The stupidest movie I have seen in a long time is, well, I can't even recall the name. It has Bobby Deol playing a cancer surgeon, and his girlfriend is a ghost-like Kangana Ranaut. He is paralysed neck-down after an accident, and thanks to the cheering up by a little cancer-afflicted boy who is admitted in the same hospital, he not only overcomes his paralysis but also conducts an (academic) research from the hospital bed and finds a cure for cancer. The story isn't stupid: it was adapted from a Russian fable, after all. But the movie certainly is.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and I were the only people in the theatre that evening, apart from two young students from the Northeast. Just six people in the entire hall in an upscale Delhi mall! If I was a young man who had a girlfriend but no place to take her to, I would have bought tickets for this movie again and again.
How can a director be so dumb? Throughout the movie, there is nothing that can give you even the remotest idea where the story is set. For most of the first half, the location is unmistakably foreign, with white people in the background and all, but Bobby Deol drives a car with a Karnataka registration number and works in an upscale hospital where the entire staff is Indian. The second half, of course, is shot inside a hospital, so there is no way of telling if the hospital is located in Mumbai or Minneapolis.
How can you savour a story without getting a sense of the place? It was not for nothing that Ramesh Sippy had painstakingly created 'Ramgarh' in the outskirts of Bangalore and shot Sholay there for four years. To save on time, he could have created a duplicate 'Ramgarh' elsewhere in order to carry on with the shooting when monsoon arrived in Karnataka. But he knew the audience is not a fool. Directors began to take the audience's intelligence for granted from the time when Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborthy were the reigning stars. That was the time when an idyllic spot in Tamil Nadu was passed off as a village in Uttar Pradesh. The trend, unfortunately, carries forward even today; but, fortunately, such movies are not very memorable.
The memorable ones are place-specific. And since the Hindi film industry works out of Bombay, most of the movies that you still watch again and again are set in Bombay. Baaton Baaton Mein could not have been set in the hills of Ooty: it is a hardcore Bombay movie, but it continues to appeal to even those who have never set foot on Bombay. Amitabh Bachchan's Don was such a 'Bombay' film, so were Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony. And, of course, Guru Dutt's films! And, of course, so many other films -- one could write a 500-page book on them. The point is, these films never pretended that the location was elsewhere: that's precisely why they worked and that's precisely what made Bombay so endearing and romantic and awe-inspiring for the rest of India. You did not have to visit Bombay to know what Marine Drive looked like.
Ah, those were the days, when smuggled gold would be arriving at the shore at an appointed time and cops, acting on a tip-off, would take their positions, armed with pistols (no AK-47 then). The smugglers would give the cops a slip and a chase would begin on the streets on Bombay, with Kalyanji Anandji or R.D. Burman providing the background music. Ah, those were the days, when Amol Palekar would romance Tina Munim in a local train. Ah, those were the days, when Iftekhar, the eternal police officer, would give a pep-talk to his juniors to keep up the prestige of their vardi -- the uniform -- and solve the murder that took place in Khandala. Ah, those were the days when movies used to have a 'Bombay' song. In fact, if you ever want to measure how times have changed, listen to these songs.
"Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan, yeh hai Bombay, yeh hai Bombay, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan" by Rafi describes a city that is entirely different from the way it is potrayed in the funny, full-throated "Yeh hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh babua" by Kishore Kumar. But the sentiment in both these songs is common: Bombay overwhelms you.
I have, sadly, never been to Bombay. Only once, in 2005. Since the visit lasted barely 24 hours, I do not consider it as a visit. But the details are clearly etched in my mind. The occasion was the launch of the Lee calendar: various celebrity photographers had shot Yana Gupta in her various moods and attires and their pictures were to be unveiled that evening in a Juhu hotel. Even before I could take the plane to Mumbai, I was handed a responsibility: the daughter of a friend was a huge fan on Yana Gupta, and I was expected to bring back an autographed calendar for her.
I landed at four in the evening and, to my great horror, found no one holding a placard bearing my name. I went to a phone booth, run by a man who was entirely blind and who measured the value of the coins and notes handed to him by feeling them, and called up the driver who was supposed to pick me up. Fortunately, the driver was in the vicinity: he had just stepped out for tea. "This is Kalyanji Anandji's bungalow," he pointed to me while we were driving to the hotel. I was tempted to get down and walk inside the gate and interview Anandji. But this being Bombay, I did not know how things worked and kept quiet till I was deposited at the hotel.
It is pointless to describe the night of the calendar launch because it was like any other event where there is plenty of glamour and booze. But I must say I was quite horrified to see my favourite TV actress (even though I hardly watch TV) wearing a mini-skirt instead of the trademark saree: I could actually see the countours of her thighs. The next morning, I decided to pay a visit to a friend who lives in Cuffe Parade. "Just take a train from Bandra station, get down at Churchgate and take a taxi," he said. Feeling like the Amol Palekar of Baaton Baaton Mein, I went to Bandra station and bought a ticket to Churchgate for Rs 7.
A train came, but I could not imagine getting into it: so crowded it was. The next train came. It was crowded as well. It was clear to me by now that getting into a local train in Mumbai required special skills, which I was too old now to acquire. I walked out of Bandra station and took a taxi to Cuffe Parade. The driver hailed from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. I felt at home. I also felt at home when I passed landmarks, such as the Marine Drive, which I had been familiar with since childhood thanks to Hindi films. Bombay was a city that belonged to me as much as it belonged to its long-time residents. But twenty-four hours were far too short to savour a city.
Fortunately, thanks to Chai, Chai, I am going to Mumbai again. This time, I hope to gather enough courage to get into a local train, even if for travelling a short distance for the sake of it, and having lunch at one of the Irani restaurants. But let me not be so overwhelmed by Mumbai to forget inviting you all for the event I am going there for.
So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the launch of Chai, Chai in Mumbai on December 10, 6.30 pm at Crossword, Bandra. Award-winning playwright and director Mahesh Dattani will read from the book there. And the next day, I shall be crossing the famous Khandala ghat to travel to Pune, where noted poet-writer Randhir Khare will read from Chai, Chai at Landmark on December 11 at 6.30 pm. Please be there.
For those living in the south of the Vindhyas, a small reminder for the launch in Bangalore: at Garuda Mall Crossword on November 28 at 6 pm. Please be there.