Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bombay 1: Introduction

Bombay is choking on its own success, straining under the mass of 18 million inhabitants that could grow to be the largest city in the world. The streets are overloaded, the sewers overworked, the trains overfilled, and the rents overpriced; it is a city of crushing superlatives. Massive slums in the colors of tarpaulin blue and corrugated rust squeeze between million rupee high rises. After Dhaka, it is the densest city in the world, at 76,000 people per square mile. Daravi, near the airports and the largest slum in Asia, and packs in about a million people in little over a square mile.

It is also a relatively new city, or at least what you see is. Little more than an outpost until the 18th century, most of the fabric is comprised of concrete flats punctuated by massive neo-gothic colonial reminders. Because of the humidity, most buildings sprout a layer of mildew. It is simple to see how posh a place is: those who can afford it will repaint regularly to stave off the spreading green and black stains.
Originally named Bom Bahem (“Good Bay”) by the Portuguese, the present day peninsula was comprised of seven distinct islands. The British East India Company grew the settlement when they established their headquarters on the bay. Today the original island colony is unrecognizable, submerged and surrounded by fill. Distinct fortifications that used to protect the various islands are now found only in the naming of the districts like Fort, Bandra, and Malabar Hill.

The public streets are remarkably similar no matter which area: a riot of taxis, touts, pedestrians, buses, rickshaws, and the odd cow. Even the richest Malabar Hill residents have to step over sleeping families if they want to get a photocopy from the shack built in front of their exclusive gated condominium; of course it is more likely that a wallah would do it for them.
Because the original city is laid out along a thin north-south peninsula, the flows are limited to a few major arteries that can become intensely gridlocked. Think Manhattan without bridges or tunnels. New intersection flyovers, a pet project of the local government, sprout around the city and have had a marginal impact on relieving congestion. Several large scale projects have been in the works for years, but most locals roll their eyes when told of them. That said, traffic is relatively efficient considering the lack of municipal presence. Huge numbers of people manage to flow through the streets, and once you get the hang of system, it becomes tolerable. Vehicles fight it out in the middle, often overtaking in the oncoming lane, while the colonnaded sidewalks fill with informal retail. The strip between parked and moving vehicles becomes the pedestrian and bike zone. If you wish to walk somewhere quickly you use this area, otherwise you are forced to browse the bootleg DVDs and jewelry.

The common myth of Bombay as cosmopolitan melting pot has been shaken by a decade of riots and terrorism; during this time thousands have died in bombings and immolations. Yet outside these infrequent explosions, the city is quite safe on a day to day basis. Popular belief points to the 24 hour desire to make money that unites an otherwise disparate collection of people. The myriad religions and languages are more evident here than in New York or London: Hindu, Jain, Moslem, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Hindi, Tamil, Maratha, Parsi, Urdu, English, or often some hybrid of the above. The mix of languages and beliefs is strong and most Bombayites know the signifiers of each. Whether you say namaste or salaam (or something else) can be tricky for an outsider, but locals are well attuned to the differences.
Bombay has no shortage of thinkers and ideas. There are internationally recognized art and fiction scenes, and a healthy backbone of activism and academic involvement. Unfortunately, they are largely ignored when building projects are parceled out - as evidenced in the recently rebuilt textile mills area. Located in a factory belt in the heart of Bombay, the mills replaced the original suburban bungalows with industrial might in the 19th century. The first great wave of growth in Bombay can be largely attributed to the mills, with colonies of workers housed in chawls (single room flats with communal balconies and toilets) filling in the spaces around the factories. After World War Two, the mills went into a prolonged, state subsidized decline and have been mostly silent since the early 1980’s. The estimated $5 billion worth of property was originally slated for redevelopment with socially responsible open space and housing requirements, but in fact turned into a land grab by private developers. An environmental non-profit organization won a stay of building in 2005, but in April of 2006 the state’s highest court allowed the developers to proceed as before. Most of the old mill buildings have been torn down and replaced with luxury condominiums and expensive retail. Strangely the smokestacks have been preserved, like lonely middle fingers. Reuters, Deutsche Bank, Lord and Taylor, and McDonalds are the new tenants. At least for now, the small cadre of developers and their political allies carried the day. Lately, this cozy relationship has come under fire and more restrictions are being put into place, albeit too late for the mills.

The documented built heritage in Bombay overwhelmingly relates to the great 19th century colonial neo-gothic structures that dominate the old city skyline. Victoria Terminus, Bombay University, the High Court, and the Prince of Wales Museum all presented a relatively uniform stylistic framework that allowed for a flourish of Indo-Sarcenic details. They are unmistakably British, but have enough Indian interpretation to give off a sort of local pride. This genteel Bombay is often at odds with the hungry Bombay that is eager to take advantage of the post-1991 relaxing of international tariffs to push the city into the global limelight. This is the Bombay more in tune with the crush of street touts; it is the city that openly worships the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who represents money and success. After all, you aren’t poor in Bombay, you just aren’t rich yet. However, the least obvious but perhaps the most lasting legacy of the genteel Bombay is the floor area ratio (FAR) restrictions. While cities of comparable size and density like Hong Kong and Seoul have an allowable FAR of 15, Bombay is limited to 2. This only increases the pressure on real estate.

Ultimately, Bombay is a city of dreams. It is choking because people come here in droves: it is freedom from the constrictions of village and caste life; it is the stock exchange and financial capital of one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing economies; and it is the location of one of the most prolific entertainment centers on the planet, the Hindi film industry known as Bollywood. Coinciding with Bollywood, and playing an important role in the city are the theaters in which the product is consumed. This study will focus on the classic cinemas of Bombay and their socially unifying role. The original star of Bollywood was the city itself and lavish cinemas were the primary means of carrying the message. They were wrapped up in a feedback loop of living the city and generating the myth of the city; each informed the other and the cinemas thrived. Today these older palaces of spectacle are anomalies that scrape by on nostalgia, while multiple screen complexes dominate box office sales and define the new Bombay landscape. 

Next stop: Cinema