Article: On Shooting in Mumbai

Forgot to put this up yesterday. I wrote this for last week’s The Mag. This is a slightly-longer version of what was printed in the paper. A big heartfelt thanks to all the people who helped with the story, particularly Dev Benegal, Raj Kumar Gupta and Rohan, Roopa and Sheena Sippy. The photographs are by Sheena and were taken during the shooting of Bluffmaster, directed by Rohan.

More Drama, Less Action

There are lights, there are cameras, but action is more of a challenge if you’re shooting in Mumbai. The city that boasts of being India’s cinema capital may be losing out to less glamorous, but more convenient, locations.

In 2007, Madhushree Dutta, director of the cultural centre Majlis, started work on a project exploring the relationship between cinema and Mumbai. Five years later, Project Cinema City turned out to be a sprawling exhibition that managed seemingly-impossible feats like turning Gulshan Grover into a work of high art (courtesy a painting by Atul Dodiya). One of the exhibits was a set of maps of Mumbai drawn on translucent paper. Each map showed the location of film studios in Mumbai in a particular decade. Place the sheets one upon the other, and you could see how the business of making films had spread all over the city since the 1920s till the present, from south to north and east to west. The exhibition showed Mumbai is indeed India’s Cinema City, or at least, has been in the past. It’s worth wondering if the relationship between the Mumbai and movies isn’t changing.

While other parts of the country have been featured in films, Mumbai has been synonymous with cinema. Over the decades, the city has proved to be charismatic enough to woo viewers, filmmakers, actors and technicians from all over the country and has become synonymous with films. As the headquarters of the film industry, spotting a shooting in progress was almost de rigeur if one went to photogenic stretches, like Marine Drive at “magic hour” (usually early in the morning or at sunset). There would be reflectors, vanity vans, lights and a crescent-shaped crowd behind the camera. But of late, film shoots are harder to spot. This is because Mumbai is steadily gaining a reputation of being problematic rather than convenient for filming.

“There are lots of things in terms of permissions and logistics,” said Raj Kumar Gupta, who worked on acclaimed Mumbai-based films like Black Friday and is the director of Aamir. For Aamir, Gupta literally took to the streets with his camera and the film showed neighbourhoods, like Dongri, that are not usually seen on screen. The one word that Gupta kept repeating while talking about shooting on location was “difficult”. “It’s very uncontrolled situations. I always say if you want to shoot in the city, it’s not about what you want, but what you get.”

“If you want to shoot in Mumbai, shoot in indoor locations,” advised an industry insider who spoke to DNA upon the condition of anonymity. “Managing crowds when you have even a starlet on your shoot is a nightmare. Then there’s the star, who comes with their own set of issues. Take Salman Khan, who will come late and only show up on set when he’s ready. Even Rahul Bose makes the unit sit around because he’s getting into character. You can’t do that in an outdoor location.”

There are a few cities in the world that you can recognise because they’ve been filmed so frequently and lovingly; Mumbai is one of them. It also has the distinction of having charmed both commercial filmmakers and those of more arty persuasions. Mumbai’s famous dhobi ghat has been the backdrop for the unabashed pulp blockbuster Munnabhai MBBS and also the meditative Dhobi Ghat by Kiran Rao. Gateway of India, the steps of the Asiatic Library, the glitter of Marine Drive by night, the basketball court in St. Xavier’s College, the blurry crowds at local train stations, the stretch of Worli Seaface – these are just a few of the places that we’ve seen repeatedly on celluloid, whether it’s a blockbuster or a critical favourite.

Dev Benegal, who set Split Wide Open in Mumbai and whose next film will be shot entirely in the city, describes Mumbai as “cinematic heaven”. “I could not have made Split Wide Open in any other city,” he said. “Mumbai is a modern city. I’d go as far to say it is the only city this country has. It’s got a crazy energy, a visceral feel mixed with the warmth of its people which make it so special.”

From Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster. Photo by Sheena Sippy.

Warmth, however, is perhaps not what came to Rohan Sippy’s mind when the sets of his upcoming film, Nautanki Saala, were vandalised. Sippy has a fondness for shooting in Mumbai and his Bluffmaster is one of the more memorable examples of Mumbai on celluloid. He chose to set Nautanki Saala in the city, even if this meant late-night shoots (to avoid crowds) and other hassles. However, things got unexpectedly violent when men affiliated to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena stormed in and attacked his unit’s cars while they were shooting on location in the western suburbs. The MNS, which has a “cine wing” incidentally, has distanced itself from the incident, saying the party had not authorised the attack. Sippy tweeted soon after, “Was thinking of calling the film Nautanki Saala, seems very appropriate now.”

The threat of disrupting film sets is not a new problem and to prevent it, there exists an established but unspoken system of unofficial payments, in addition to the numerous official permits, that guarantee a film unit’s security. This usually is enough to pacify those who would otherwise disrupt the peace, but as the incident at Sippy’s set showed, the methods may not always be foolproof. Even if the payments have been made, shoots are often disrupted by local political workers demanding payments they are not authorised to accept. Last year, MNS workers barged into the sets of Murder 2 and demanded to see work permits of the crew even though, legally speaking, the party has no authority to do so. In 2010, MNS workers were arrested on two separate occasions for attempting to extort money from producer Riteish Sidhwani during a shoot and vandalising the sets of a Ganesh Acharya film.

Few are willing to speak openly about the difficulties of shooting in Mumbai because they fear the repercussions. An employee at a production house said, on condition of anonymity, that the official permits don’t facilitate the process of shooting much. Film units have to organise their own security and hire people to manage crowds. “The only way to shoot in the city is guerilla style, with nobodies,” they said.

One filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that as far as state machinery goes, states like Rajasthan and Kerala were more cooperative and welcoming than the Mumbai administration. Other options for the film industry include Gujarat, which has apparently been wooing the multi-billion dollar film industry to shift base from Maharashtra. For filmmakers, cities like Hyderabad, New Delhi and Kolkata have proved to be easier to negotiate. Hyderabad and Kolkata have the added advantage of an existing regional film industry.

Gupta agreed that while the logistics of filming in India are convoluted in general, Mumbai’s is more complicated. Gupta shot in Delhi for No One Killed Jessica and he described the experience as “easier”. “The infrastructure in Delhi has improved and is more evolved,” said Gupta. “Those conveniences, they seem small, but they helped us. Maybe because not that many films have been shot there, I think it wasn’t as difficult to get all the permissions.” Although Gupta has chosen to set his next film, Ghanchakkar, in Mumbai, he said candidly, “I’ve always wondered if there was a one-stop shop for permissions whether it wouldn’t make it easier for films to be made and we’d see more and maybe better films.”

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