Reality in Mumbai is very different from life as seen through the rose-tinted lens of the typical Bollywood film. But its truly lovable aspects lie precisely in that reality.
There are a handful of cities in the world that possess an exotic allure simply because of their names. Generally known as megacities, they hold out an attraction even for those who have never gone there, and perhaps never will. They are like no other places on earth for the wide range of their differences and the enormous dynamism generated not by the sheer numbers of their population but rather by its creativity. The pulse not just of their own countries but sometimes even of the world itself beats in them. So boundless is their attraction that most of us dream of going to such a city at least once in our lives, even though our dream may appear unlikely to be realized. Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Istanbul are a few of the cities that fall into this category. What then comes to a person’s mind at the mention of Mumbai or, by its old name, Bombay? If you’ve been there before, undoubtedly many things will come to mind based on your experiences there. But for those who know Mumbai only from a distance, two intertwined yet conflicting images are almost inevitable. Mumbai at once conjures up images of both a large city of poverty, streets overflowing with human crowds, and stations and suburban trains choked with mayhem, and of the alluring capital of popular Indian films, in other words, the flashy headquarters of the dream factory known as ‘Bollywood’. Mumbai signifies both: poverty juxtaposed with a world of wealth and light.
WELCOME TO BOLLYWOOD!
In truth, it’s not that easy to find in Mumbai any sign of the city’s prevalent Hollywood-style image. Apart from posters for popular films and the sumptuous cinema arcades common to other Indian cities, the film industry cannot be said to spill over into the streets, or indeed to make much of an impact at all on urban life. But the invisible power of Bollywood has certainly infected Mumbai’s residents, as it has Indians in general. While perhaps not palpable in the street (the film stars who make their residence here are no different from other ‘unworldly’ folk who withdraw into their ivory towers), it so flaunts itself on television screens, in the pages of newspapers and magazines and, naturally, in movie theaters, that you begin to believe these films are as indispensable for Indians as bread and water.
On our first visit to Mumbai we visited some of the studios densely packed around the Juhu beach area in the north. Here we met one of Bollywood’s most famous producers, Yash Chopra, and heard the magical formula straight from the horses mouth: “Well, this is what the people like and want, and we satisfy their wishes by making these films.”
Perhaps it is best to drop our discussion of Bollywood here. But before we do, we should point out that it is not only studio melodramas and musicals that are produced here in this, the biggest capital of Indian cinema, but, albeit few in number, some exceedingly high-quality films as well by India’s independent film makers.
MUMBAI AT FIRST GLANCE
Let us turn now to the image of the Mumbai of the street, which bears no resemblance to that in the films. There is one passion that dominates the visible aspect of Indian life as much as films: cricket. No matter which of Mumbai’s squares you happen to pass by, you will see white-attired men wielding cricket bats under the sun. The cricket pitch at Oval Square is the most famous of them, accommodating players and fans by the hundreds at every hour of the day, especially on weekends. Due to the shortage of space, in some neighborhoods you’ll even come across kids playing cricket on 45 degree inclines. Stop any kid in the street and ask him to name the league players in Australia, New Zealand or the UK and he’ll reel them off in one breath.
But a foreign visitor’s initial encounter with Mumbai is of course neither in the movie theater nor on the wicket. Instead, the first sight you see will most likely be the shacks that line the highway that runs from the airport straight into the heart of the city, and the people that satisfy their every need in the street. Your taxi driver will, again in all probability, drop you in the Colaba district in the south, from where you will set out to explore the city. Perhaps you will head to down the south coast, encountering first the majestic Taj Mahal Hotel followed by the Gateway of India monument. Mumbai’s trademark, this monument is actually an ideal place for beginning your acquaintance with the spirit of this city and country. How could it not be? It was from this ‘gate’ that on 28 February 1948 the last representatives of British colonial power boarded ships and set sail for their country, never to return again.
ISLAND OF MONKEYS
Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Mumbai, but there’s nothing like seeing the city center on foot. Before you hit the streets however take a peek inside the Taj Mahal. Some appreciation of the unbridgeable gulf between the world inside it and the teeming life of the streets may come in handy. Then, hoofing it from one end to the other of Oval Square, South Mumbai’s focal point, you can continue on to Victoria (or, by its little used new name, Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus and, after blending in briefly with its seething masses, to Crawford Market. Towards evening head for the shore of the Sea of Oman, where you can hop in a taxi and tour the Chowpatty coastal strip, one of the city’s most fashionable promenades. The richness of social life that springs up here after sundown is a sight to behold!
If you can reserve a day for it, be sure take a motorboat from immediately next to the Gateway of India and stop at the Shiva temples and the famous Elephanta Island. Don’t even think of eating a banana in the open here on this island which is crawling with monkeys. Take it from one who has had the experience! After touring the magnificent temples carved in the rock, I climbed a small rise and, in a quiet and apparently deserted spot, pulled a banana out of my bag to quell my hunger pangs. Before I had a chance to peel it, some ten to fifteen monkeys suddenly materialized out of nowhere and surrounded me. Rattled at first, I soon realized from the strange sounds they were making that they wanted my banana, and remember hurling it in their direction.
NO DREAM THIS, IT’S REAL
There are more places to see in Mumbai that can be ‘done’ in a few days. A whole half day, for example, could be set aside for the Prince of Wales Museum, or an excursion to the Malabar Hills, or touring the temples of the various religions. You can set aside time for activities like dance, music, shows and exhibitions, or take your pleasure in the cafes of Colaba. And as long as you’ve come all the way to Mumbai, you can’t leave without making a side trip to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves 400 km to the east. Regular tours are available to these caves which, like those on Elephanta Island, have made the World Heritage list.
In short, if you go in the right season—and the period from September to April, when the weather is relatively less hot, is ideal—there are numerous alternatives for savoring the taste of Mumbai. Neither unadulterated Bollywood on the one hand, nor a metropolis writhing in the throes of uncontrolled migration, population density, a housing shortage, haphazard urbanization and traffic congestion on the other, Mumbai is at the same time a matchless blend of culture, history and human richness. This city, where dreams are mass-produced, attracts visitors not for the dreams it peddles but for its authentic image.