Bombay Through Its Film Songs

Bombay loses alter ego in Hindi film songs, Hindi cinema massages the City of Dreams’ ego.

‘’The truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on, the natives had to love them (citizens), something in the way mothers are loved.” – Jean Paul Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.

Last March I was in Mumbai for a week. It was perhaps the seventh time I was there, including my stint as a researcher, during which I lived there longer. I was living through all the stereotypes and clichés that people associate with the city. I was jostling with the crowd to make my way in a local train.

I have always viewed Delhi, the city I have been living in for more than a decade, and Mumbai, the city I have lived in for a shorter period and talking about now, as spaces filled with impersonal entities. Both the cities have never evoked any sense of belonging in me. Despite living a significant part of my life in both these cities, the two things that strike me about them are: alienation (a feeling of being stranger to oneself, to one’s surroundings, you may call it a mechanical existence) and the irony of living conditions. These responses may be common to urban settlements the world over now.

Yes, I was talking about my last visit to Mumbai. And this time I was in a taxi. The irony staring from the roads of Mumbai is unmistakable. The fact that every third Mumbaikar, or more, lives in a slum (or not even that) is stuff of clichéd narratives. People being crushed to death on the tracks of Mumbai local trains daily is certainly not the ‘road thing’ on which swanky SUVs are driven. Yet the teeming millions in the city humble you… though irony does not fade away. I was reminded of these words in Suketu Mehta’s work on Mumbai, Maximum City – “Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us!’’

The Hindi film songs that were playing on FM radio in the taxi made me think something else. Are Hindi film songs, which remain the expression of popular culture in the country, capturing the anxiety and alienation in the city? And ironically of the city that houses the Hindi film industry. Or are the songs relentlessly celebrating the mythical appeal of the city as the ‘city of gold’ or the ‘city that never sleeps’ or ‘city of dreams’?

Of late, the movie narratives and the songs have engaged with the clichéd ‘Mumbai spirit’ of resilience in face of the cycle of terrorist violence in the city. This only exposes the lack of understanding of the economic insecurities of the working class that constitutes this mythical ‘spirit’ everywhere (peasants in any village are also back to their fields early in the morning even if there has been a caste massacre a day before).

Before seeking answers to these questions, I thought of the songs that defined mainstream Hindi cinema’s engagement with Bombay or Bambai.

In 1950s, Dilip Kumar might have been Nehru’s Hero in the Life of India (to use Lord Meghnad Desai’s phrase) but it was Johnny Walker who enacted the first lyrical statement on Bombay in Hindi cinema in CID (1956). The well rendered Rafi number in the movie may sound banal now (and this simple song is a victim of its popularity), but it was a popular expression of deepening class divide in Bombay. Johnny Walker was shown humming through the streets and on a tonga at Marine Drive which may look idyllic for today’s times:

Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan

Zara hat ke zara bach ke, 

Yeh hai Bombay Meri Jaan!…

Beghar ko aawara yahan kehte hass hass 

Khud kaate gale sabke kahe isko business!

Ik cheez ke hain kai naam yahan

Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan..

But it was in Phir Subah Hogi (1958) that the great lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi captured the irony of the Bombay’s destitute with a song that was written as a satirical parody on Iqbal’s patriotic verse Saare Jahan Se Achcha. Rendered by Mukesh for Raj Kapoor the song mocked Bombay and post-independence patriotism with lines like:


Chiin-o-Arab Hamaaraa, Hindostaan Hamaaraa
Rahane ko Ghar Nahii hai, Saaraa Jahaan Hamaaraa

Kholii bhii Chhin gai hain, Bench Bhii Chhin gai hain
Sadko pe ghuumataa hai ab kaaravaan hamaaraa..

Jiitani bhii buildinge thin,

Sethon ne baant li hain
Footpath Bambai ke hain Aashiyaan Hamaaraa!
Sone ko ham kalandar, Aate hain Bori Bandar
Har Ek Kuli Yahaan Ka hai Raazdaar Hamaaraa
Chiin-o-Arab Hamaaraa …

Rahane ko Ghar Nahii hai, Saaraa Jahaan Hamaaraa!

Interestingly a year earlier Sahir had penned another song picturised on Guru Dutt roaming the dark alleys of Bombay’s flesh trade hub for Pyaasa (1957). Sahir again mocks the ‘patriotic elite’ with the immortal lines in the poignant voice of Rafi:



Ye kooche ye neelam ghar dilkashi ke

Ye loot te huwe caravan zindagi ke

Kahan hai, kahan hai, muhafiz khudi ke(protectors of pride)

Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahan hai

Kahan hai, Kahan hai, Kahan hai!…

Vo ujale dareechon me payal ki chhan chhan

Thaki haari sanson pe table ki dhandhan

Ye be-ruuh kamaron me khansi ki than-than

Jinhe naaz hai….

Zaraa mulk ke raahbaronko bulalvo

Ye kuche ye galiyan ye manzhar dikhavo

Jinhe naaz hai Hind par unko lavo

Jinhe naaz hai Hind par vo kahan hai

Kahan hai, kahan hai, kahan hai!

In 1970s, two songs in Hindi mainstream cinema are remarkable for how they sought to express the alienation that haunted the psyche of Bombay city. Gulzar brought to words this alienation felt by a young man trying to find himself in meaningless urban spaces in a song for Gharonda(1977). Amol Palekar was seen brooding in construction sites of the city as Bhupinder Singh sang:



Ek akela is saher me raat me aur dophar me,
Abudana dhoondhta hai, ashiyana dhoondta hai.

Din khali khali bartan hai raat hai jaise andha kuan,
In gahri andheri ankhon me anshu ki jagah aata hai dhuan
Jine ki vazah to koi nahi marne ka bahana dhoondta hai,

In umra se lambi sadko ko manzil pe pahunchate dekha nahi,
Bas dhoodhti firti rahti hai hamne thaharte dekha nahi,
Is ajnabhi ke saher me jana pahchana dhoondhta hai.

In the following year Shahryar expressed the anxiety and alienation of the city with lyrics that had the essence of evocative poetry. In Gaman (1978), Farooq Sheikh enacted the song as a Bombay taxi driver with the taxi itself becoming a symbol of the anxiety and alienation in the city. Suresh Wadekar hummed:


Seene mein jalan aankhon mein tufaan saa kyon hain ?

Iss saher mein har shaks pareshaan saa kyon hain ?

Dil hain to, dhadakane kaa bahaanaa koee dhoondhe

patthar kee tarah beheesa-o-bejaan saa kyon hain?

Tanahaee kee ye kaunasee, manzil hain rafeekon

taa-hadd-ye-najar yek bayaabaan saa kyon hain ?

Seene mein jalan  aankhon mein tufaan saa kyon hain ?

Iss saher mein har shaks pareshaan saa kyon hain ? 

Hindi movies continued to be made with Bombay, now Mumbai as the backdrop. Some offer the humanist critique of the city, but in popular movie songs Bombay becomes one-dimensional, to be cherished and romanticised. An early sign of it came in Patthar Ke Phool (1991), in which Salman Khan, while romancing Raveena Tandon (making her debut) romantises the streets of Bombay. S P Balasubramaniam and Lata Mangeshkar sing:


Tumse jo dekhte hi pyar hua zindagi mein pehli baar hua
Tum itne din thi kaha main dhoondhta hi raha
Kabhi Llinking Road kabhi warden road kabhi cadell road kabhi Pedar Road
Kitne kuche galiya chaani mere dil ne ek na mani
Kaha kaha par tujhko dhoondha tere liye main hui deewani
Phir bhi na tera deedar hua yaar mere aisa kahi baar hua
Are tum itne din thi kaha main dhoondhta ta hi raha

Kabhi turner road kabhi carter road kabhi churney road kabhi Arthur Road!

Mira Nair’s Salam Bombay (1988) and Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1991) were landmarks in Hindi cinema’s exploration of Bombay’s ‘underclass’ and underbelly. Mani Ratnam’s Hindi version of his Tamil film Bombay (1995) was centred around the communal riots in the city following the Babri Masjid demolition. Thirteen years later, Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) sought to portray the city grappling with the train blasts of 2006. None of these movies had a poignant Bombay song.

Today, Hindi films are churning out Bombay songs that are only playing to the upbeat tunes of the entrenched elite and the upwardly mobile (‘citizens’). Even if there are to name a few they have absolutely no recall value (do these even come to your mind while thinking of songs on Bombay or Mumbai now?)



They have lured the subaltern of the city (the natives) to hum the same numbers. The horror is that there is no horror.




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  • Abhichandan Sekhri

    Thanks Madhu for invoking this old piece.