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Love Letters to Bombai – A Look at Contemporary Web Series

Written by Esha Datanwala, 26th July 2020

How does one address a love letter to a city whose name itself is a point of division? When I think about my hometown, the name I use in my head informs the light I see it in — do I use the colonial Bombay, or the Shiv Sena-mandated Mumbai? Semantics fall apart in front of the cultural and emotional significance behind both names. There’s a platitude that’s associated with this city, one that’s constantly repeated by the Bombay defenders: Mumbai is a city, but Bombay is an emotion. I’ve often felt that this sentence doesn’t come close to the true representation of the city – so I turned to contemporary television shows to help me distinguish and make my choice.

Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap’s Sacred Games is a glimpse at the dark underbelly of this city. The very first episode of the show begins with Ganesh Gaitonde, in narration, saying “kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki apun hi bhagwan hai.” What follows is a story of grit, darkness, and terror, interrupted sometimes with a brief flicker of brightness before it’s snuffed out by the angst of the city. The show largely uses only Hindi and Marathi dialogue – languages very familiar to my ears, even if my understanding is not immaculate. It’s clear that Sacred Games is going to be a story with no clear hero, no clear villain, and no clear morality. It’s an eat-or-be-eaten world, where each day is a fight for the next. In the Bombay/Mumbai of this show, if you want to experience the “city of dreams”, you need to be ready to give up the part of your personality that believes in destiny and wish fulfilment. There’s no room for such romance.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in “Sacred Games, Netflix

Right at the opposite end of the spectrum is Anu Menon and Nupur Asthana’s Four More Shots Please! The first episode of this show begins with Damini Rizvi Roy’s sex dream about her gynaecologist, who then wakes up to streaming sunlight in her modern (and clearly expensive) South Bombay/Mumbai apartment. The scene cuts to her presenting in front of a room full of men. The whole show operates in English, with Hindi often sprinkled in. It’s a story of 4 modern and liberal women whose worlds begin in Colaba and end at the Worli entrance to the Sea Link. The grit and struggle in Sacred Games is given an upper-class and upper-caste treatment for Four More Shots Please!, adapting it to the reality of professional misogyny, LGBTQ+ biases, and female kinship. Here, there is room for the romance associated with the “city of dreams” — but it still isn’t going to come easily

I’ve watched these shows in their entirety, but they don’t do anything to help my confusion. Sacred Games’ Bombay is a world of mafias and riots, while Four More Shots Please!’s Bombay is a world of colonial architecture and SoBo privilege. At the same time, Sacred Games’ Mumbai is a world of international terrorism and Marathi, while Four More Shots Please!’s Mumbai is a world of workplace misogyny and political investigative journalism. There has to be at least one point of unification amongst all these differences. While Bombay and Mumbai are often presented as a dichotomy, my experience watching this city represented in contemporary television makes me think of its identity being suspended in a liminal space. Whose city is this, really? Does it belong to Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh, or does it belong to Damini Rizvi Roy and Sidhi Patel?

“Four More Shots Please!” Amazon Prime

In the midst of wading through this liminality, I came across my third television representation of this city. State of Seige: 26/11 is an original series by ZEE5 which is, as the name implies, based on the November 2008 terrorist attacks on this city. This show leaves no stone unturned in trying to depict the sheer fear that overtook the city during those days: its color palette is dark and ominous, and the scoring crescendos in harmony with every mini-climax. 

When these attacks happened, I was just 9 years old — not old enough to truly understand it, but not young enough to not remember it. My parents were not at home when television reporting of the VT (or CSMT) shooting began. At the time, we had no idea if this was happening only at the station or if more would happen across the city. My grandmother and I were hooked to the television while frantically trying to contact my parents, who were thankfully on their way home. The next 4 days were filled with anxiety and fear. The television was on every minute of every day. Calls were made to friends and relatives who either stayed or worked in the Colaba-Fort-Nariman Point regions. 

Watching the show, which was almost a play-by-play narration of the incidents as they unfolded, brought back the anxiety from 2008, especially for my parents. This was an attack on Mumbai – it was very clear to me. Since 1993, the city had been living on edge. My father recounted the day the 1993 bomb explosions happened. He was 21 at the time, walking back home from work – from Nariman Point to Charni Road, for those familiar with the geography. Every 10 metres, a policeman would stop and interrogate him – who was he? Why was he outside? Did he know what had happened? Why was he walking? Where was he going? That was an attack on Bombay – that was also very clear to me.

State of Siege depicts this city at its lowest in this century. There was no movement anywhere. The police was unqualified to deal with such an attack, and Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil was too vain to allow the NSG to leave for the city on time because he needed to make a wardrobe change. The show is as much as ode to the sacrifice of the National Security Guard as much as it is a condemnation of the TRP-hungry journalistic operations that week, which unnecessarily reported on every movement of the forces – to the extent that it betrayed their positions to the terrorists, costing valuable hours of planning and execution.

When the attacks finally ended, it took less than 24 hours for the city to return to normal. Local trains began operating again like nothing even happened, and residents were back to their daily hustle and movement. It was as though the city collectively decided that it was not going to deal with its trauma. That’s when the liminal space of this city finally made sense to me — even in its uncertainty, in its self-or-other dilemma, it was clear that the local trains of this city didn’t care. The identity of the city is defined by every single thing all three of these shows depict — gore, glamour, and trauma. The bottom line across all three: no matter what happens, you just need to focus on how you’re going to survive to the next day. Once your survival is certain, you can figure out how to live. 

There is a moment in episode 9, season 1 of Four More Shots Please!, when Umang’s sister-in-law tells her that she’ll move to the city and learn how to speak in English and change the way she dresses to adapt to it. In response, Umang tells her that life in the city makes one’s blood boil and heart break; it demands hard work. This is not an unfamiliar narrative for life in this city – while there is no tangible equalizer for the diversity of its population, hard work and hustle become synonymous with the city’s liminal identity. These roads and trains spit you out into situations you may have never dealt with before, and it’s your comfort in this liminality that determines whether you make it out alive, or decide to quit and move to a different city.

Image Credits CMAC

Whenever I used to call home from college, I would desperately hope that my parents’ phones would be busy just so that I could hear the Marathi “आपण डायल केलेला नंबर सध्या व्यस्त आहे. कृपया नंतर पुन्हा कॉल करा” (the number you have dialled is currently busy, please call again later). Just those words would take me back home, even if for a minute, and I could feel both Bombay and Mumbai surrounding me. This city is simultaneously both – between Mumbai’s high rises you can see Bombay’s colonial architecture, amongst the Bombay courts you see Mumbai’s slums, and Bombay’s Gateway is just as iconic as Mumbai’s Sea Link. The smell of the waves crashing into Marine Drive’s rocks is the same as the waves settling into Versova’s sand. The mangroves are both — a warning that the identity of this city can be wiped away in an instant, depending on a particularly cruel monsoon or an unexpected extremely high tide. 

Ultimately, to me, Bombay becomes the home you come back to for warm chai and samosas after a day of hustling in Mumbai. 

Experience Further – My dad hums this song sometimes — I find it to be a perfect representation of the city. The song’s major key melody is so beautifully deceptive considering its lyrics; that it’s from 1956 – a time before “Mumbai” was a thing – shows how the city’s identity transcends the conflict of its name

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