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Why Bollywood is still making films on Mumbai's mill strikes

From 'Class of '83' to the recent 'Mumbai Saga', Hindi movies continue to revisit the legacy of the 1980s mill strikes in Bombay

Mumbai’s mill strikes of the 1980s continue to fascinate historians and film-makers to this day.
Mumbai’s mill strikes of the 1980s continue to fascinate historians and film-makers to this day.

In one of the many blood-soaked scenes in Sanjay Gupta’s latest gangster movie Mumbai Saga, which released in theatres on 19 March, gangster Amartya Rao (John Abraham) kills an industrialist called Khaitan (Sameer Soni) at the behest of his political overlord, Bhau (Mahesh Manjrekar), a Bal Thackeray-like character, complete with the rudraksh necklace. Khaitan was about to shut down Khaitan Mills (which his father started) and had deployed local mob boss Gaitonde (Amol Gupte, full of Falstaffian glee) to break the protesting mill workers’ resolve and evict them from their nearby basti.

Mumbai Saga is the latest film to depict the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982 in which almost 250,000 mill workers from 65 textile mills participated. The movement was led by the trade unionist Datta Samant. By the time it ended, about 150,000 workers were out of jobs and the vast majority of textile mills in Mumbai had been shut down. In the aftermath, labour laws were diluted across the country, reducing the power of unions and indirectly promoting contractual arrangements and migration of labour (after all, if labour is non-local, it reduces the scope for organisation/lobbying).

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In 1972, the Dutch writer Hub van Wersch (married to a Maharashtrian) started visiting and writing about India. His book, The 1982-83 Bombay Textile Strike And The Unmaking Of A Labourers’ City, was reprinted in 2019 by Delhi-based publisher Speaking Tiger Books. In the last chapter, Van Wersch sums up the impact of the strike on the day-to-day lives of the workers: “The Bombay textile workers neither had regular strike pay nor a system of social security, and their savings too are not comparable to those of workers in the West. Every man had to look after himself and his family. Those who had strong ties with their native village could choose between trying to make both ends meet in the city or leaving for the village. Workers without such ties did not have this option and were forced to remain in Bombay. The environment (village or city) largely determined what means the worker had at his disposal.”

This passage reads a bit like a prologue to Bollywood’s entire gangster genre—the children of recently fired mill workers taking to street-level crime is, in fact, directly referred to in Class Of ’83, in a scene between Bobby Deol and Joy Sengupta. Bombay became Mumbai, moving from “mills to malls”, as director Gupta said at a promotional event for Mumbai Saga last year, but along the way the equations between different kinds of authority figures (a don, a cop, a cabinet minister) were also reconfigured forever.

A still from 'Mumbai Saga'.
A still from 'Mumbai Saga'.

Down the years, several Indian movies have presented fictionalised versions of these events, most recently Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015). Manjrekar himself made a Marathi film called City Of Gold (2010) on the subject, while Class Of ’83 had a brief but powerful scene where two police officers argue about the strike in 1983, and who is to blame. Varde feels that “the stone-pelters” (protesting workers) will die soon, either out of starvation or police action (one of the stones has left a mark on Varde’s forehead), but Jadhav, whose father is among the striking workers, is offended and points out that the mill owners had duped workers of lakhs of rupees in salaries. Varde, however, retorts with a spot of foreshadowing—he says India will be a capitalist economy soon and “lal-jhanda” (red flag) communists will be forgotten.

Atul Sabharwal, who directed Class Of ’83, tells Lounge: “In a couple of classroom scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, we learn that Varde is the one who reads the most among his classmates (at the police training academy). And this was an era where around the world, people’s movements were being crushed ruthlessly—Margaret Thatcher and the Welsh miners’ strike, for example. So there was a pattern to this. Even though India’s capitalist era would only start eight-nine years after this scene, Varde could see where things were headed.” Sabharwal also mentions that in the late journalist Darryl D’Monte’s book Ripping The Fabric: The Decline Of Mumbai And Its Mills (2002), there’s mention of police officers sometimes standing in solidarity with striking mill workers as a symbolic gesture; one can see cops like Jadhav doing the same.

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Perhaps the most direct and multifaceted depiction of a general strike was in Saeed Mirza’s 1980 classic, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, which starred Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and others. In the movie, the hot-headed car mechanic Albert (Shah) starts the film with a firm belief in what he sees as capitalism’s good intentions—he considers the rich clients at his garage “friends” (they don’t reciprocate his feelings). He feels that one day, through slow and steady accumulation, his upward mobility project will be successful. According to historian Robert Rahman Raman (in the 2019 Hurst anthology Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays In Honour Of Jim Masselos, Raman wrote a chapter on the Civil Disobedience movement in Bombay), the disillusionment of people like Pinto was cemented by propaganda campaigns paid for by mill owners.

“There were several factors at the time. One reason was that as Bombay expanded, the textile mills found themselves in a suddenly central location, which became an eyesore for the elite, who realised that they could multiply their fortunes by selling off that land. Another was the aggression shown by mill owners, in their eagerness to kill the strike. Cinema halls in those days would run ‘public service’ (‘janhit mein jaari’) ads before a Hindi movie started, and these ads, which were paid for by mill owners, would be pure propaganda against the striking workers. There was also an element of ‘city pride’ in such propaganda; the strike was portrayed as something that was ‘holding Bombay back’”, or so Mumbai Saga would have us believe.

A still from 'Bombay Velvet'.
A still from 'Bombay Velvet'.

Indeed, towards the end of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, there’s a scene where Pinto gets upset while watching one of these ads in a movie theatre. Eventually, when Pinto sees that his striking father has been roughed up by goons hired by mill owners (and the police is not of much help), the scales fall from his eyes. In Mumbai Saga, too, we are told Bhau has always had several policemen on his payroll; these compromised cops were actually members of Bhau’s “Sena” (a reference to the Shiv Sena, I assumed, except the sticks-and-shorts in the shot seemed like RSS gear). This is a crucial part of the mill strike’s Bollywood legacy—the politician-policeman-industrialist-gangster nexus, a cabal that guides most of the action in the average 1990s action potboiler (Gupta himself has made a few of these, like 1994’s Aatish). Industrialists hire goons (and sometimes, the police outright) to beat the poor, replaceable foot-soldiers of capitalism, while politicians find increasingly artful ways to polarise the situation for electoral gains.

Kanti Shah’s Gunda (1998), one of the so-bad-it’s-good films in this space, exploits this formula to the hilt, for example, as do several Sunny Deol films from the late 1980s and 1990s, like Tridev (1989), Narsimha (1991) and Ziddi (1997). In historian Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables (a book which discusses the strike at length; Prakash later wrote the screenplay for Bombay Velvet based partially on this book), the author discusses a landmark issue of the Hindi comic book series Doga, called Khaki Aur Khaddar, where the twin villains on display are corrupt politicians (who wear Khadi or khaddar, as it’s also called) and corrupt cops (in their khaki uniforms).

Today, the legacy of the mill strikes can be experienced in Mumbai in various ways. As Raman reminds me, many former mills that are malls today ended up retaining their original facades. Working-class symbols were swallowed up by the same forces which left the working class without jobs. “Earlier, the smoke coming out of the mill’s chimney, the sirens et cetera would mark the workers going about their day’s work or signalling their lunchtime. Today that same chimney has been decorated as part of the Phoenix Mall,” says Raman.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

Also Read: Film Review: 'Bombay Velvet'

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