Mumbai is big. It’s full of dreamers and hard-labourers, actors and gangsters, stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and servants and fisherfolk and crorepatis (millionaires). It has the most prolific of film industries, one of Asia’s biggest slums and the largest tropical forest in an urban zone. It’s India’s financial powerhouse, fashion capital and a pulse point of religious tension. It’s evolved its own language, Bambaiyya Hindi, which is a mix of…everything. It has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and a knack for creating land from water using only determination and garbage. But wait. Mumbai is not frantic, it’s not overwhelming. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Contrary to what you might think, you may not have almost just died in that taxi or been rushed by that station crowd or run over by that guy with the funny outfit and the monkey. The city has its own rhythm, which takes a little while to hear: it’s a complex but playful raga, a gliding, light-footed dance that all of Mumbai seems to know.
The one time of year Mumbai could be coined intense is during Divali (Festival of the Lights). Whether you follow Rama or one of the other 330 million Hindu deities, the Festival of Lights is a time for positivity and joy. Coming at the end of the harvest season, it’s a period of relative prosperity for the poor country and feels like the subcontinent’s version of Christmas. Watch out for the firecrackers thrown by children in the street; one safer display takes place on Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach.
If you’re bonkers for Bollywood, you’ve come to the right place to experience your 15 minutes of fame. Mumbai is the glittering epicentre of India’s gargantuan Hindi-language film industry, and they’re often looking for Western extras.
The industry churns out more than 900 films a year – more than any other industry (yes, Hollywood included). Not surprising considering they have one-sixth of the world’s population as a captive audience, as well as a sizable Non-Resident Indian (NRI) following.
Every part of India has its regional film industry, but Bollywood continues to entrance the nation with its winning escapist formula of masala entertainment – where all-singing, all-dancing lovers fight and conquer the forces keeping them apart. These days, Hollywood-inspired thrillers and action extravaganzas vie for moviegoers’ attention alongside the more family-oriented saccharine formulas.
Bollywood stars can attain near godlike status in India. Their faces appear in advertisements around the country, and star-spotting is a favourite pastime in Mumbai’s posher establishments.
It was a recent film that represented how the other half live in Mumbai, albeit in a stereotypical fashion. Slumdog Millionaire’s slum-dwellers represent approximately 60% of Mumbai’s population who live in the shantytowns and slums – some would say they are the foundation of Mumbai city life.
In reality, life in the slums is strikingly normal. Residents pay rent, most houses have kitchens and electricity, and building materials range from flimsy corrugated-iron shacks to permanent, multistorey concrete structures. Many families have been here for generations, and some of the younger Dharavi residents even work in white-collar jobs. They often choose to stay, though, in the neighbourhood they grew up in.
So give yourself some time to learn it and appreciate the city’s lilting cadences, its harmonies of excess and restraint. The stately and fantastical architecture, the history hanging in the air of the markets, the scent of jasmine in the ladies’ car of the train, the gardens and street vendors and balloon-wallahs and intellectuals in old libraries – it will all take you in if you let it. Sit back, develop your equanimity, and let yourself become part of the song.