I was merely 14 years old when I decided I wanted to grow up and move to Bombay. As silly as it may seem, I had never even been to the city before. And yet, it was for me, like for thousands of others, the Mayanagri or City of Dreams. A place representing infinite possibilities and everlasting hope. At this point in my life, I didn’t even know someone who lived there. My desire to be part of the hustle-bustle of city life originated from only one major source - a Bollywood movie.
Released in 2009, Wake Up Sid is the story of Siddharth, a rich man-child, and Aisha, an aspiring author. While the plot may be about love and companionship, this coming of age drama also explores how these two characters discover each other and themselves in the city of Mumbai. It’s almost as if the city is a character too. Their Marathi neighbors, the magazine they work for (Mumbai Beat), the shops and clubs they frequent, and most importantly, the sea that stands witness to the development of their love, all become indelible parts of the narrative.
Sometimes the sense of location or what I like to call the “Soul of a Space” can be the essence of a story. Can you imagine Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani being set anywhere but Kolkata? The dusty lanes and run-down houses of North Calcutta, yellow taxis, dimly lit alleys, and the interludes of peace and quiet in a fast-paced metropolis when Parambrata Chatterjee’s Rana travels in the leisurely tram add to the movie’s visual aesthetic. The enthralling climax becomes even more powerful because it is set in the backdrop of Vijayadashmi( the last day of Durga Puja). We see women dressed in lal paad saris (red border saris) engaging in sindoor khela (vermillion game) and the protagonist Vidya (or as people here call her, Bida) Bagchi disappears into the crowd of women. The voiceover by Amitabh Bachchan spells out the feminist themes of the film clearly for the audience. Vidya, like Maa Durga, has slain the demon, eliminated evil, and left, only to return next year.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 takes this sense of location a step further by making the national capital the eponymous protagonist of the story. The film may be from the point of view of young NRI Roshan, played by Abhishek Bachchan but he and the myriad of different people from all walks of life are merely supporting characters to Delhi itself. Despite this, Mehra lays bare the true soul of the city in another work - the 2006 drama, Rang De Basanti. India Gate which is a site of fun and frolic for the carefree Delhi University youngsters in the first half notably becomes a place for their peaceful protest against the government. New Delhi is the only place that could have possibly captured this spirit of revolution.
The 2015 Neeraj Ghaywan directed Masaan is set in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The title of the movie literally translates to a crematorium. The ghats of Banaras next to the Ganga which also serve as cremation grounds are integral to the plot. “The film is shot at the choice of our place Varanasi because this city is the amalgamation of life as well as death together… Most of the people from across the world have a wish to end their life and die here in order to achieve salvation- ‘moksha’” Ghaywan said. A movie about love and life despite conservative casteist shackles could have been set in no place better than the holy Banaras.
Such movies can also create a sense of wanderlust for viewers. If you have ever made a Goa plan with your friends (that probably never materialized) then you know how Dil Chahta Hai managed to make road trips exciting to a whole generation. Even today, 20 years after the release of this movie, a visit to Goa is incomplete if you don’t take a picture at the Chapora fort in the iconic Dil Chahta Hai pose. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara made me want to get engaged just so I could plan a bachelorette holiday to Spain and Queen awakened a desire to break off a wedding so that I could explore Paris and Amsterdam by myself and hopefully fall in love with a handsome Italian chef.
While movies like Udta Punjab, Gangs of Wasseypur, or Kedarnath cannot possibly be set anywhere else, even simpler films like Jab We Met or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani make use of the sense of place by beautifully showcasing the hills of Shimla and villas of Udaipur respectively. The former makes use of the cold to symbolize Geet’s loneliness and the latter uses the scenic charm of Udaipur to make Bunny realize what he is missing out on. It is such small details about the ‘soul of a space’ that can really set a film apart.
Love, loss, life can all become so much more, if location is added to the mix.