Eleven tunes capturing the zeitgeist of Mumbai throughout the eras.
Mumbai is a complex and multifaceted city, but it is also a city of stories told, often as not, through songs. You could never capture every part of the city’s character in one finite list, so I’ve assembled eleven tunes, each a vignette from a different place or time in Mumbai’s exuberant life story. The majority of these songs come from Bollywood, the spectacularly productive Hindi film industry that has both captured and set the joyous pulse of the city for nearly a century. Only in Mumbai could the melancholy tune of ‘Oh, My Darling Clementine’ be reimagined as a gleeful frolic through an urban fantasy, as it was for the 1956 film CID by the distinguished songwriter Majrooh Sultanpuri and composer OP Nayyar. “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan” (This is Bombay, my love) has since become the city’s unofficial anthem: an ode to its freewheeling spirit, its unending draw, the dream that it represents even when it fails to deliver.
I am Mum-bhai, Bombay Boys (1998)
Mumbai is about the rains, the sea, Bollywood, bun-maska, brun and bhel. But it is also about ‘bhai’ – literally ‘big brother,’ but used colloquially to refer to the powerful underworld dons who run their own parallel universes from within the city or wherever else they may live. From the 1960s on, names like Haji Mastan, Varadarajan Mudaliar, Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, and Arun Gawli cast an ominous shadow over the city. One phone call from ‘bhai’ could send even the most powerful politicians and famous actors scurrying for cover. Things turned particularly grim in the 1990s when any attempt to resist an extortion demand led to bullets and bloodied bodies. Businessmen, builders, and Bollywood producers turned up dead, but even the city’s new middle class faced the underworld’s wrath when the purchase of a fancy new car or apartment led to a call from Big Brother. That period of underworld dominance in Mumbai has been replaced, in post-liberalization India, by the mafia of multinational corporations and banks, but Javed Jaffrey’s spicy rap number ‘I am Mum-bhai’ – a pun on the city’ name and the men who, for decades, ran it – from Kaizad Gustad’s campy 1998 film Bombay Boys remains as powerful an evocation of the classic Mumbai gangster as it was 20 years ago. The killer line from the song, ‘Haath mein uska power hai, sab uska aage jhukta, uska khopdi sanak gaya toh pura Mumbai rukta,’ roughly translates to ‘People cower before him in fear / If he loses his patience, the entire Mumbai comes to a halt.’
Cheen-o-Arab Humaara, Phir Subah Hogi (1958)
The Mumbai film industry of the 1950s benefited immensely from the presence of several progressive Urdu-language writers, poets, and intellectuals. Luminaries like KA Abbas, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Shailendra were attached to such classics as Awara (1951), starring Raj Kapoor (one of the biggest names in Bollywood history), and Guru Dutt’s Pyasa (1957). The involvement of these fine literary minds led to a spate of films that critiqued the nascent nation-state, broached hard-hitting issues — exploitation of poor rural migrants in Shree 420 (1955), industrialization in Naya Daur (1957) — and endorsed the ideal of Nehruvian socialism. Their pithy challenges to the status quo spared nothing and one. Not even Mumbai. In Ramesh Saigal’s 1958 film Phir Subah Hogi, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment, the eminent Urdu poet and songwriter Sahir Ludhianvi offered his scathing assessment of Bombay in a song called Cheen-o-Arab humaara, a parody of the poet Allama Iqbal’s celebrated anti-colonial hymn Tarana-e-Hind (Anthem of the nation), with its opening line of Saare jahaan se achha, Hindustan humaara — Better than the entire world is our Hindustan). Raj Kapoor sings Cheen-o-Arab humaara, Hindustan humaara / Rehne ko ghar nahin hai saara jahaan humaara (China and Arabia are ours, Hindustan is ours / We don’t have a home to stay, yet the whole world is ours) as a lament to the plight of the homeless, sleeping on footpaths even as the builders’ lobby divides the city to suit their commercial interests. Ludhianvi wrote this song sixty years ago. One shudders to think what he might say were he around today.
Mere Gully Mein, DIVINE featuring Naezy
This is what happens when the influence of American hip-hop hits the chawls, or tenements, of Mumbai: the voice of the disenfranchised speaking with a newfound confidence. DIVINE (aka Vivian Fernandez) and Naezy (aka Naved Sheikh) are two of the most popular hip-hop stars to have emerged from the city’s slums in the last few years. Still in their 20s, the pair has revived the use of popular music as a tool for protest. Where before traveling troubadours sang leftist songs in the city’s working-class districts, the protest music of the modern Mumbai slum is aspirational, a claim to the same privileges and luxuries enjoyed by the wealthy. Their coming together for Mere Gully Mein (In our ghetto) signals an ongoing transformation among Mumbai’s slum youth, frustrated by the deep inequalities that still plague the city’s social fabric, no longer so easily sedated by the romantic platitudes of mainstream storytelling, and unafraid to speak up. Instead of adopting a foreign idiom, their grammar is the language of the slums they are born into, their politics, unequivocal and hard-hitting. Sample this – “Chor mere gully mein? Woh toh saala mantri hai.” (Is that a thief in our lane? No it’s the stupid [government] minister.) Their success is infectious and empowering. Bollywood has apparently caught on and a film based on their rise to fame, starring Ranveer Singh, is in the works.
Baaton Baaton Mein, Baaton Baaton Mein (1979)
I suppose one could go with the absolutely zany My name is Anthony Gonsalves to represent Mumbai’s spirited Catholic community, a conspicuous cultural presence in neighborhoods like Mahim, Bandra, Santacruz, and Malad. Instead, I submit this lovely ditty from Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), the fine Basu Chatterjee rom-com that gives us a ringside view of the matchmaking foibles involving a young Catholic couple and their enthusiastic families. The Baaton Baaton Mein song captures the unironic devotion that so many felt (and feel) for Aamchi Mumbai (our Mumbai). On screen, it offers an intimate view of quintessential city scenes: the Bandstand promenade, sea waves serenading the rocks, the once-ubiquitous red-colored, double-deckered BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport) buses. More importantly, the song showcases middle-class Bombay through one of the city’s most important lifelines: its suburban train network, a legacy of the British Raj. Millions of people pack themselves in on a daily basis. Once on board, they strike up friendships, read, play cards or hang on for dear life (this is no joke: thousands of people die each year on the tracks of the Mumbai locals). This being Bombay, sometimes romance blossoms between a young couple – in this case Nancy Perreira (played by Tina Munim) and Tony Braganza (Amol Palekar) – on their everyday commute, even under the avuncular watch of those pressed up against them. It’s the essence of Mumbai, a city to fall in love with despite its hardships.
Colwad March, Colwad Union
Imagine Jawaharlal Nehru, renowned freedom fighter and the first prime minister of independent India, wearing a fisherman’s cap, a tika adorning his forehead, and dancing to a traditional tune from the Koli fishing community (the original inhabitants of Mumbai’s islands), whose refrain went “Sonaiachi kaulla gharawarti” (golden tiles on top of the house). This is exactly what happened when the fisherfolk from the Colwad hamlet, in Mumbai’s Bandra neighborhood, greeted Nehru during a visit to Delhi on January 23, 1961. The Kolis had been called to the national capital as the first-ever representatives of the newly formed state of Maharashtra at the Republic Day parade. Koli men still fish the hideously polluted waters off the city’s coast (and farther down the shoreline where the sea is comparatively clean), while their wives sell the catch in the koliwadas – or Koli hamlets (Colwad is a contraction of the term) – that still dot neighborhoods like Sion and Versova. Colwad March by the Colwad Musical and Dramatic Union, which was founded in 1914 by Lawrence D’Mello to promote social welfare through music, picks up on the tune of the “gharawarti” refrain. It’s a suitable homage to the indigenous inhabitants of Bombay, whose patron goddess, Mumba Devi, gave the city its new name.
Mumbai Nagariya, Taxi No. 9211 (2006)
Bombay has many names. Mumbai. Maximum City. The City of Dreams. People, thousands of them, come here everyday from all corners of the country, filled with hope and ambition. They arrive wide-eyed, greeted by billboards of the latest commercial blockbuster, a reminder that, at last, they’re sharing soil with their favorite Bollywood superstars. What they aren’t prepared for is the brutal, unforgiving, impersonal reality of city life. For every success story, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others with tragic endings. This ghazal – a poetic form involving love, loss and longing – from the 1978 film Gaman, poignantly captures that daily struggle through the experience of a migrant ‘kaali-peeli’ – black-and-yellow – taxi driver. Mumbai Nagariya, (Mumbai City) sung by 1980s disco king Bappi Lahri, also gives a glimpse of the seductive charm and carnal pulse of the city’s bustling nightlife, of the frenetic pace at which the city operates day in and day out, a rate of movement that makes New York look calm and Paris catatonic. The city is a heady intoxicant, as the song tells us; people live and die by the rush.
The Bombay Theme, Bombay (1995)
Mumbai is famously India’s great melting pot, populated by the Hindus, Jains, Bohra Muslims, Goan Catholics, Parsis, Jews, and Sikhs; by speakers of Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, and virtually any other language you might hear in South Asia. For the most part, they coexist quite wonderfully, sharing breakfasts at the city’s iconic Irani cafes, perhaps a Maharashtrian misal pav for lunch, or a Parsi sali-boti for dinner. But the ghastly Mumbai riots of December 1992 and January 1993, which led to the bomb blasts of March 1993, changed the city forever. Many say Bombay hasn’t healed since those days. Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman’s haunting composition for Mani Ratnam’s 1995 Tamil film, Bombay, brilliantly captures that moment in the city’s collective consciousness. Based on Raag Jaijaiwanti, one of the sweeter musical modes in the Indian classical music tradition, The Bombay Theme is cathartic, searing, spiritual. It is a lingering reminder of the fault lines that continue to divide the city even as so many of its citizens search for the lasting peace that sadly remains elusive. The tune is so intoxicating that it has turned up in four separate films: first in Bombay, followed by Deepa Mehta’s Fire, then again in Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, and finally in Julian Schnabel’s Miral.
Deva Shree Ganesha, Agneepath (2012)
Ganesha Chaturthi is probably modern Mumbai’s biggest, most raucous festival. Taking place over 10 days near the end of the monsoon season, the celebration of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, brings the city as close to a complete halt as possible, with giant temporary temples built along (and sometimes on top of) the city’s already congested roads, and processions of deities blocking traffic, sometimes for hours at a time. Though the Ganesh festival has long been big on the city’s calendar, the revelry in the last few decades has gone up several notches as rising disposable incomes and growing economic confidence have, together, produced ever-more-elaborate forms of cultural self-assertion. In recent decades, the festival has become a brazen display of money and power (one and the same here at the heart of India’s capitalist revolution), with local politicians pulling out all stops to ensure that their Ganesha mandal (association) walks away with the biggest cash and jewelry collections from offerings made by zealous devotees. The rampant commercialization of the festival has also brought with it environmental concerns and related safety hazards. The change in how Ganesha is celebrated in Mumbai is also reflective of the growing role of religion in India today. It is more brash and in-your-face than ever before, certainly more than it was 20 years ago when I first moved to Mumbai. For many, the festival’s new, more disruptive avatar is a way for the city’s labor class to assert its presence and fundamental importance in a city that seems increasingly intent to leave it behind. For others, it’s a boisterous expression of the strong community ties that hold this improbable city together. Bollywood, as ever, has responded to the zeitgeist with nearly a half dozen Ganesh Chaturthi-inspired chartbusters, starring everyone from Shah Rukh Khan to Varun Dhawan. None has been more extravagant than Deva Shree Ganesha, starring one of the industry’s most popular modern-day heartthrobs, Hrithik Roshan.
Mumbai, Tula BMC War Bharosa Nai Ka, RJ Malishka (2017)
RJ Malishka, a popular radio jockey on a local Mumbai FM channel, released this stinging number in July 2017 blaming (accurately) the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for the woeful condition of the city’s roads during the monsoon season. The common man has to bear the brunt of the corporation’s lackadaisical attitude for the annual weather event, rapped Malishka, tongue firmly in cheek, as she called out the potholes that routinely leave bikers dead and jam the city’s already-packed streets as the rains pour down from June through September. Instead of taking her criticism in the spirit intended – a humorous but deadly serious manifestation of the frustration Mumbaikars feel at the neglect of local administrators – the BMC sent her a notice for breeding, albeit inadvertently, dengue-transmitting mosquitoes at her Bandra home. The local political brass wanted her sued for five billion rupees ($75 million). It was Malishka, they claimed, with tone-deafness that bordered on the farcical, who had tarnished the image of Mumbai, not the damaged roads. Fortunately, netizens, celebrities, and political opponents rallied behind Malishka and saved her from the BMC’s humorless wrath. This viral, sixty-second video – and the mayhem that ensued – remains a biting commentary on Mumbai’s dismal civic administration.
Do Deewane Shehar Mein, Gharonda (1977)
Gharonda, meaning ‘The Nest,’ is book-ended by two songs that speak of its protagonists’ ambition to buy a house in Mumbai. The second song, Ek Akela Is Shehar Mein, (A lonely soul in the city) appears after their fragile dream is shattered, while Do Deewane Shehar Mein (Two lovers in the city), from early in the film, is as clear-eyed a portrayal of the aspirations of Mumbai’s salaried class as Bollywood has ever produced. Be it a tiny room in a crowded chawl or a small flat in a far-flung corner of the city, the desire to own a space is what drives people in this desperately cramped city, sometimes to the point of tragedy. Even when they manage to put their meager savings together, the vast majority end up compromising on their choice of home, given the outrageously inflated price of real estate. The debt albatross soon turns into a noose, forcing people to make unsavory conciliations. But that rarely deters them from taking the gamble. As the film journalist Nandini Ramnath noted incisively of Gharonda, “The real enemy here is Mumbai, the city that is forever forcing its residents to take hard decisions, lower their expectations and discount their dreams… [Mumbai] involves making do, never winning completely, and somehow always surviving.”
Bombay Meri Hai, Mina Kava & Uma Pocha
The first-ever Indo-pop hit on the Bombay party scene in the 1970s, Bombay Meri Hai (Bombay is ours) was composed by a Parsi gentleman, Mina Kava, who played percussion for Hindi film soundtracks in the 1960s. Mina had been asked to write a song by the music label HMV to attract foreign tourism to his hometown. Though he had composed similar tunes like the infectious “An Evening in Gay Maharashtra” earlier in his career, it was with Bombay Meri Hai, composed to lyrics by his wife Naju Kava, that Mina captured the public’s imagination. As Naresh Fernandes, author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, commented, “‘Bombay Meri Hai’ broke the mold and established the template for the Indo-pop boom that would emerge in the mid-1990s.” The tune featured western instruments alongside more traditional Indian sounds to accompany the inimitable vocal stylings of Uma Pocha as she beckoned visitors from England, Ireland, and Scotland to come sample the delectable savories the great metropolis had to offer: “Puri bhaji, bhelpuri you can try and tell/ Idli dosa, hot samosa you will like too well.” The song had a second life years later when Pocha’s younger sister, Usha Uthup, sang a somber version of Bombay Meri Hai in salute to the city’s indomitable spirit in the aftermath of the floods that devastated the city in 2005. This resilience is Mumbai’s most endearing quality. It may take (and dole out) a few hits every now and then, but the city and its citizens always find a way to get back on their feet.