By Rahul Desai

Before I moved here, my perception of Mumbai stemmed from ‘90s Hindi cinema. In time I realized that Bollywood directors presented Mumbai as more of a location than a destination. They revealed a town of tourists, not a city of dreamers. Stock shots of VT station, Marine Drive flyover, Madh Island bungalows and Bandra-Kurla backroads make for imagery that is conceived by storytellers who tolerate the city rather than occupy it. Or by legacy filmmakers so familiar with the place that they exoticize its roots – poverty gets airbrushed (Hrithik’s ‘modest’ shack in Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai), prosperity gets overplayed (Shah Rukh’s apartment in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), and dustiness designed (the terrace-hut of Saathiya). The other extreme was the Bombay of crime (Satya, Vaastav) which, though far more unapologetic, existed as cautionary tales meant to critique an existence alien to the common man. There was no middle ground; the city became a binary emotion.

It took me years to recognize that modern Mumbai is a land of outsiders. And that the movies – despite often being made by outsiders – had seldom viewed its favourite city through the urban migrant’s gaze. The urban migrant is a mid-range survivor that exists between the rural and the rich, the Mumbaikar and the dreamer. College hostelites, four interns sharing a 1-BHK, Bollywood aspirants, budding journalists: They spend days winning middling battles, exploring ‘Flats without Brokers’ forums, sleeping on mattress beds, networking at bars and optimizing life in small but fiercely individualized (fairylit) spaces. Konkana Sen Sharma’s housing situation in both Luck By Chance and Wake Up! Sid are rare examples in mainstream Hindi cinema.

But this gaze – also known as the “struggler’s gaze” – isn’t adopted enough by mainstream filmmakers because the ambiguous physicality of its universe (smoky house parties, constricted spaces, 18-hour working days, no families) is naturally at odds with the glossy spatiality of commercial cinema. In contrast, the unrehearsed visual language of independent productions organically informs the depiction of this lifestyle; handheld cameras and echoey live sounds actually bolster the shaky aura of its occupants. Amit Masurkar’s Sulemani Keeda exposes the epicenter of the urban-migrant epidemic encapsulated by the Yari-Road-Versova-Lokhandwala triangle, while Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped subverts the template to showcase the dark side.

It’s no surprise then that today’s short films – a digital medium almost entirely run by Mumbai’s urban migrant – thrive on the smartest employment of this gaze. The city itself becomes a diverse genre for short filmmakers. For instance, Mumbai’s wicked housing-society ecosystem is a horror satire in Piyush Srivastava’s A Tale of an Onion Witch. Two flatmates, evidently from the gym-going North Indian breed of tinsel-town hopefuls, are warned about an urban legend (“do not answer the witch who asks for one onion”). When an attractive neighbour knocks for help at midnight, their red-blooded fates unravel. The pitched-up B-movie dramatics inform the struggler’s environment in every sense. The same ecosystem is a slice-of-life comedy in Navjot Gulati’s Jai Mata Di – a live-in couple “hire” a mother to pass them off as siblings during the society interview.

But it’s Karan Asnani’s charming love story Sheher Ya Tum, a MAMI Dimensions winner, that best invokes the adaptive spirit of this gaze. Sheher Ya Tum occurs as poetry – a boy’s Spoken Word performance addresses his girlfriend who has issued him a city-or-me ultimatum. But there’s more to this film than cursory cuteness. Their romance internalizes the battle of gazes. The boy is new to Mumbai; he came with dreams but settled for love. The girl is a local; she grew up with dreams but settled for the city. Him wondering if she can instead settle for the city that gave her love is essentially an outsider asking an insider to stop tolerating Mumbai and start occupying it. It’s him asking her to reconsider her gaze of a house by looking at it as a home.

The film opens with clips of Mumbai’s iconic landmarks (Marine Drive tetrapods, Gateway of India, Chowpatty) flicking by like handi-cam memories – as if to suggest his perception of the city before he met her. As he describes how low-budget relationships force its inhabitants to discover hidden bylanes and (less filmable) ways of life, we notice how their togetherness flits between both gazes; one seeps into another and vice versa. From the Asiatic Library steps and cliched sunsets to his cramped 1-RK and station platforms, we see two distinct Mumbais co-existing in love, adjusting and compromising and bickering to form one island of contradictions. In this ideological tussle between two young lovers, the six-minute short unwittingly offers a lasting lesson. It’s fine for filmmakers to paint broad strokes of Maximum City. As long as they remember it’s the minimum city that made them love the movies to begin with.

[An edited version of this article has been published in The Hindu]