Mumbai is not a city where people, by and large, object to being photographed. The culture of the image is varied and well-entrenched here. On a regular day on a street, confronted with a camera, some Mumbaikars will pose, some will continue to do what they do. Some will stop to talk to the photographer.
A few, of course, will send their bodyguards around to initiate friendly enquiries and bring back the film roll. There are not many neighbourhoods in Mumbai where this happens, but Pali Hill in Bandra is one of them. In this quiet, leafy residential area, movie stars once came to build their havens, away from the occupational hazards of the city. Actors Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand live here, as does the Dutt family, including member of Parliament, Mumbai North Central, Priya Dutt.
“What are you doing here?” two policemen on a motorbike ask us as we walk up Nargis Dutt Road, looking for interesting elements of the local architecture. “Why do you want to photograph this street?” They look at the images on the digital camera’s tiny screen to ensure that security—already bolstered by an exceptional number of walls, fences, guards, dogs and notices about dogs—is not threatened (this is not to ignore the occasional armoured jeep oozing through the bylanes, possibly for the protection of the area’s political residents, who include Union minister Sushilkumar Shinde and state minister Narayan Rane).
“Life here is like life everywhere else,” one of the policemen tells us kindly. “There’s no need to photograph it.”
But this is exactly what the Pali Hill Residents Association (PHRA) is planning to do to secure their neighbourhood further: photograph it. Late last month, local newspapers reported that residents were planning to install high-definition security cameras at strategic public locations along Pali Hill to “monitor incidents opposed to public policy” (Mumbai Mirror, 24 August).
A tea seller on Nargis Dutt Road
PHRA secretary Madhu Poplai explains that these incidents include traffic and parking violations and petty theft. “The police is installing high-definition cameras on main roads between Bandra and Santacruz to monitor crime,” she explains. “But the highest incident of theft is on Pali Hill. The guards can’t police every corner of it, after all.”
Poplai also worries about public safety. Traffic and itinerant mischief-makers could pose problems, especially for senior citizens and women. But Pali Hill also attracts more than its fair share of young people late in the night who park their cars—no doubt unlawfully—and hold impromptu parties. “No more of this ‘booze on the bonnet’,” Poplai says. “All that will end now.”
There will be 12 security cameras, some outside apartment buildings, some on chowks, a couple near busy shops and one outside actor Rishi Kapoor’s bungalow. In an area visibly obsessed with privacy, it appears that the cameras are seen to secure that private life, rather than threaten it.
“Every single person has appreciated the effort,” Poplai says. The PHRA, which could not request MP area development funds for the cameras, put out a notice asking for donations to the project. Their Rs 4 lakh budget, Poplai says, was covered within half an hour of the announcement.
New construction overshadows Pali Hill’s older buildings
On Pali Hill, the film stars’ residences stand amid a few small old bungalows, the last signs of Bandra’s past as a collection of rural settlements fanned out over swamp and shaded grove. These are overshadowed by a great many stolid apartment buildings, built in the latter half of the 20th century, populated by quietly affluent families. In the rains, green still threatens to overwhelm the urban encrustations of assiduously built tower blocks and paved streets. Moss springs up on stone walls, and grass grows, in spite of the residents’ best efforts, between the paver blocks on the footpaths. Through the tall boards fencing off property under construction—inevitably, houses making way for more houses—minor afforestations of weeds peek out.
These construction sites were the focus of another PHRA public initiative last year, when the association put out a 10-point charter to minimize inconvenience to the neighbourhood in the eternal stand-off between the requirements of builders and those of citizens. The guidelines strongly advised against construction workers being allowed to “loiter” outside the site during breaks, and recommended that security guards be posted on every such site.
During the day, the most visible population of Pali Hill consists of those who run its security apparatus. The policemen are outnumbered by the private security guards, both those assigned to buildings as well as those guarding chowks (a look inside one building gate, at random, also revealed members of the rifle-caressing contingents who accompany important people everywhere in the country). Fewer in number are the neighbourhood’s employees: drivers waiting for instructions, nannies on their way to nearby schools, the odd shop assistant.
The security is ubiquitous; and Zig Zag Road.
“We did let go of an initial idea where we planned to have banners at certain parts of the area that said YOU ARE BEING WATCHED,” Poplai says. “That met with some criticism. Now, the security cameras will have a little flash every 30 seconds or so, as they do in some countries abroad, as a reminder.” The footage from the cameras will be monitored by the Khar police station, as well as from a private resource that PHRA is setting up in tandem with the security company hired for the task.
“My building has no locus standi to interfere with the association; we haven’t paid our dues for a while,” says Vickram Crishna, Pali Hill resident. “But I think they’re somewhere south of having lost their minds as far as this is concerned. Look, Pali Hill is not a bad place. It’s not like there are gangs of thieves roving the area on bikes, as we had in the 1980s. If there’s a problem, it’s an insider problem, and I’m against putting up any plan that someone else—in this case, the Khar police station—is going to have to implement.”
Poplai says the security plan, currently undergoing last-minute tweaks, will be implemented by the first day of Navratri (starting on 28 September). This year’s exceptionally generous monsoon may have let up by then, and construction on the towers of tomorrow will be more enthusiastic than ever. One of those buildings will be industrialist Anil Ambani’s future home, already talked of in the papers as a rival to brother Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia, which casts a long shadow over Altamount Road in south Mumbai.
On Nargis Dutt Road, a lone tea seller sells mid-morning “cuttings” to labourers on their break. It is unclear how the PHRA guidelines apply to this situation.
“Go ahead,” they offer, as we stop for tea, “take our picture.” They put down their tea glasses and pose on the side of the street, smiling. The tea, at the usual Rs 4 rate, is made with real lemon grass.
Photographs by MS Gopal