The 2000s were an interesting time for Hindi cinema. Production houses were becoming more organised, film-shoots were getting professional, and one began to hear about the odd bound script. With corporates entering the picture, popular mainstream cinema began to find its edge. The ancient definition of ‘what works’ was being pushed. This was a time when Ronnie Screwvala struck gold with Rang De Basanti, and his production company UTV Motion Pictures became one of the major proponents of – ‘content is king’. Betting on confident voices like Dibakar Banerjee, Rajkumar Gupta, Vishal Bhardwaj & Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra while they were still relatively new, 2008 witnessed more than one watershed moment for them. Getting its ‘blockbuster’ in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar and Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, they got acclaim in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, and a surprise hit in Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday.
In the midst of all this was Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan — a film with middling reviews, decent word of mouth, but a surprisingly wholesome conscience. Unlike its contemporaries, Mumbai Meri Jaan seemed to forego easy solutions offered by convenient screenwriting, and stuck with the harsh truths that its characters seemed to be struggling with.
(Also read on Firstpost —Revisiting Dombivali Fast, Nishikant Kamat’s critically acclaimed film on battling a crooked system)
One of the starkest visuals from Nishikant Kamat’s film is that of Nikhil (played by R Madhavan) sitting haplessly on the railway tracks, minutes after surviving the 7/11 serial blasts in Mumbai. There’s palpable trauma on his face because he was supposed to be in the very compartment that got blown to smithereens. He’s soon forced to reconsider all his life choices – one of which includes using public transport. Nikhil has a comfortable MNC job, he can afford a four-wheeler and a driver along with it, but that would mean contributing to the city’s already bursting-at-the-seams traffic. He’s naive enough to believe that change starts with one upright individual. He’s the rigid idealist in his group and that becomes apparent when a colleague confronts him for repeatedly turning down opportunities to settle down abroad. Opportunities others would kill for. But it’s all shaken, after he escapes death by a few feet. Is it worth it? Why should one care for a city that swallows so many under the pretext of floods, bomb blasts, terror attacks, and a broken bureaucratic machinery. Is it worth fighting for? Is it worth trying to save?
Like his directorial debut, Dombivali Fast, even Kamat’s Hindi film debut might be contained to Mumbai, but the city is just his microcosm for the rest of the country. Following stories of characters across classes, the film gives us an enriched portrait of the city through multiple vantage points. Apart from Nikhil’s upper-middle class POV, there’s also the bitter, broke computer salesman, Suresh (Kay Kay Menon) whose hate for Muslims becomes even more naked after the bomb blasts. There’s Rupali Joshi (Soha Ali Khan), the face of media’s apathy, who soon finds herself on the other side of the microphone, after losing her fiancé in the blasts. It takes her boss only a few minutes to make the decision to mine her tragedy for a ‘byte’ on the city administration’s institutional failure. There’s Thomas (Irrfan), a lower middle-class migrant in the city, hawking filter coffee from his bicycle. Existing far away from the city’s field of vision, the character has barely three lines of dialogue in the entire film, and Irrfan masterfully communicates his humiliation through body language. Finally, there’s the most memorable track of the film around a hot-headed rookie constable, Kadam (Vijay Maurya) and a veteran, Patil (Paresh Rawal), who must navigate the city’s paranoia and also toe the line of ‘duty’ while facing the city’s rich and powerful.
Kamat’s film is keen and observant about how the city’s many classes, in spite of their specifically drawn ‘boundaries’, often spill into each other. Whether it is the stranger Nikhil keeps bumping into during his train journeys, who keeps selling him ‘schemes’, or an uncomfortable scene of Thomas visiting the local mall with his wife and daughter. After Thomas gets on an escalator going up, both his daughter and wife struggle to step on it. There’s confusion, and Thomas runs down in the opposite direction of the escalator to help his daughter and wife on to the escalator. Farcical on the surface, the scene is also commentary on how quickly the city changes without sparing a thought for how the lower classes will cope.
Some of the film’s biggest ‘truth moments’ come in the track of the two constables. Hiding 35 years of his passivity on the job behind ‘wisdom’ and humour, Patil drops a golden line for Kadam’s misdirected rage – “tere mann mein ek art film chal raha hai. Kone ka kursi pakadke chup-chap film dekhne ka, acting nahi karne ka“, Patil says to an always ‘affected’ Kadam. It’s also this track that beautifully ties up all the threads of the film, through Patil’s retirement speech where he encapsulates what the city used to be, and what it has become.
Kamat’s assurance as a filmmaker shows in the way he chooses to end the film with a two-minute silence. For a city constantly on the move, where noise is the norm, what better way to pay tribute to the spirit than by bringing it to a standstill.
Rest in power, Nishikant Kamat.