In 2007, Madhushree Dutta, director of the cultural centre Majlis, started work on a project exploring the relationship between cinema and Mumbai. Five years later, Project Cinema City turned out to be a sprawling exhibition that managed seemingly-impossible feats like turning Gulshan Grover into a work of high art (courtesy Atul Dodiya). One of the exhibits was a set of maps of Mumbai drawn on translucent paper. Each map showed the location of film studios in Mumbai in a particular decade. Place the sheets one upon the other, and you could see how the business of making films had spread all over the city from the 1920s till the present,. It’s worth wondering, however, if the relationship between Mumbai and movies is changing.
While other parts of the country have been featured in films, Mumbai has been synonymous with cinema. Not too long ago, spotting a shooting in progress wasn’t difficult, particularly if one went to photogenic stretches, like Marine Drive, early in the morning or at sunset. There would be reflectors, vanity vans, lights and a crescent-shaped crowd behind the camera. But in recent times, film shoots are harder to spot. This is because Mumbai is steadily gaining a reputation of being problematic rather than convenient for filming. “There are lots of things in terms of permissions and logistics,” said Raj Kumar Gupta, who worked on acclaimed Mumbai-based films like Black Friday and later directed Aamir, shot mostly around the Dongri area. “I always say if you want to shoot in the city, it’s not about what you want, but what you get.”
“If you want to shoot in Mumbai, shoot indoor,” advises an industry insider who spoke to DNA upon the condition of anonymity. “Managing crowds when you have even a starlet on your shoot is a nightmare. Then there’re the stars, who come with their own set of issues. Take Salman Khan, who will come late and only show up on set when he’s ready. Even Rahul Bose makes the unit sit around because he’s getting into character. You can’t do that in an outdoor location.”
There are a few cities in the world that you can recognise because they’ve been filmed so frequently and lovingly; Mumbai is one of them. Mumbai’s famous dhobi ghat has been the backdrop for the unabashed pulp blockbuster, Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS, and also the meditative Dhobi Ghat by Kiran Rao. Gateway of India, the steps of the Asiatic Library, the glitter of Marine Drive by night, the basketball court in St Xavier’s College, the blurry crowds at local train stations, the stretch of Worli Seaface — these are just a few of the places that we’ve seen repeatedly on celluloid, whether it’s a blockbuster or a critical favourite.
Dev Benegal, who set Split Wide Open in Mumbai and whose next film will be shot entirely in the city, describes Mumbai as “cinematic heaven”. “Mumbai is a modern city. I’d go as far to say it is the only city this country has. It’s got a crazy energy, a visceral feel mixed with the warmth of its people which make it so special,” he said.
Warmth, however, is perhaps not what came to Rohan Sippy’s mind when the sets of his upcoming film, Nautanki Saala, were vandalised. Sippy has a fondness for shooting in Mumbai and his Bluffmaster is one of the more memorable examples of Mumbai in a film. He chose to set Nautanki Saala in the city, even if this meant late-night shoots (to avoid crowds) and other hassles.
However, things got unexpectedly violent when men affiliated to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena stormed in and attacked his unit’s cars while they were shooting on location in the western suburbs.
Few are willing to speak openly about the difficulties of shooting in Mumbai because they fear the repercussions. An employee at a production house said, on condition of anonymity, that the official permits don’t facilitate the process of shooting much. Film units have to organise their own security and hire people to manage crowds. One filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that as far as state machinery goes, states like Rajasthan and Kerala were more cooperative and welcoming than the Mumbai administration. Other options for the film industry include Gujarat, which has apparently been wooing the multi-billion dollar film industry to shift base from Maharashtra. For filmmakers, cities like Hyderabad, New Delhi and Kolkata have proved to be easier to negotiate.
The threat of disrupting film sets is not a new problem and to prevent it, there exists an established but unspoken system of unofficial payments, in addition to the numerous official permits, that guarantee a film unit’s security. Even if the payments have been made, shoots are often disrupted by local political workers demanding payments they are not authorised to accept. Last year, MNS workers barged into the sets of Murder 2 and demanded to see work permits of the crew even though, legally speaking, the party has no authority to do so. In 2010, MNS workers were arrested on two separate occasions for attempting to extort money from producer Riteish Sidhwani during a shoot and vandalising the sets of a Ganesh Acharya film.