed to stop. At times we even found ourselves pressed against the interior of trains like an overflowing closet. When an argument broke out between an older woman and a much larger man, who was apparently blocking the doors, the scene erupted much to the public’s approval. Everyone stopped to watch this petite lady yell at the man’s out of line behaviour. It was as if a Bollywood soap was taking place right before our eyes. One onlooker even whipped out a few samosas from his bag to nibble on, pleased with the entertainment taking place before him.
At first, food was gruelling to stomach, my diet back home never consisted of spices, and when it did they were well below the ‘mild’ rating. My ignorance was astounded by my palette’s progression towards fresh meat dishes, mouth-watering curries, and heaves of white rice moated by vegetables soaked in flavourful spices and herbs. I came accustomed to sipping on hot chai, bought at street vendors, whilst wiping the sweat off my face in forty degree heat. I adapted not only to the cuisine but to the perpetual smells of car fumes and stray animals, and the early morning Islamic chanting gradually soothed me into a deep meditated slumber.
When it came to the end of the day we strolled through neighbourhoods flooded with shanty houses; families huddled inside together cooking, chatting and catching up on the latest episode of Masterchef Australia. I reflected on my own family back home; my father sitting in his favourite blue armchair watching the contestants battle it out for the perfect dessert, whilst my mother stirred the gravy on the stove, with few words being spoken. So many similarities yet worlds apart. Inside these Indian homes a euphoria can quickly erupt when a favourite contestant wins immunity and proceeds to the next round. It is intriguing to see families bond over a cubed, vintage television screen. A little boy laughs beside his weathered grandfather as mother and daughter cook over hot firewood; all walks of life interacting in admiration and respect, something we lack back home.
‘Namaste,’ I say politely which is followed by gleaming smiles and multiple invitations to come play cricket with the children. Just the mention of the word ‘cricket’ and everyones face lights up. As I know little about the sport, I repeat the names of those I’ve heard pop up on the local news in the past: ‘Ricky Ponting,' 'Adam Gilchrist.’ The children nod enthusiastically and reply with ‘Sachin Tendulkar!’ Who knew cricket could help find a common ground to communicate and make friends.
During the week we had the privilege of visiting high end production boutiques run by esteemed producers. Other days we were welcomed onto the lavish sets of Indian soap operas where we laughed alongside the crew. The most memorable film set experience was when a bus took us out of the city, two hours later we finally reached a secluded field with no one in sight. As we peered out the dusty bus windows we saw in the distance groups of bulky men parading the Black Standard flag and thrusting their AK-47’s in the air. Our hearts skipped a beat upon hearing a man shout “CUT!” Soon we discovered that the authoritative voice came from acclaimed film director, Hansal Mehta and that we were on the set of his biographical crime drama, Omerta, which explored the 1994 kidnappings of Westerners that occurred in India.
After locals shared their recent stories of severe droughts that were effecting their farms in the Maharashtra region we felt compelled to explore this further. Our curiosity led us to the suburb of Ghatkopar where we were suddenly thrusted into the hub of a migration camp full of hundreds of farmers and families in search of water, food and work.
With camera gear in tow, a Marathi translator at our side, and buckets of sunscreen slapped on our ghostly faces, we made our way into this makeshift campsite. Innocent children banged on pots and ran around giggling carelessly, unaware of the wild pigs roaming the area in search of food or a fight. I was told that these pigs were known to kill small children. The site was shadowed by hillside slums that looked down upon a wasteland of what firstly appeared as a rubbish dump. Beside a river swarming with sewage and litter, we spotted a cricket pitch. A pleasant social distraction away from the improvised homes, made from discarded poles, tarps and fallen tree branches. Smoke from yesterday’s fire rose and with the endless heat wafting in the air, it created a hazy mirage. Was this real?
We filmed and interviewed fathers, mothers, children and local reporters about their plight. To think these people travel here every year knowing that a drought will soon come and take away their livestock and destroy their crops. Men and women forced to work as labourers in the city. An annual occurrence.
The Bollywood experience had evaporated and the harsh reality of the Indian poor was gripping. I recalled the film, Mother India, and now saw first hand the destitution faced by so many families living in the most strenuous conditions. Here, nobody cared about our cricket jargon, responding to our greetings with ‘anna’ - Marathi for ‘food.’
However, juxtaposing this sight was the vibrant colours of saris curtaining women from their faded dreams. I encountered women who despite having little, found luxury through simple pleasures. They took pride in their appearance, taking time to dress in colourful traditional clothing for what could only be an arduous day of labour under the sweltering sun. A mother picked up a shard of glass to use as a mirror, the images reflecting crushed dreams and life saving hope in a world of disarray. Despite such dismal circumstances they welcomed me into their 1x1 metre homes with warmth and hospitality.
My Mumbai experience was a whirlwind filled with an array of emotions and new encounters. I now saw life through an entirely different lens. For so many Indians, watching a Bollywood film is like winning a million dollar lottery. These films offer a chance to escape from the poverty of daily existence. Inside cinemas, people applaud the hero and boo the villain, fall in love with stunning leads, and sing and dance to the rhythm of vivacious musical numbers. A movie ticket is an escape that is well worth the price.