Bombay a port of movie magic, finance and politics


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Category: Travel Date: 30 Jan 97

We are on our way to visit the Baba as we continue our imaginary journey though India. The Prime Minister’s party has set out from Bangalore to meet him. I recall a long trip, stopping in the imposing waterfalls of the summer hill station Nandi Hills and stops at various little places for pickled chicken sandwiches and cups of tea - until we arrived at a large compound with a big hall.


The Baba’s aura created a controlled excitement. You didn’t want to miss anything so you barely dared to breathe. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, known as one of India’s most holy men, renowned for his miracles, sat on a stage in his saffron robes; around his neck were brown beads, his black bushy hair askew, uncombed.


Then the hall was transfixed and pulses raced as the Baba called up a stringy hippie American woman (one of many who went to India for spiritual salvation) to him. He then handed her a pair of scissors and said: “You’ve been thinking how wiry and bushy my hair is, that I should have it cut; here, you try.” And she tried and tried. The scissors was sharp enough to snip her own hair but not the Baba’s. But these are mostly matters of faith and everybody’s experience is different. And soon enough we’ll hear Mr Panday’s version.


But it is now February the first. We have arrived at Ahmadabad, headquarters of Gujarat state in west central India, the birthplace of the man who changed the map of India - Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s power was not derived from politics or wealth but from a deep sense of justice and tolerance, a firm belief in justice, in secular India. His tools against warring Muslims and Hindus during India’s turbulent period of independence and partition were not guns but passive resistance, learning. He believed that  “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. And his spirit encompassed all of India.


I have no doubt that this pilgrimage to Gandhi’s birthplace was a near spiritual experience for Mr Panday. It is difficult for us to imagine it otherwise. Our trip draws to a close with Bombay, Bollywood, India’s financial capital and principal port on the Arabian Sea, heaving now with the ills of an expanding industrial city - pollution, slums and overcrowding and one of the highest population densities in the world.


Bombay is also the seat of Indian nationalist and regional Maratha political activity. Half the population is Hindu but the city has large communities of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and Jews.


The Prime Minister tours film city, a city which sprung up almost a century ago with silent films, the famous “Bombay talkies”. In the ‘50s, Mehboob Studios and RK Studios of Raj Kapoor dominated the studios. Today the industry has mushroomed, to one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world.


Here musical films are churned out by the hundreds every year. The playback singer Lata Mangeshkar made the Guinness Book of World Records for recording the most songs in the world. In these famous studios dreams of the high life are manufactured and sold to the masses who help make this industry the billion dollar business it is. Here movie stars are born - not discovered - into this tight-closed industry and with the backing of powerful film families are molded into icons. They are wealthy and adored as royalty.


There is no incongruity in a family living in the slums going to a movie featuring designer clothes; jewels; spoilt rich girls who holiday in Europe; actors who have everything - mansions. The movies are an escape from drudgery and a world of magic and fantasy.


We leave without a definite opinion of India. Is she poverty struck or is she a powerful industrial and technological force? Is she made to host lavish and extravagant banquets in gracious rose gardens or is there, as the records say, a growing middle class, a narrowing of the gap between castes and classes? Is she materialistic or the home of gurus? Is she united or hit with internal strife? One thing we know - our senses have been assaulted.


Our world view will never be the same. India, the world’s largest democracy, will remain an enigma, as contradictory as a child labourer carrying a slab of marble. And as memorable.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur