Recently, we chose to be exposed to the quality performances of Amitabh, Tapasee, Piyush and others in PINK. The movie was bang-on and left us speechless. But we could not stop from looking beyond the scenes and performances of the movie. Whilst the issue was real and hard hitting, however, those beyond requires greater attention.

The question is – “Our we ashamed of our cities

In Hindi movies of the recent past, there has been a noticeable change in the selection and modes of engagement with the backdrops/locales. With every movie the issue becomes bothersome and makes me contemplate and delve into the psyche of the directors, scriptwriters and set designers.

There are two different themes for backdrops used in the Hindi Cinema Industry. The first and more popular are those shot in exotic locations. Aiming to be the “typical family movie” with a moral obligation to remove the audience from dreariness of reality (their lives, their day to day chores etc.), portray a dreamland (rather inform of places beyond their bucket list), where things are in perfect predictable order (merriment, tragedy and concluding resolution). The locales selected include ‘better’ South-Asian cities (Singapore, Kuala Lampur), European cities (take your pick because this is the HOT favorite and there are numerous examples), American Cities (restricted to North America please – we don`t like what`s in the South) etc. Alternatively, the virgin country sides of the EU and US are equally prospected for the purpose. However, we rarely come across African cities (Cape Town does not count), other Asian cities like those of Russian or China or even Japan in Hindi Cinemas. This may be because of facilities provided by ‘alien cities’ for ‘free’-mass publicity (read tourism promotion especially honeymooners) for the Indian Audience or perhaps because the directors, producers and scriptwriters are not so confident of providing an ‘elevating’ experience through Indian cities or Rural areas.

The above does not hold good, when we see the other segment of Hindi Cinema. Recently, Indian audience have started appreciating movies on ‘real’social issues and biopics. These may or may not be targeting the family audience, but certainly there is little elevation or dreaming (leave the likes of Vicky Doner aside, Dil Chahta Hai or the period drama). Rather these expect the viewers to see (not gloss over) pressing issues. This is the collection (yet too early to call it a genre or perhaps New Age) of Hindi Cinema, that Mr. Nahiiiiii loves to watch. For instance, it was Mr. Nah-looney and the Nation’s elder brother AARNUB who actually made a certain ‘Flying State’ more famous than the attention paid to fixing the issue itself ! Opps, sorry for digressing from the topic. (Every time there is a discussion on Mr. Nahhhh, I suffer from verbal diarrhea ….. ).

Interestingly, the second collection of movies are mostly shot in Indian cities (except Mohenjodaro. It was shot in an imaginary Indian city “fuck-luck thoran”) to depict the reality. Mostly, this reality is hard hitting, unless it is a biopic. But interestingly, the crew of these movies are also not very confident in showing the real conditions of the cities. (BTW, we should thank Hollywood to depict close realities of Indian cities.) Lets take a few examples.

Lets look into Byomkesh Bakshi. The movie released in 2015 is about a Satyanveshi, i.e. ‘a truth finder’ who runs around the ‘black-town‘ of Calcutta. The parts of old Calcutta spanning from Esplanade to Shyambazar  in the north was referred to as ‘black town’ by the British. This part of the city was a residential area of the high profile nouveau riche business community who were close to the East India Company. In stark contrast to the European town planning and Urban Design principles of the White Town, this area had residences that somewhat appropriated few European features and incorporated then into the facade. The gullees were sinuous housing public life and granting access to homes. Though most intellectuals, historians and Urban Designers, take pride in discussing the planning and design principles of these areas and the glorious past, the current condition of this area stand in complete contract to it (in fact most film makers have to travel further north to Serampore to depict Calcutta ! Think Bhooter Bhyobishyot… P.S. Don`t watch Gang of Ghosts.. ..). In reality, the congestion, population explosion, pollution, ‘not-so-clean’ environment  and fart ugly construction is all that one can see. (I still have difficulties in calling it dirty or filthy. I`m half-way Bong) To add insult to injury, most buildings that the intellectuals mulch and films romanticize have been demolished !. Interestingly, the movie took good care, in creating an illusion (thanks to technology, one can rustle up almost anything !). Most parts of the movie were either shot in a set or indoors or controlled location or wherever the directors wanted to shoot within the real city, he took close shots of individuals and blurred the backgrounds. Some facades, windows, doors, etc. might have been visible, but most of the scenes were shot in a manner that the Calcutta is not visible.

Scenes from Byomkesh Bakshi, 2015

Another example, is that of, PK. The movie was shot in Mandava and some other parts of Rajasthan, Delhi, etc. Once again, the director chose to shoot in manicured environments. Wherever, there was a need to depict scenes based in Delhi or Rajasthan, symbolic elements, people, landmarks were shown. The real city was once again hidden from the eyes of the viewers. There are a large number of such movies, like Piku, Wazir, etc.

Contrary to the way snippets and symbols of Indian cities are shown in the second collection of movies, the first collection of movies show the cities, its public spaces etc. in totality. That is the drama of the public spaces interacts with the cast and plot. There is a sense of pride visible in the backdrop. The scenes seem artistically chosen  without any editing or changes in the backdrop. Movies like, English-Vinglish (New York), Queen (Paris and Amsterdam), Jindagi Na Milegi Dubara (Spanish omelet … ), Tamasha (Corsica) etc. (The list is endless.) have successfully projected exotic locales.

Scenes from Tamasha and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

So, why is this trend picking up? Remember, better quality cinemas (in terms of content and intent) were shot using real time Indian locations and with very little money.  Indian city environment as a backdrop are now being used for movies which show reality, social imbalance, crime and a host of negativity, by Indians themselves (Stop blaming Danny Boyle) ! And, exotic locations are used to show where you feel good. Are we ashamed of our cities and their realities? Have the movie makers, realized and are merely reacting to it?

No matter, how much, we Urban planners and designers resist accepting this – citizens through their choices and behavior show the apathy and disgust towards their Indian Cities.

Author: Adarsha (takes full responsibility of the headless pun)

Editor: Somi (All big words and phrases are from the editor)

NOTE: The above views are author’s personal views and anyone/ everyone has the right to disagree. The author believes that a change can only start if the change maker first accepts the reality and then, takes a step forward towards change. Any reference to persons, incidents etc. are purely intentional. The readers are requested to read the blog as fast as possible, as the author also plans to apply for readership certification and he strongly believes that the post may have to be pulled down.