Publishers often invite Bollywood celebrities to the Mumbai launches of their books, perhaps assuming that people in the city are more likely to come to literary events for movie glamour than out of bookish interest. But Anurag Kashyap was not exactly providing showbiz gloss to the book reception for Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, held late last month: He was there to celebrate a friend and collaborator.
Prakash also happens to be the scriptwriter of Kashyap’s own mysterious but oddly well-known future project, the film Bombay Velvet. The Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University may seem like an unlikely fount of creativity for Kashyap’s sensibilities. But then his new book, even with its impeccable meticulousness and impressive depth of research, is an unlikely one from a historian.
Impressions: (left) Artist Atul Dodiya’s Bombay Buccaneer; and Raj Comics’ superhero Doga. Courtesy ‘Mumbai Fables’
Each of its nine chapters deals with an element of Mumbai’s history, through the prism of the texts and myths it has created and sustained. This high literary approach relies on everything from long-buried archival records of land scams and back issues of Bal Thackeray’s early mouthpiece, Marmik, to 19th century Parsi detective novels and Hindi comic books. Perhaps it was easier than it seems, given the sheer drama of this multitude of sources, for Prakash to unearth a Bollywood script in the material as a serious academic work.
“To write the history of Mumbai at this level required, in my view, strong storytelling without dumbing it all down,” Prakash explains in an email conversation. “Indeed, my critique of Bollywood is that they don’t take their storytelling seriously. Plots are often full of holes, the characters lack compelling motivations, and the context lacks richness. In my case, strong storytelling in Mumbai Fables and writing Bombay Velvet came naturally since I took both to be serious ventures.”
From Prakash’s first invitation to Kashyap to screen his films at Princeton, Kashyap said at the book reception, their association had been an involved, inspired back-and-forth: They had hoped, he said, to release Bombay Velvet at the same time as Mumbai Fables. The script draws from the material of “several chapters in the book”, Prakash says. “I was able to go back and forth, making the script rich with actual details from Mumbai’s history, and turning the book cinematic.”
It is set in a nightclub: Inspiration drawn from a chapter of history that doesn’t make it to Mumbai Fables, but is part of another collaboration— between Prakash and Mumbai journalist and author Naresh Fernandes, who has written extensively on Mumbai’s “Jazz Age” between the 1930s and 1960s, when a local jazz culture flourished in Mumbai’s nightclubs thanks to talented musicians, many of Goan Catholic origin, and an enthusiastic audience. Many of these musicians doubled up as Bollywood sessions players, or Konkani pop stars.
Fernandes’ essay about them in the 2003 anthology of Mumbai writing, Bombay, Meri Jaan, caught Prakash’s attention, and subsequently inspired him to write, in 2005, A Bombay Story. “Anurag immediately liked its noir quality. I went to Anurag because I had seen his unreleased film Paanch, and thought that he had the sensibility and the visual imagination to turn this into a film.” Along the way, the title changed to Bombay Velvet, and finally, Prakash wrote the first draft of the script in early 2009 while also writing Mumbai Fables.
A double-pronged creative feat of that scope cannot be easy, but it reflects Prakash’s own interest in the multiplicity of narratives, and the way they inform the the grand narrative of Mumbai’s development as India’s city of dreams. “My goal,” he writes in an early chapter, “is not to strip fact from fiction… I am interested in uncovering the backstories of Mumbai’s history because they reveal its experience as a modern city, as a society built up from scratch.” Along the way, he unearths the counter-narrative of that experience, the inseparable other half of Mumbai’s self-image: that of a cruel, corrupt city, full of despair and destruction.
Perhaps nowhere is this aspect of Mumbai’s narrative more starkly realized than in Prakash’s chapter on Doga, the Hindi comic-book superhero who protects the city’s marginalized and helpless by ruthlessly eliminating criminals. His vigilantism is so angry and bloody that it can make Batman seem like a flower child. But this raw, wish-fulfilling hero who seems to have fought every major city problem over the last two decades is not a Mumbai creation: He was being imagined by a team at Delhi-based Raj Comics, a large and extremely popular publisher of Hindi-language comics and paperbacks.
“I found it fascinating that the people who came up with the idea were located in Delhi, not Mumbai,” Prakash explains. “There are many reasons for it, including the fact that Mumbai doesn’t have a strong comic-book publisher. But also important is the fact that Doga himself is an outsider in two senses. He is an outsider who comes to Mumbai from the Chambal valley. But as a masked superhero, he is also an outsider, an estranged, angst-ridden character, outside society and its norms.”
Sanjay Gupta, studio head at Raj Comics, explains that they wanted a particular setting for the superhero they created in 1989—a time when larger-than-life gang wars and balletic violence seemed to be Mumbai’s sole preserve. “We have superheroes set in other cities too, and Mumbai was fascinating in this respect. We keep up with newspapers and TV news for fresh news of the city, and while we sell all over India, readers in Mumbai do have a particular attachment to Doga.” And it isn’t just the young adults who buy out new Doga issues at railway stations the minute they are out. Doga piqued Kashyap’s interest when Prakash introduced him to the comic, and the Doga film, written and directed by Kashyap, is due to go on the floors early next year.
Fernandes, who has himself written about another Raj Comics creation—the Goan musician Anthony Gonsalves who rises from his grave at night—in connection with the musical history of Mumbai and Goa, was the other guest of honour at Prakash’s reception. His work on Mumbai’s jazz culture—the subject of his forthcoming book—is one of Bombay Velvet’s underpinnings. It is a rare instance of a Hindi film consciously informed by a specific historical narrative. Indeed, conscious evocations of city history are relatively rare in most forms of Mumbai’s popular culture.
“There is no dearth of cultural histories or Mumbai books at all,” Fernandes says, when I ask him about whether Prakash’s book is a rare phenomenon. “We’ve always produced a lot of material examining and questioning ourselves. But we’re not always concerned with the results.” While Mumbai has a long history of citizens thinking it gets worse all the time, he says, “There really has been a rupture of the cultural continuum since the 1990s: The new economy seems to blow up the old sense of what it means to be a Bombayite.”
In the Mumbai of the imagination that Prakash writes of, contradictions are part of how the Mumbai story continues to tell itself: It holds out both love and indifference, despair and promise. By bringing history to an often stubbornly ahistorical city, Prakash seems to indicate that Mumbai’s past is still connected with its future.