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Neighbourly love in Bombay film

From ‘Mili’ to ‘Katha’ to ‘Nukkad’, Bombay cinema has long been fascinated by the people next door and the way they impact our lives

Still from ‘Katha’.
Still from ‘Katha’.

Towards the beginning of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1975 film Mili, Shobha Khote, playing a nosy neighbour of the Khannas (Ashok Kumar and his daughter, played by Jaya Bhaduri) living in a high-rise in Bombay (now Mumbai), stops by every floor asking women to come to her apartment for an urgent meeting. The meeting has been called to discuss a new apartment owner, Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan), a man with a dark past, hence a “threat" to the society’s otherwise friendly atmosphere.

Still from ‘Mili’
Still from ‘Mili’

In Mukherjee’s idyllic setting, the fictional Sea-View Housing Society is a perfect world, where neighbours know each other, drop by unannounced, and meet in the stairwells and hallways. Children play cricket and the exuberant Mili (Bhaduri) holds dance classes for young girls on the terrace. They genuinely care for each other. There are no secrets, no surprises. That is why Khote’s character is concerned about the reclusive Shekhar moving into the building.

The 1970s and part of the 1980s were the high point of middle-of-the-road Hindi cinema, with film-makers like Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Sai Paranjpye often exploring characters whose lives were never complete without the love, affection and even interference, to some degree, of their neighbours. Everything was shared with neighbours—tea, food, family stories—and there were romantic liaisons as well. In a key scene in Mili, Bhaduri’s character explains to Shekhar the importance of having neighbours who care for you. “Jab main bimar hoti hoon to sari building ko ekhatta kar leti hoon. Koi tabayeet poochne na aaye to bimar padne ka kya fayada hai? (Whenever I fall sick, I collect all the residents of the building around me. What is the point of falling sick if no one comes to ask how I am feeling?)"

Mili has a leukaemia-like condition. In Anand (1971), Mukherjee introduced Indian filmgoers to a rare cancer no one had till then discussed in Hindi films—lymphosarcoma of the intestine. The film’s terminally ill protagonist, Anand Saigal (Rajesh Khanna), decides to visit Bombay and spend the last months of his life with a group of new friends.

It is a utopian world where people from different parts of India form a support system for Anand. A mini India, almost a reflection of the Nehruvian belief of “unity in diversity". In fact, Mukherjee dedicates Anand to the city of Bombay.

At one point Anand tells his oncologist friend Bhaskar Banerjee, aka Babu Moshai (Amitabh Bachchan), that he has decided to stay in Bombay. “Even if Indiraji calls me, I won’t go back to Delhi," Anand says. “The city of Bombay is amazing. Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkal, Banga. Everyone is here. I have decided, Babu Moshai. I will live and die in Bombay."

Anand is a Punjabi from Delhi. His initial contact in Bombay is a Maharashtrian doctor, Prakash Kulkarni (Ramesh Deo), and his wife Suman (Seema Deo). Through them he meets the Bengali doctor Bhaskar. Prakash has a Catholic nurse in his office, Mrs D’Sa (Lalita Pawar). And because of his ability to connect with random strangers, Anand even becomes friends with a stage actor, Isa Bhai Suratwala (Johnny Walker).

Just as Mukherjee would further explore in Mili, all of Anand’s supporting characters drop by on a regular basis to check especially on Anand but also Bhaskar. This was a time when local phone calls could be expensive. So it was considered perfectly fine for neighbours and friends—especially in films—to make unannounced visits.

Such visits were more common in films that were set in Bombay’s chawls. In Basu Chatterjee’s Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Malti Shankar (Jaya Bhaduri) has an arranged marriage with Ram Sharma (Anil Dhawan). Malti is from a village and her family lives in a large, spacious house. But Ram’s family lives in a chawl in Bombay, although Malti is given to believe that he resides in a five-storey mahal. The joint family includes Ram’s parents, his two brothers and sister-in-law. All day long, Ram’s retired father Girdharilal (Agha) has two friends over (Mukri and Keshto Mukherjee) for card games. And Ram’s brother and sister-in-law have their theatre company actors visit to rehearse a play.

It is considered normal, except Ram and Malti have no privacy. The couple is forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, where a rat scurries around, while the family and the guests who keep showing up are oblivious to the newly-weds’ needs.

The ultimate chawl film is Sai Paranjpye’s Katha (1983), where life seems even more neighbour-friendly and the residents don’t seem to care much for their own personal space. Neighbours visit to borrow milk, sugar or just chat. The new arrival in the chawl—Bashudev (Farooq Shaikh), who is a friend of Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah)—takes full advantage of this set-up and uses his charm to get free meals. And he starts romancing Sandhya (Deepti Naval), who Rajaram is also interested in.

Meanwhile, most residents of the chawl are satisfied living in their small apartments. It is a life they thrive in. “Our son keeps calling us to settle in Canada," an elderly couple tells Bashudev. “But once you live in a chawl, you cannot leave it so easily. It becomes a joint family."

Stills from ‘Nukkad’
Stills from ‘Nukkad’

In 1984, director Saeed Akhtar Mirza presented a very different life in a chawl in his film Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!—the struggles of a retired man (played by author Bhisham Sahni) with his landlord and the court system. A few years later, Saeed Akhtar, with his brother Aziz Mirza and film-maker friend Kundan Shah, directed a television series, Nukkad (1986-87). Broadcast on Doordarshan, Nukkad reflected the struggles and friendships between an array of characters living around a congested street. There is a Hindu paanwallah who operates next to a Muslim-owned chai shop. Everyone is comfortable with each other.

The chawl films were on a decline when, in 1992, Aziz Mirza directed Shah Rukh Khan in one of the star’s early films—Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman—and set it in a rather sanitized basti, Azad Nagar, in Bombay. Here too neighbours from different religious backgrounds coexist. The chai shop is owned by a Muslim while the bakery is run by a Christian. And the entire neighbourhood breaks into dances during song sequences—Raju (Shah Rukh) sings Loveria Hua when he falls in love with Renu (Juhi Chawla). When Raju lands a good job, the basti celebrates Diwali singing Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. It is a Bollywoodized version of life in Katha.

At some stage, Hindi film-makers almost stopped focusing on neighbours and friends who would visit just to socialize. When friends met in the new Bombay films, it was almost always prearranged—a trip to Goa (Dil Chahta Hai, 2001, and Kai Po Che, 2013) or on a cruise vacation (Zoya Akhtar’s ensemble gathering in Dil Dhadakne Do, 2015).

In today’s India, people in high-rise buildings live isolated lives. Their children might play together but the parents rarely socialize. And Hindi cinema also began to reflect that reality.

Last year’s Gully Boy did show neighbours curious about others living in a slum, but it is a fact that space is so limited in slums that one cannot help but notice neighbours.

Sadly, however, the deeply connected residents of Mili and Katha have stopped appearing in films to shower neighbourly love.

Aseem Chhabra is an entertainment writer and the festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival.

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