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Illustration byYatish Asthana/Mint
Illustration byYatish Asthana/Mint

The Bombay of a film writer

Varun Grover on the best storyteller at 'quarter-bars', being a perpetual outsider, and why the Maximum City has run out of stories

I have a friend, Jayesh bhai, who is among the best storytellers I have met in Bombay. His day job is a dry one, of a loan and insurance agent, but after sunset he turns into a scintillating dastango of contemporary Bombay, especially its suburb Malad. He has a book in mind too, based on the character sketches of people he knew in the Babubhai Rangwala chawl of Malad (West) while growing up. The book is tentatively called “Maladistan" and I hope he completes it someday.

In one of the stories, he went to the Bandra court for a regular hearing of a long-drawn dispute and the judge sent him to Thane jail because of a misunderstanding. Another story is about his sculptor friend (a Gandhian simply called bhau) from the Rangwala chawl who worked with Bhoodan movement leader Vinoba Bhave at his ashram and later made the fake crocodile Amitabh Bachchan battled in the climax of Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi. One story is about an otherwise reclusive man who became famous in the early 1980s for doing stunts atop Bombay’s local trains. The newspapers published his photos, the police chased him, and one day fate caught up with him as he fell from the roof of a moving train.

I keep telling Jayesh bhai that he must finish the book soon.

But he doesn’t have time. He is too busy collecting stories or recounting them over long sessions of rum and beer at a friend’s place or at one of those vintage “quarter-bars" in Goregaon/Malad. These sessions are almost always dotted with musical interludes of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

Another of Jayesh bhai’s passions is background instrumentation in Hindi film music, and he can tell you with a very good strike rate who is playing harmonium or tabla or clarinet in a particular old song just by listening to the style of playing. He has a book planned for this passion too. But as I said, he doesn’t have time. The newer stories keep him engaged.

I wish I had lived in a city long enough and madly enough to have such an intimate, breathless relationship with it. Not a relationship based on love, but purely on lust—one that would allow me as a writer to explore the unnatural under the garb of the kinky. I know a bit of Lucknow, a bit more than that of Varanasi, but Bombay, where I have completed 11 years, I still know very little of. I know only a kind of Bombay, a Bombay of fellow migrants—the autowallah who dreams of going back to Mirzapur and setting up a driving school, the taxiwallah who swears angrily that he will never go back to that Jaunpur village that burnt his house down in the post-Babri riots, the white-collar friend from college who wanted to be an actor, the actor from Shahjahanpur who came to Bombay in the same month/year as me and is still looking for work, the independent mathematician from Jaipur who finds the crowded Starbucks a much more eclectic place to work from than the sprawling forts of his hometown. And many such migrants.

But the core of Bombay eludes me.

I did make attempts—once by shooting a documentary on Dahi Handi and making constant trips to the ghost-lands of the cloth mills of Sewri, Lalbaugh and Fanaswadi in Girgaon, and another time by working on a screenplay set in the Bombay of the early 20th century. But in both cases I found the soul missing. The idiom smells of derivation, the research seems a bit too academic, and the reality not “lived". They also brought that constant reminder, fuelled by the political ambitions of a few, that xenophobia runs deep in some pockets of this cosmopolis. My attempts at getting access to an old book at the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya in Dadar ended up with me hitting that red-brick wall of protectionist bureaucracy. Perhaps it is the language barrier—another personal failure is that I’ve not yet started learning Marathi. Writers like P.L. Deshpande and Mahesh Elkunchwar are the rewards at the other end, and still I fail.

It has been mildly depressing to know that I will always be an outsider, although I am a pro at navigating the local trains, knowing which train to take, when, and which to avoid purely by intuition, where to stand on the platform to walk the minimum distance to the overbridge at my destination station—an art in itself.

Another Bombay that I tried breaching is the hipster triad of Juhu-Bandra-Lower Parel. It is the Bombay that makes me aware of my inferiority—the way I look, the way I dress, and most importantly, my discomfort with speaking English. It was like 1991 all over again, the year my parents moved to Lucknow from Dehradun. My 11-year-old self was rudely reminded by the English teacher at the Kendriya Vidyalaya that football is pronounced as “fut-bawl" and not “fut-baal", the Punjabi way I would pronounce it. Another youngster, a pahadi born in Lucknow, told me on the very first day in school, “Ye Lucknow hai. Yahaan main-tu nahin chalega, aap-aap boliye, (roughly translated, You’ll have to change the way you speak)." I am still surprised, and glad, that an 11-year-old had such concerns about sophistication.

In 2007, I started going to the Poetry Slam nights of the Bombay Elektrik Projekt in Bandra where many upcoming poets came to read their works. The place became a workshop of sorts for many of us—for the craft of poetry as well as the confidence required to hold a stage. I wrote poetry in English, definitely not the language in which it comes naturally to me, just because I feared I would be “outed" if I read Hindi poetry.

I started doing stand-up comedy a couple of years later. Since the first “Hamateur Night" (an open-mic competition organized by Vir Das) in 2009 was at the swish blueFROG, the default expectation was an English-speaking comedian. I maintained the pretence for a couple of years, also because the British owners at the newly opened Comedy Store at the Palladium mall in 2010 had a strict policy of no-Hindi on stage. But mainly due to my own faulty assessment that nobody would understand Hindi comedy.

And one more Bombay I consciously stayed at the fringes of is the film and TV world. How this industry manages to produce occasional gems in the middle of strict hierarchies, chronic insecurities and rampant exploitation is a miracle. And they are good people, most of them, but they constantly remind me of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl—hurtling towards self-destruction, chasing some romantic idea of success or (ironically) immortality. Thanks to the reverse snobbery of Hindiwallahs who now look down upon those who can’t read or write the Devanagari script, my inferiority complex vanishes when I am dealing with people in the film industry. But stories, they offer me none. As a writer in constant search of characters, the film world only offers me giant clichés.

But why am I looking? Probably because I have grown up on this regular diet of writers romanticizing Bombay, milking it for commentary on the human condition. From Saadat Hasan Manto (many stories) and Manohar Shyam Joshi (novels Hamzad and Kuru-Kuru Swaha) to Vishal Bhardwaj (“Mumbai meri mehbooba hai," says Abbaji in Maqbool) to Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, adapted from S. Hussain Zaidi’s book of the same name), writers have added perspective and dimension to this flattened iron-rod of a city and I often wonder: Is there anything left to explore?

I see this sense of fatigue in many fellow writers here. We meet and whine about how bad the traffic is, how painful the festival noise is, how crab-like the industry has become, and how the builder-politician nexus has made it impossible for honest people to buy a house. Quite regularly, the talk meanders into fantastical plans of moving to Goa or the hills or one of those smaller villages on the Mumbai-Pune highway where Milind Gunaji is still a star big enough to sell real estate. “With Skype and smartphones, we can make it work from there," we reassure ourselves, like lovers in a long-distance relationship.

This restlessness leads to the assumption that some other place, quieter and less conflicted than Bombay, will fuel creativity. But then we all know this is just a silly game. None of us is leaving Bombay and moving to a sunset-view cottage in Goa. That will be too neat, too honourable. Bombay may be out of stories about itself, but it is not out of conflicts, struggles, and those small joys of finding that perfect fluffy idli-chutney at the Coffee-Anna’s cycle at 2am. Bombay by day is the city we deserve, Bombay by night is the city it deserves to be.

Someday, when Bombay is even older and I, even more frustrated, love will bloom. Like Jayesh bhai, I should give it another decade before I try holding its wrist to feel its pulse. Life is complicated; I am looking for a complicated city too.

Varun Grover is the writer of Masaan and lyricist of Gangs Of Wasseypur, Ankhon Dekhi and Dum Laga Ke Haisha. He tweets at @varungrover.

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