Chasing Bollywood dreams

Posted: January 26, 2011 in India
Tags: , , , , ,

For weeks now I have been mockingly claiming to other gringos that we are heading to Mumbai to try to crack into the Bollywood scene and kick-start the fledgling acting career of the number 1 gora on the block. So it was most amusing to meet on the train to Udaipur a lady whose friend is a Bollywood talent scout with a great network of contacts. She gave us a number and we said goodbye. I never took up the offer because the thought of spending 50% of our time waiting around for potentially no reason seemed a waste of time. 4 days later we arrived in Mumbai after a short flight, ready to tackle arguably India’s busiest city.

Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra and the eastern seaboard is dominated by docks. Koli fishermen have lived on the 7 islands that comprise Mumbai since the 2nd century BC and remnants of their culture remain along the seafront. It is a popular myth that Mumbai was called Bombay during the British rule of India because the British could not pronounce Mumbai correctly. The truth is that the Portuguese christened the area “Bom Bahai” (which I think translates as beautiful bay) after the Muslim Sultans ceded control of the area in the 16th century. When the British took possession in 1665 it became Bombay. The name was officially changed to Mumbai in 1996, derived from the Marathi name for the goddess Mumba who was worshipped by the Koli.

Tripadvisor inaccurate for once

All the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet bar one were fully booked. With no room at the inn and other places we found via the web showing shocking reviews, we had no option but to take a room at Hotel City Palace. Though the LP gave it a reasonable dissection, the reviews on Tripadvisor suggested it would be a filthy, unfriendly dump. So we stepped into the reception expecting the worst and then were pleasantly surprised by the friendly welcome. To my surprise the cheapest room, 30USD inc taxes which is a snip for the Fort area, was acceptable. Despite its rabbit hole size, it was clean and had AC. Ironically, the more expensive 50USD room was worse and stank of rotten sewage.

Exploring Colaba and Churchgate

Fort and Colaba are the tourist hot spots to the south of the city and well away from the posh celeb spots on Juhu and the slums well documented in Shantaram.

We spent a few hours ambling along the surprisingly quiet streets and taking in the main sights. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the Gateway of India, a huge basalt arch built to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. It was the place where the last British Regiment was paraded off as India marched towards independence. Behind the Gateway is the elegant Raj Palace Hotel, a 5 star paradise with Islamic and Renaissance designs. For me the location is not ideal as the area is swamped with local and foreign tourist every day but there is no denying the beauty of the buildings. Alas the area is tight on security and police presence, legacy of the 2008 terrorist attacks that still encourage paranoia from the officials, quite understandably.

The other highlights for me were the visit to the Jehangir Art Gallery, which displays exhibitions from Indian artists, and a walk through Oval Maidan, the open expanse of grass that sits off the back of the Main Court and Mumbai University. Here, every Sunday, crowds of boys and men come to indulge in their favourite sport, cricket. It is a crazy sight as there are no structured pitches and people just turn up and pitch their stumps wherever there is space. The result is a series of interconnected pitches with fielders and bowlers weaving in and out to focus on their own game. Quite a spectacle.

Moving further north for some local culture

On Monday 24th we took a taxi up to Haji Ali Mosque, north of Chowpatty Beach. The mosque is sacred to the locals and sits at the end of a concrete causeway that connects it to the mainland. At high tide the causeway is submerged, and the mosque seemingly floats in the Arabian Sea. It was built in the 19th century and contains the tomb of muslim saint Haji. Rumour has it that Haji died on his pilgrimage to Mecca and his casket miraculously floated back to this spot. However, despite the beauty of the mosque and its unique location, the experience is ruined by the din of hawkers and beggars who line the entire causeway on both sides.

We exited sharply as the constant hassle prevented me from enjoying the view. Next we walked north-east towards Mahalaxmi station where there is a bridge that affords perfect views of the famous Dhobi Ghat. Celebrated in Aamir Khans latest film, Dhobi Ghat is a hamlet that contains Mumbai’s oldest and biggest human-powered washing machine. Every day hundreds of people hand wash thousands of kilos of clothing and linen in 1,026 open-air troughs. It is an amazing sight and makes you realise how hard some people have to work to earn a living. Standing knee-deep in dirty soapy water all day, then rinsing the clothes in clean water troughs in the close heat of Mumbai is hard work.

Living it up at Dome Bar in the Intercontinental

We decided to take in some of the social scene in Colaba and Churchgate and invest some hard-earned cashola. First we stepped into Leopold’s Cafe, one of the places written about by Gregory David Roberts in Shantaram. Unfortunately we couldn’t see Karla and the upstairs bar is a sweaty, smelly hole that doesn’t deserve to be patronised. We left after a quick drink and eat instead in Cafe Mondegar, a much cooler place.

In  the evening, as promised, I took Muneeza to Dome Bar, the rooftop bar-brasserie of Hotel Intercontinental. With an award-winning Thai chef and reputed to be the place in Churchgate to spot Bollywood stars at the social elite, we thought it was worth the financial indulgence. Though we spotted nobody famous, or at least not that we know of, the bar is a cool place to enjoy the Mumbai nighttime scene. We knocked back a few reasonable cocktails, soaked up the city sounds and neon night sights, then headed back to get some sleep before our early departure the next day to Kerala.

So all in all an enjoyable little trip to Mumbai. I much prefer Delhi for its historical and cultural variety but there is no denying  that Mumbai has some beautiful architecture and a pleasant vibe. It would have been good to have had an extra day to take the tour of the Dharavi slum, run by a local NGO that forbids photography and donates 80% of profits to the community. Unless I seriously want to become an extra in a Bollywood production, I doubt I will come back but I am glad we made the effort to come here.

love jamer & muneeza x

PS For tour companies out there, given how many tourists are reading Shantaram in India, a guided Shantaram city tour that takes in the key locations he writes about would be a genuine money spinner. Just a thought.

  1. james salmon says:

    brilliant you two – love the idea of a Shantaram tour, although disappointed to hear that Leopolds was pants… stay safe..

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