Beyond Bollywood

by Caitlin Burns

A filmmaker travels to Mumbai and discovers the reality behind some of Bollywood’s most emotional movies.  

Once we landed in Mumbai and descended the plane, we were greeted by an intense, almost suffocating humidity. Beyond the wired fences surrounding the landing strip stood slum dwellings, undisturbed by the giant international planes flying out each hour. Our accommodation was located in Goregaon east, about 17km north of Mumbai. Staying next to a large Islamic mosque meant that we awoke each morning at 5 am to the exotic, beckoning first call of prayer over the loudspeaker, baritone sounds calling the city to arise and face the new day.  

Prior to leaving Australia, I had immersed myself in Indian culture. With homemade chicken curry and roti, I watched the 1957 epic Mother India with its realistic exposure to the raw elements of Indian life. You could say this is the Gone with the Wind of Bollywood cinema. Mother India disturbingly showcases the hardships of a mother and her strive for survival against enormous odds. This was exposure to a place far removed from the comforts of my familiar sofa and middle-class suburban home.

As a filmmaker, this two-week study trip to Mumbai was an adventure that would privy me to interact with established Bollywood filmmakers, visit unique film sets, and even create a short documentary with a few other friends. 

Over the next few days, we explored the city by auto rickshaw, crowded mini bus, and on foot. We gazed in awe at the grandeur of Victoria Terminus, its Gothic architecture overshadowing the bustling city streets beneath it. Shopping at local market stalls was a must-do. I stocked up on a plethora of intrinsically designed shawls for family members back home. Bartering soon became second nature to me.

Whilst strolling along the waterfront, we caught sunset glimpses of the Gateway of India, which was built during the early 20th century in commemoration of the first British monarchs to visit the country. It stood strong amidst a sky of pink splendour. Onwards, we escaped by boat to Elephanta Island, home to Hindi cave temples carved out of rock during the 5th century.

Our adventures never seemed to stop. At times we even found ourselves pressed against the interior of trains like an overflowing closet. When an argument broke out between an older woman and a much larger man, who was apparently blocking the doors, the scene erupted, much to the public’s approval. Everyone stopped to watch this petite lady yell at the man’s out-of-line behaviour. It was as if a Bollywood soap was taking place right before our eyes. One onlooker even whipped out a few samosas from his bag to nibble on, pleased with the entertainment taking place before him.

When it came to the end of the day, we strolled through neighbourhoods flooded with shanty houses with families huddled inside together cooking, chatting and catching up on the latest episode of Masterchef Australia. I reflected on my own family back home; my father sitting in his favourite blue armchair watching the contestants battle it out for the perfect dessert, whilst my mother stirred the gravy on the stove, few words being spoken. So many similarities, yet worlds apart. Inside these Indian homes a euphoria can quickly erupt when a favourite contestant wins immunity and proceeds to the next round. It is intriguing to see families bond over a cubed, vintage television screen. A little boy laughs beside his weathered grandfather as mother and daughter cook over hot firewood, all walks of life interacting in admiration and respect, something we lack back home.

“Namaste,” I said politely, which is followed by gleaming smiles and multiple invitations to come play cricket with the children. Just the mention of the word cricket and everyone’s face lights up. As I know little about the sport, I repeat the names of those I’ve heard pop up on the local news in the past: “Ricky Ponting,” “Adam Gilchrist.” The children nod enthusiastically and reply with “Sachin Tendulkar!” Who knew cricket could help find a common ground to communicate and make friends?

During the week we had the privilege of visiting high-end production boutiques run by esteemed producers. Other days we were welcomed onto the lavish sets of Indian soap operas where we laughed alongside the crew.

One day, a bus took us out of the city, and two hours later we reached a secluded field with no one in sight. As we peered out the dusty bus windows, we saw in the distance groups of bulky men parading the Black Standard flag and thrusting their AK-47’s in the air. Our hearts skipped a beat upon hearing a man shout “CUT!” We discovered that the authoritative voice came from acclaimed film director Hansal Mehta and that we were on the set of his biographical crime drama Omerta, which explored the 1994 kidnappings of Westerners that occurred in India.  

After locals shared their recent stories of severe droughts that were effecting their farms in the Maharashtra region, we felt compelled to explore this further. Our curiosity led us to the suburb of Ghatkopar, where we were suddenly thrust into the hub of a migration camp full of hundreds of farmers and families in search of water, food and work.

With camera gear in tow, a Marathi translator at our side, and buckets of sunscreen slapped on our ghostly faces, we made our way into this makeshift campsite. Innocent children banged on pots and ran around giggling carelessly, unaware of the wild pigs roaming the area in search of food or a fight. I was told that these pigs were known to kill small children. The site was shadowed by hillside slums that looked down upon a wasteland of what first appeared as a rubbish dump. Beside a river swarming with sewage and litter, we spotted a cricket pitch, a pleasant social distraction away from the improvised homes, made from discarded poles, tarps and fallen tree branches. Smoke from yesterday’s fire rose and created a hazy mirage with the endless heat wafting in the air. Was this real?

For many Mumbai residents, Bollywood movies offer the chance to escape reality

We filmed and interviewed fathers, mothers, children and local reporters about their plight. It was difficult to think that these people travel here every year knowing that a drought will soon come and take away their livestock and destroy their crops. These are men and women forced to work as labourers in the city, an annual occurrence. 

The Bollywood experience had evaporated, and the harsh reality of the Indian poor was gripping. I recalled the film Mother India and now saw firsthand the destitution faced by so many families living in the most strenuous conditions. Here, nobody cared about our cricket jargon, responding to our greetings with “anna” – Marathi for “food.”

Juxtaposing this sight were the vibrant colours of saris curtaining women from their faded dreams. I encountered women who, despite having little, found luxury in simple pleasures. They took pride in their appearance, taking time to dress in colourful traditional clothing for what could only be an arduous day of labour under the sweltering sun. A mother picked up a shard of glass to use as a mirror, the images reflecting crushed dreams and life-saving hope in a world of disarray. Despite such dismal circumstances, they welcomed me into their 1×1 metre homes with warmth and hospitality.

Mumbai and its whirlwind of emotions forced me to see life through an entirely different lens. For so many Indians, watching a Bollywood film is like winning the lottery. These films offer a chance to escape from the poverty of daily existence. Inside cinemas, people applaud the hero and boo the villain, fall in love with stunning leads, and sing and dance to the rhythm of vivacious musical numbers. A movie ticket is an escape that is well worth the price.

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