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Spotlight | You are now entering city limits

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Nandini Ramnath

The new movie Citylights is about a sari salesman from a town in Rajasthan who is chased out by debt. Along with his wife and daughter, he moves to Mumbai, where he confronts the big bad ways of everybody’s favourite big bad city soon after he gets off the train. From this early lesson in one of Mumbai’s credos—be wise or be sorry—it’s an overtly familiar downward turn. The salesman finds work with a security agency that transfers cash and valuables around the city, while his wife joins whatever is left of the beer bar business. Needless to say, both are miserable.

Citylights is an official remake of Metro Manila, a Filipino indie directed by British film-maker Sean Ellis and itself a cautionary tale about the big city’s wicked ways. Both films rehash familiar realities and stereotypes of life in the metropolis—it is harsh towards poor migrants, it is governed by luck rather than logic, it is un-compassionate and unyielding, it makes a mockery of honesty, and it can be conquered only by stooping.

We can’t think of a better set of arguments against migration. Is Citylights, like so many other entries in the Moving to Mumbai category, actually trying to make the case that you should stay put, you in your miserable hovel from whence you spring, this city is not for you?

Bombay, Mumbai, Bambai has been getting a bad rap for so many years in the movies that it is a marvel that thousands of Indians continue to uproot themselves and settle in the metropolis. From the noir-inflected 1950s films like Baazi and Taxi Driver, through dramas like Dastak, Gaman and Hathyar, all the way till Citylights, Mumbai has been depicted as a rare feline species that must be approached at one’s own peril. Its liberating nature also has the potential to send people into freefall. The city’s melting-pot quality boils down its recent entrants into nothingness.

Movie after movie has deployed the plot device of the discovery of Mumbai through a familiar set of moments and characters. There is the walk along the Marine Drive promenade, the inaugural ride in a public transport bus and the sampling of street food, the first stirrings of the heart, the encounter with the sharp-eyed trickster, the hard knocks and heartbreaks, the shot composition of a lone human being against an unyielding skyline, dialogue or an anthemic song revealing a widely held truth about Mumbai. In Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420, one of the urtexts for the genre, a lame beggar inaugurates several speeches about the city with “Yeh Bambai hai mere bhai (This is Bombay, my friend)”.

Rajkumar Rao’s character in ‘Citylight’ is a salesman from Rajasthan, a miserable migrant in today’s Mumbai. Crime is invariably portrayed as the migrant’s undoing, from Shree 420, whose sly screenplay, by K.A. Abbas and V.P. Sathe, argues that this city is built by hustlers and hucksters, to Ram Gopal Varma’s seminal gangster drama Satya, in which circumstance forces a turn towards extortion and killings. Among the most iconic images of a character taking the short-cut route to success is Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay in Deewar, framed against a window with the Marine Drive promenade stretching into the distance. Vijay’s crime-influenced progress from shoeshine boy to dock worker to gangster invokes another central credo of the Moving to Mumbai genre—you will gain a new address but lose your bearings.

Sai Paranjpye’s Disha, in which a group of men migrate from a village to eke out an existence on the margins, is one of the few films to suggest that a life in Mumbai might be preferable to the village, even though its characters do call the city a “mayapuri” (a place of illusion) and “narakpuri” (sheer hell). Nana Patekar’s character, whose wife has to suffer the ignominy of sharing a room for one night with several other male workers—a nifty snapshot of Mumbai’s pathetically cramped living arrangements—eventually decides to settle in the very city that he has spent the rest of the movie criticizing.

Among the examples of Mumbai’s ability to give physical and emotional shelter are three films by an outsider. Mani Ratnam grew up in Chennai and lives there, but he spent a few years in Mumbai while studying for a master’s in business administration at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies. Ratnam seems to have fond memories of the city, which he first tackled in Nayakan, a mish-mash of The Godfather, Once Upon a Time In America and Tamil don Varadarajan Mudaliar’s life story. Nayakan, which was also dubbed in Hindi, is set in Mumbai’s Dharavi neighbourhood. Yet it’s clear that the central character Velu Naicker’s moral choices, rather than the city itself, are responsible for the series of tragedies he endures (the violent deaths of his wife and son, his daughter’s estrangement). In Ratnam’s Bombay, the city provides its inter-faith couple with a hideaway from religious prejudice. Mumbai is ravaged by the communal riots of 1992 and 1993, but the city reiterates, in a teary ending, its ability to help and heal.

Ratnam’s greatest ode to Mumbai is at the other extreme of the enduring image of the city as exploitation central. Guru is part American-style celebratory biopic of one man’s ability to overcome adversity and part corporate video extolling the march of big business. Abhishek Bachchan’s Dhirubhai Ambani inspired industrialist escapes his nondescript village in Gujarat and his father’s moral science lectures and finds his fortune in Mumbai through a combination of confidence and chicanery. Guru is a Shree 420 for the 2000s—a shining example of the dictum that in Mumbai, honesty is as common and desirable as a reasonably priced apartment.

The movie migrant who is the subject of empathy and pity is often poor. It has been hard for film-makers to imagine any other reason why people leave home, although we can think of several other motivations. By projecting a middle-class and often top-down viewpoint on labour movement, and emphasizing that the journey from the small town or village is always fraught and forced, Hindi cinema has ignored other facets of migration.

Few films have explored the organic subcultures and economies that make migrants feel welcome—the fact that people often move to a slum or a cluster that holds older migrants from their village, caste or religion, for instance. Or the ways in which the working class finds jobs, housing, schooling and a new community more cosmopolitan than the one left behind. Or that several groups of migrants, such as the hard-working taxi drivers from Uttar Pradesh, run two establishments, one here and the other in the village. Or that scores of migrants manage to carve out their own corners in an overcrowded and badly governed metropolis.

Mumbai’s peculiar living arrangements, its domestic help services, grocery arrangements and public transport utilities, appear hostile at the outset, but they hold the key to the city’s ability to absorb millions of people, some of whom arrived a few centuries ago and others in the previous month.

In Madhur Bhandarkar’s best film Chandni Bar, Tabu’s Mumtaz lands up in the city with a relative, her home and family members having been destroyed by a communal riot. Mumbai typically welcomes her with open arms and then crushes her in its embrace. It ends badly for Mumtaz, as it does for most of Bhandarkar’s protagonists, but the usually misanthropic film-maker goes to some lengths to show what Mumtaz gains in her lost paradise—a community of wisecracking and knowing bar dancers, the chance to have a family and escape hatred.

Mumbai is a hard place to live in, but it has hidden pleasures that evade easy moralizing. Fixated on the idea of Mumbai as a bottomless vice pit, film-makers have blurred the line between comment and censure. Movie migrants from impecunious backgrounds deserve empathy, especially since they are drawn from real-life characters, but their doughtiness, survival instincts and unique negotiations can provide rich cinematic fodder too. Some salesmen perish. Many others survive, and thrive.

Citylights released in theatres on Friday.

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