These fast-disappearing, nondescript housing structures (once ubiquitous to Mumbai’s geography) have, over the years, provided a fertile background for Hindi cinema to explore the lives of the city’s working class.
3 Storeys was a film waiting to be made. It is surprising why it took so long for filmmakers to use the ubiquitous Mumbai chawl as the setting and character to tell stories of lives lived cheek by jowl. Old chawls have yielded to sleek, soaring glass towers in the once mill areas, now not only modestly gentrified but made posh — malls, offices and upscale residential towers screaming their 21st-century flash and power. A slice of Mumbai’s history — social, political and economic — is embedded in these nondescript, often decrepit and sometimes surprisingly sturdy structures that are part of the city’s geography. You drive past them in Dadar and other crowded streets in the heart of the city, uncurious about how they have survived the onslaught of real estate developers. And thus, chawls did manage to survive (for how long is the moot question), scrambling to provide a roof over the heads of the lower middle-class multitude.
The cast of 3 Storeys
Something so taken for granted becomes invisible over time. That is one of the reasons why films centred in and around chawls are far and few between. The films veer between stark realism, stock humour and a wide cast of characters to provide an emotional landscape for the lead actors and, sometimes, a glimpse of the surreal lurking in the common corridors, always abustle with the comings and goings of residents.
3 Storeys looks at the narrative with a whimsical eye to round off inter-connected stories that don’t fight shy of coincidences and easy resolutions. Arjun Mukherjee, a debutant director, dives into lives in which the past — with its tragedies, secrets, grudges and misunderstandings — is very much alive in the present. The 1929 building is called Maya Nagar, for ostensible reasons. It is a microcosm of the larger Maya Nagari that is Mumbai. The ruminations of the narrator, as she pauses on faces in the anonymous crowds of the city, hints that the realistic stories she spins out for us may have a different truth at the core. The close ups of the main characters — psychological and spatial — tease us with other possibilities. The elderly widow, Mrs Mendonca (Renuka Shahane, who gets the middle-aged gait and slow deliberation absolutely right) could very well be the wily spider spinning her web to inveigle the unsuspecting prey, to avenge a terrible tragedy involving her dead son.
The challenge of short stories is that the director has to hint at layers, not having the luxury of leisurely pacing that can go deep into motives and the complexities of relationships. The expositions are necessarily hurried, and we accept that because Mukherjee keeps us guessing, with just the right amount of suspense that pre-empts predictability. The resolution — however earthshaking the problem, such as the Hindu-Muslim young lovers on the verge of discovering they are siblings — is deliberately matter of fact: like the seeming ordinariness of mundane lives, caught in the unrelenting struggle to make a living.
The juxtaposition of the predictably ordinary and dramatically bizarre carries the director’s emphatic signature. I must resist spilling out the spoiler, for this is a film which, for all its short theatre run, will have a longer life on TV and online. The obligatory twist has an organic relationship with the narrator’s opening premise. The twist in the end can be taken in two ways: a desperate clutch at novelty or a celebration of the narrator’s right to weave plausible stories out of humdrum reality. The reality is the intrusiveness of communal living, where long-suppressed secrets still leak out to a few people in the know. This constant struggle for personal space, where space is at a premium, and the comfort of knowing the same nosy neighbours will come to help you when in need, is the undercurrent of chawl life. We find this undercurrent surfacing at precise intervals to create its own rhythm. A rhythm with variations, to convey that the external lives of these people may be ordinary, but they harbour secret selves simmering under the routine tedium.
The film that truly celebrates this inclusive, inherent generosity is that old Basu Chatterjee charmer, Piya Ka Ghar (1972). Remade from Raja Thakur’s Marathi film Mumbaicha Jawai, Piya Ka Ghar oozes the Rajshri Productions’ brand of wholesomeness and, yet, Chatterjee spikes it with his gentle humour and irrepressible sense of mischief (the hallmarks of his best work). Soon after the opening sequence of a spacious village house amidst open green fields, where the brideto-be, Malti (Jaya Bhaduri née Bachchan) lives, the conniving matchmaker hurries through Bharat Bhavan, where the groom, Ram (Anil Dhawan) lives with his parents, older brother and bhabhi, a younger brother and his father’s card cronies ensconced in the front room, demanding endless cups of tea. It is a long sequence of the pandit scurrying through corridors of the fivestoreyed chawl, dodging a child in a makeshift jhoola to go past, with so many activities going on right from the entrance to the communal corridors. There are also idlers just hanging around aimlessly, watching life pass by. He has grandiosely told the bride’s parents that she will live in a five-storeyed mahal with a sea view.
It is an old-fashioned story, of an arranged marriage of a couple that moons over photographs and imagines their beloved’s many charms. The charms live up to her imagination, but reality comes crashing down on Malti, who realises that she will have to start her marriage in the kitchen, vacated for the newlyweds at night. The film glosses over sexual frustration, and concentrates on Malti feeling crushed by the lack of privacy. Along with the permanent card players, the older son’s theatre group rehearses in another corner, and the youngest brother does homework to cricket commentary on the radio. The bhabhi tells her that they check into a hotel for a weekend when they need privacy, and advises the new bride to do the same. The coy Malti is aghast, because nobody seems to understand her need for private space. Her over-protective, overbearing uncle, who dotes on her, takes her away in righteous anger when he sees the cramped reality of her sasural.
That’s when the chawl-dwellers play their trump card: they will all vacate the house for the new couple, but plead that they not separate. The final message is that the house may be small, but their hearts are big. Thus ends the heroine’s journey with the acceptance of Mumbai’s inclusive spirit, symbolised by the over flowing chawl. Piya Ka Ghar has dated rather charmingly — the whiff of nostalgia washes over the intolerant attitude of the village paterfamilias, who judges the older bahu by her sleeveless short blouse, but can’t see her generous heart — because it is true to its milieu. The attitudes are still relevant, even if couples don’t marry on the basis of photographs and a matchmaker’s spiel. Neighbourhood romances are more likely to flourish. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. It can help root romance in a more nurturing, non-toxic soil. You see one such ordinary romance of the familiar continue to engage us over the years, while also telling us a moral fable with humour and warmth.
Exactly ten years after Piya Ka Ghar came what is perhaps everyone’s favourite chawl story, unambiguously titled Katha. The film sparkles with Sai Paranjpye’s irreverence and witty asides. The chawl is both more oppressive and naïve at the same time. The way the rather simple denizens fawn over the flamboyant new guest of the shy, solid and stolid Rajaram (the lovably humble Naseeruddin Shah) tells us how eager they are for someone who preens and sets himself to be far above them, thus entitled to their admiration. Paranjpye cast Farooq Sheikh against type, making his Vasudev the shallow and vain usurper of demure Sandhya’s (Deepti Naval, coyly fetching in her two-braid avatar) wavering affections. His college friend Rajaram is plucking up the courage to propose to the girl who freely borrows all the milk he has (which he is only too happy to give). This is the key to Rajaram’s docile goodness: everyone feels they can command his time and help.
The story, though, doesn’t stay in the chawl all the time. Vasudev prefers the more Bengalised Basu (it is part of film gossip that Paranjpye gave him this name out of pique, targeting the other Basu of cinema, Bhattacharya, for not promoting her Sparsh, as a producer ought to). He cons Rajaram’s boss and plays fast and loose with two girls. The villain gets his just desserts, and the virtuous is rewarded in this retelling of the fable, The Hare and the Tortoise, but the narrative can’t overcome its in-built predictability. The humour helps, and Paranjpye times Vasudev’s entry with a servile chawl specimen coming out of the communal toilet — the smelly bane of their existence greets the pretentious upstart smack in his nostrils. Katha charms us with lively cameos: the benign Dadima, the manipulative invalid who exploits Rajaram’s willingness to help, the meddlesome nosy parkers and jealous tattletales. Katha, like any good moral tale, makes us root for the nerdy underdog against the obviously selfish guest, who stays on long after the welcome date expires.
A few films make the chawl and the space outside central to dramatic parts of the narrative. Mahesh Manjrekar ’ s Vaastav, charts the journey of its hero from a millworker’s son to gangster, rejecting the honest-to-theirweary-bones values of the upright parents. Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, too, brought the lonely stranger to a room in a chawl. Varma strips away the general bonhomie to concentrate on the gang relationships. Anurag Basu’s Gangster also had the initial introductory scenes in a chawl, where the gangster on the run takes shelter in a bar dancer’s room. For many such films, the chawl forms an important fragment of the narrative, not its central location.
We have been waiting forever to see Kiran Nagarkar’s rambunctious Ravan & Eddie come alive on the screen. That is the definitive book (in English) on all the probabilities and improbabilities of karmically-connected chawl lives. A watercolour from the storyboard of the film, supposed to be made by Dev Benegal, is the evocative cover of The Chawls of Mumbai, edited by architect and urban planner Neera Adarkar. The art connection is predestined.