Bombay (1995): Mani Ratnam’s ode to the city that never sleeps

Bombay now Mumbai, was a city considered to be a cosmopolitan city, a city which was only concerned about making money and not interested in knowing from where you have come from or who were you.  Post ’92, the fault line has run deeply with ghettos that are now an integral part of my city.  For a city which is the epicenter of Bollywood, there are hardly any movies based on ’92 riots. The one which comes to my mind are Bombay and Black Friday, both coincidentally directed by people by non natives.

Bombay follows the story of Shekhar Pillai (Arvind Swami) and Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala), star crossed lovers who belong to different religions. This is against the backdrop of rising right wing militantancy from which India could never recover.  When Shekhar’s father says that he should not marry some North Indian and bring disgrace to the family, Mani highlights how divided we are as a nation.

When a government employee asks her in Hindi if she is a Madrasi, Shaila Banu replies to him in Tamizh that she is not a Madrasi, it is interesting to see how we derive our identity from where we are.

Despite all our façade of secularism, most of us are religious bigots. When Shekhar introduces his wife to his Marathi Brahmin landlord, he deliberately skips Shaila and tells her name is Banu, but we see a slight frown when she introduces herself as Shaila Banu and says that she is a Muslim. For her it is nothing to be ashamed of, or something on which people should discriminate her.

Mani makes us root for this young couple, who have run away from hate and come to a city, a place which they think will provide them with love. But fate has something else in store for them.

Mani simmers the tension slowly, you see the rath yatra, then right wing volunteers coming over to ask funds to build a temple. The fear on the face of Shaila when she sees the rath is clearly evident, despite no dialogues we as the audience can feel the tension.

Once Mani establishes the romance here like in case of Roja he puts these characters in the middle of political turmoil where they don’t have control over their lives due to violence created by those in power.

Mani is not interested in the violence; he is interested more in the aftermath of the violence and how it affects the common man and the city.   We see people in long queues to lodge complaint, the visit to mortuary etc.

There is a scene when Shaila comes back to home after riots and has a breakdown. For her home is Bombay her  husband and children.

Mani does not preach in the film, even though he is in a tearing hurry to put across his views. He is not interested in who is responsible, he is interested in giving voice those whom we call collateral damage.

Mani is one of the rare Indian directors like Satyajit Ray who uses trains and children to take the narrative forward.  After a particularly disturbing incident the child gets up and asks his father to stop the communal riots. A recurring theme in the whole film is Mani asking all the difficult questions from the viewpoint of child. It may seem simplistic, but the questions are loaded, like when he asks a transgender who is a Hindu or a Muslim.

Special mention to A R Rahman,  the soundtrack is still fresh and does not feel outdated.  The only song which stands out as sore thumb is Kuchi Kuchi Rakamma which comes in the second half. The Theme of Bombay is one of the finest piecse of music ever made in Indian cinema.

Shekhar by profession is a journalist and this helps Mani in narrating his story much better with him interviewing hardliners, victims and cops. This is a similar trope he has used in Dil Se where Aman (SRK) tries to find the idea of India by interviewing people.

What’s interesting or sad is when in a scene Shekhar’s Hindu friend is tired of minority appeasement and the Muslim friend says they are being persecuted, their place of worship has been demolished.

Bombay reminds me of a time when we were innocent and vulnerable, at a time when we could roam inside the dome of Gateway of India where there were no barricades, a city which embraced all of us.

It has been more than 25 Years since the film has released, but have we learned anything? The answer is no, the political narrative remains the same, the divide has become more prominent, but all is not lost I believe. Even today in a crowded local train during peak hours despite the overcrowding you see someone adjusting and giving you an invisible fourth seat, that is my Bombay aka Mumbai.

Mani Ratnam’s Bombay is an ode to a fantastic city, its people and it’s metamorphosis after the ’92 riots. It is a city which has seen a terrorist attack severe than the one of 9/11, yet it survives. As the city faces another crisis in form of a pandemic, I know we will emerge with even more resilience and choose love over hate like ManI’s characters do in Bombay.

I agree, it may be not have a realistic ending, but it does gives us a sense of poetic justice, if our filmmakers did not give us that who else would.

For Bombay – The city which still gives me bread and love.

The film is streaming on Amazon Prime with English subtitles.

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