Mumbai is breathing in relief. All that eventually happened was that 640 tonnes of garbage were hurled at the city by waves rising as much as five metres high and crashing on Mumbai’s shores over three days of high-alert readiness. The city waited with bated breath: high tides coupled with monsoon rains might have invoked a reprise of the nightmare floods of 2005.
Fortunately, the sky held its peace; and it is still cloudy but dry when I arrive in the last week of June. The breeze is cool and the occasional, brief drizzle is refreshing.
My two days spent walking through Juhu, Versova and Bandra are a blur of images and impressions, tempered with an unshakeable sense of the city’s vitality and youthfulness. Everyone looks like they’ve just returned from an audition or are grabbing a quick coffee before heading off to the sets. On Juhu Beach, in the Sea View Hotel’s bar, a young man with dreadlocks reads a graphic novel; at another table, a young professional shares an animated beer with a friend.
In Versova’s Rolling Beans coffee shop, I almost don’t notice the musician and actor Lucky Ali sitting at a window table. My friend points him out in a whisper, then returns to her conversation with a long-haired photographer. He’s offering to shoot her portfolio; she is one film old in the industry and looking for funds to make her directorial debut.
Outside, I am trying to photograph an old bungalow called Daria Mahal, stuck between two towering sky-scrapers, when a driver advises me on the best angle to shoot from. He’s from Bihar – from Raja Janak ji’s village, he tells me. A little further, another old compound of houses is called “Fantasy”, though the spirit of this invitation is somewhat dampened by the accompanying caveat: “Sorry Visitors. No Parking For You Inside”.
The next day, we visit Mehboob Studios, one of the oldest studios in Mumbai, established in 1954 by Mehboob Khan, director of, amongst many others, the classic Mother India. A friend smuggles us past the sceptical guards. “Just say you have to go to Studio 5. Or tell them you have to meet someone: Mehta ji ne bulaya hai.”
A large crew is gathered outside the studio where Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest grand venture is being filmed. I turn away for a second and miss Hritik Roshan alighting from his car. Now, only the long black BMW remains.
I take a few surreptitious photographs, but the guards are beginning to prickle, so we leave. An auto takes us through the damp air to Bandstand, and the two coffee houses a 5 minute walk from Shahrukh Khan’s house. Two waiters from Barrista and Café Coffee Day have been posted at their respective entrances – they trade friendly insults, jousting for our custom. Both are crowded with the very young and stylish. At every table, it seems, a glorious future is being planned.
We reach home past midnight and go up to the terrace for a nightcap. Fifteen floors below, the lights of a dense slum leap into the air, brighter than anything in the cloud covered sky. Bombay has few stars at night; instead it has its people, forever wakeful, their eyes glimmering with a million notions of ambition.
(Look out for the forthcoming Goodearth Guide to Mumbai city for more about India’s commercial and entertainment capital)