The cinematic work of Hansal Mehta, Nagesh Kukunoor and Onir is as different as chalk and cheese. But they do resemble each other in one respect—their critically-acclaimed movies are rooted in reality and personal experience. Oh wait, they are also travel buffs and big foodies. Hansal Mehta cooks for his children and friends and he used the lockdown to further hone his culinary skills. Ditto Nagesh Kukunoor. A linguist who speaks German, Russian, Tamil, Nepali and Oriya, Onir added another language to that list in the past year—Kashmiri.
In 2020 and now 2021, as the pandemic dealt a blow to all our travel plans, the Bollywood directors, too, found themselves unwinding at home. “Write, cook, eat, workout. Repeat,” is how Kukunoor describes his lockdown experience. “The only thing missing was travel,” he adds, laughing. The free time also served as moments of introspection and renewal for them. In a chat with us, the three filmmakers evoke the moods, mysteries and possibilities of three cities, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Srinagar, with a mixture of amusement and tenderness.
The Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link connecting Worli to Bandra is Mumbai’s Golden Gate. Far beyond lies ‘the promised land’—SoBo. Earlier this year, well before the second wave of the pandemic swept through the maximum city, director Hansal Mehta—fresh off the success of the web series Scam 1992 that recreated the 1980-90s Bombay as it followed the rise and fall of Harshad Mehta—decided to take his two kids for a spin through Marine Drive. For Mehta, who was born and bred in Khar a decade before his stockbroker protagonist took Dalal Street by storm, SoBo has always been special. “Unfortunately, those places hold more romance for me than my children,” Mehta laughs.
Starting with his debut Jayate in 1999 and Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar in 2000 all the way through Shahid in 2013, City Lights in 2014 and now Scam 1992 from last year, Mehta’s films are dipped in the realistic flavour of Mumbai, depicting by turns both its underbelly and the ‘city of dreams’ myth. Told through the eyes of a migrant (a trope, it seems as old as Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 but just as timeless today), both Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and City Lights turned the urban experience into a battle against hope. By contrast, Jayate and Shahid were quintessentially Mumbai tales, articulating local anxieties. “My cinematic journey of telling the Bombay story began with Jayate. I studied at Ruia college. Every day I used to take the train to Dadar at rush hour. Every time, I’d get pushed out of the train. Jayate was born out of that Dadar life and the frustration of seeing the city’s rotten ways. Since then, middle-class inertia, elitism, privilege, isolation and dashed dreams are the themes that I have worked with constantly,” says Mehta who while attempting to describe his relationship with the metropolis quotes Maqbool’s popular line, uttered by the don Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur), “Mumbai hamari mehbooba hai (Mumbai is my lover).”
All his films are born out of his own personal prism. Rajkummar Rao-starrer Shahid, for example, was inspired by the life of the slain lawyer Shahid Azmi. Mehta shot it in Taximen’s Colony in Kurla, a typical Muslim ghetto. Shahid, which Mehta dubs as a “Muslim social more than a film about justice and human rights” revisits some of the minority angst of Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. “Taximen’s Colony sits on the river Mithi. On one side is the stench of the city’s waste and on the other stands the sweet-smelling Bandra-Kurla complex (BKC). There’s a scene in which Shahid Azmi (Rajkummar Rao) and his brother are standing atop a heap of sewage. For me, this is a classic Mumbai paradox. Those from the slums can also reach for the skies.”
The filmmaker cites Fort, Colaba and the area around CST station as his favourite. He shot some parts of Scam 1992 in these old quarters brimming with Victorian Gothic and Art Deco architecture. For Mumbaikars, watching Scam 1992 was like being in a time capsule. Wielding the camera, Mehta felt the same, too. “I fell in love with Bombay all over again after Scam 1992. Over the years, the rise of the so-called BKC culture has detached us from old Bombay. I remember as a child we used to occasionally dine at Gaylord in Churchgate which served chicken a la kiev and lasagne. I had never heard of lasagne in my life before!” When shooting for Scam 1992, Mehta fulfilled one of his childhood dreams of staying at a Gateway of India-facing room at the Taj Mahal Palace. “Putting up at the Taj is the ultimate middle-class dream. Everyone sees the Taj from outside and wonders about the glamour of the ballroom Bombay,” he says. After the pack up, Mehta, who cooks in his spare time, would set out to rediscover old haunts like Cafe Ideal, Delhi Darbar and Shamiana at the Taj for a slice of Mumbai snack.
The director is disheartened that the old ways of the city are fast fading away. His childhood home, Mukhi Nivas, on the leafy 15th road at Khar is long gone, replaced by a modern construction. “But it’s a miracle that the mango tree which was there even before my grandfather came to occupy the place still exists,” he smiles.
“An architectural marvel dating from the 18th century, it has gothic arches and stained glass windows. From here, you can wander around Colaba.”
Sewri Salt Pans
“Beautiful birds stop by on their way to their long journeys. But with climate change posing a real threat, God knows how long this view will survive.”
Perched on Malabar Hill, “it’s got a bird’s eye view of the Queen’s Necklace. Many movies have been shot here including at the now-defunct Cafe Naaz.”
“It’s still there near the Khar railway station. Lots of thali joints but Vrindavan is the best.”
“A very traditional, dastarkhwan-type place. Little bit catering to the Arabic taste.”
“Try the steamed fish with Malvani masala and homemade paste.”
Haji Ali Juice Centre
“Pick from faloodas and ice-creams. My favourite is sitafal cream.”
Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989)
“All of Mirza’s films are like a study of Bombay.”
Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1992)
“What life is like for the marginalised and haves-not.”
“Where do you get the best haleem in Hyderabad?” Non-Hyderabadis often pose this question to Nagesh Kukunoor. Try Sarvi Bakers and Restaurant, near Banjara Hills, recommends the director of Hyderabad Blues, Iqbal and Dor, saying, “Do you know what makes for a good haleem? The balance of garam masala. And Sarvi does a good job.” Hyderabad has a strong culinary tradition and haleem is easily its pièce de résistance. Haleem was once a Ramzan-only speciality. Now it is ubiquitous. Its origins go back to the glory days of the Nizam. Nutritious and easy to prepare, the haleem was practically invented for the army. “A one-in-all meal, it’s wheat, meat and a tonne of ghee, all rolled into a gooey paste. Haleem is unique compared to khichda and paya because everything is indistinguishable in it. As opposed to the khichda where the grains and mutton pieces do reveal themselves, you will never see that in haleem.” Kukunoor adds ruefully that few places today retain the original version of haleem. “Because of the Teluguisation of Hyderabad over time, the palette has become spicier. I hear tourists say, ‘Oh, we ate at the Paradise.’ But Paradise is overrated.” Instead, head to the off-the-map Toli Chowki that teems with eateries serving Arabic-style cuisine with a desi twist. “A huge chunk of the Muslim population from here went to the Middle East. They came back and opened restaurants specialising in Arabic feast. Two of my favourites are qabsa and mandi (Arabic biryanis),” he says, adding, “Top it off with the Egyptian pudding, Umm Ali.”
In Kukunoor’s 1998 debut, Hyderabad Blues, one character announces, “Once a Hyderabadi, always a Hyderabadi.” And food, he admits, is one way to bat away the Hyderabad blues. “I have a close-knit friend circle and we bond over food,” says Kukunoor, who was born in Narayanguda, a residential cradle close to Charminar, the city’s historic and spiritual centre. The city and its culture as captured in Hyderabad Blues is a reconstruction of his memories of the home he had left behind. “I remember we had a Hyderabad montage showcasing all the landmarks but due to budget constraints it had to be dropped. Looking back and as I grow older, it’s one of my regrets not to have done it, especially because Hyderabad has changed so rapidly,” he says.
He recalls shooting at all his favourite haunts—Hussain Sagar, the quaint Alwal railway station and even the famous Balaji Ratanlal Mithai Bhandar in Kachiguda. “I go to Balaji all the time,” drools Kukunoor. Hyderabad Blues’ opening sequence was filmed at Alwal station and “the hero’s entry was an anti-climax,” because the costume assistant forgot to carry the jacket Kukunoor was supposed to wear. The Indian railways, he says, had always piqued the imagination of his generation thanks to its possibilities of travel, escape and romance.
In 2014, Andhra Pradesh was carved to form Telangana with Hyderabad as its new capital. Kukunoor defines it as “one of those cities that has one foot in the past and one in the present and after N. Chandrababu Naidu (the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh) came along another foot in the future as well.” Kukunoor today spends considerable time in Mumbai. But whenever he comes home to Hyderabad he makes it a point to mosey up the old quarter of Charminar to rekindle old memories. “I’m a Hyderabadi at heart. 100 per cent,” he pipes up. “It took me a while to embrace my roots, but now that I have it’s a good feeling.”
Qutub Shahi tombs
“Relaxing half day, pack a lunch and make a picnic out of it. Lots of amazing restorations in progress, thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation.”
“Lesser known than Falaknuma Palace (which you can only visit if you’re staying there) but beautiful nevertheless.”
Charminar, Mecca Masjid and Laad Bazaar
“Brave the crowds. Get there as the sun sets, so you can see the Charminar and Mecca Masjid. Make sure you sit on the black stone—legend has it that one who sits on it will always return to Hyderabad. After sunset, Laad Bazaar’s bangle shops come to life. Have the famous Irani chai and Osmania biscuits around Charminar. If left with spare time, a trip to Lamakaan (Hyderabad’s own free cultural space) for chai and samosas.”
Sarvi Bakers and Restaurant
“Arguably, the best Hyderabadi dum biryani not found in people’s homes. Ask for extra meat, worth it. Great haleem. Fantastic chicken 65.”
“A spicy Andhra joint—bamboo chicken, dahi kebab, avakai (mango pickle) biryani and ripened chili fritters.”
“Terrific Hyderabadi/Arabic food. Mixed kebab platter Arabian style, qabsa is a must. Dessert Umm Ali is to die for.”
Balaji Ratanlal Mithai Bhandar
“Terrific sweets. Gulab jamun, Gajar ka halwa, ras malai, malai gewar, and ras Madhuri.”
Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982)
“Captures the true flavour of Hyderabad, with the best Dakhini you can hear in a film.”
Viswanath’s Sagara Sangamam (1983)
“A story of unrequited love set in the heart of Hyderabad. Timeless scenes and backdrops.”
What draws Onir to Kashmir is its overwhelming hospitality. “I usually discover a place through its people and their stories and culture,” the director tells us from his home in Mumbai. In the past decade and a half, the filmmaker behind indies like I AM, Shab and My Brother… Nikhil has developed a close bond with the Valley. This year itself he has visited Srinagar at least four times. “My friends call me ‘half-Kashmiri’ now,” he laughs. Being born and brought up in the mountainous Bhutan might explain why Onir has found a kindred spirit in Srinagar. “Whenever I’m on a flight that’s crossing the Himalayan range, I don’t know something happens to me,” he says.
Onir first visited Kashmir in 2007 for script research and was put up at a hotel. Since then, he has made so many friends there that he never had to book himself into one again. Coming from a family with roots in Bangladesh (which later moved to Calcutta and ultimately, Thimphu), Onir draws a parallel between Kashmiris and Bengalis. “In both communities, the priests or Brahmins eat meat. Both are primarily rice eaters. Like Bengalis, all Kashmiris consider themselves poets and all they do is talk, talk and talk, especially politics,” he chuckles. No wonder the director has homed in on an adda in Srinagar—Ahdoo’s restaurant by the banks of Jhelum. If Onir is in town, goes the joke among his Kashmiri friends, you can find him at Ahdoo’s.
For Onir, it’s always the tucked-away gems of this state that merit a visit—places that speak to his wandering soul. Counted among the oldest Islamic shrines in Kashmir, the Khanqah-e-Moula, built in 1395, is one such haunt. With its papier mâché decorations and intricate wooden architecture, the shrine is a vision of tranquillity. “Inside, you can hear naa’t (verses) sung in Prophet Muhammed’s memory. It’s divine!” Unfortunately, the shrine has forbidden non-Muslims from its premises, a recent development that rightly enraged the otherwise soft-spoken filmmaker. “Once I lied and went in as ‘Abdullah Khan’ but last time, I decided to give them my real name. I was asked to go but I hope it’s a one-off thing.”
To Indians, a commonly held sentiment about Kashmir is that it is “paradise on earth.” Bollywood has only served to reinforce this poetic view. “I am sorry there’s so much pain and anguish there,” Onir counters. “The human cost of this ongoing tragedy is incalculable. The Kashmiri Pandits who were driven out of their home are still homeless. People who stayed back are stuck in a constant cycle of mental and physical violence. How can you call it paradise?” In 2019, the Indian government revoked the controversial Article 370 that gave the state a rare autonomy. “When I read media reports of the so-called ‘New Kashmir’ I find those emotions absent in the people I meet. I feel the first step towards becoming one is to learn to listen to the other.”
“The papier mâché art work that adorn the walls of this dargah are beautiful. Recently there was huge outrage when an attempt to ‘renovate’ the dargah started and they took off the old paintings instead of working on what was there. Though the work was stopped, a part of the papier mâché work is unfortunately already destroyed.”
“Architecture and history of Kashmir from another era. Situated in the middle of a water body, the single stone Shiva temple is stunning.”
Floating vegetable market
“I just love the ambience, the camaraderie between the boatmen, drinking kahwa (Kashmiri tea) and girdah from one of the floating boats is a unique experience at dawn.”
“It’s a wooden bridge. Walk around this old quarter to experience ancient Kashmiri heritage and architecture.”
“Try Kashmiri pulao and wash it down with kahwa later. When I am there I forget my diet plans. I know the next day I will need to jog by the Jhelum for 5 km at least.”
“Located in Wazpora, what is special about this place is that they allow you a glimpse into their kitchen and the cooking process. Also because they serve at weddings the taste is more attuned to Kashmiri palette than tourists.”
“This first floor tea room in Laal Chowk has a very artistic decor and offers views of the Jhelum. Sometimes this space has art exhibitions featuring local artists. Sit there, order noon chai with harissa and tsot.”
Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints (2012)
“The Kashmiri language film mixes documentary with fiction.”
Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010)
“A poignant narrative of an insider. Shot beautifully, it is one of the few films that show the Kashmiri experience from a Kashmiri himself.”
Shaikh Ayaz is the kind of writer, who, say if he's in Melbourne will gladly skip the MCG for any art museum. But the problem is there aren't that many great art museums in Melbourne. Also, he's running out of professorial, serious-looking turtlenecks that help him, as he says, fit into the whole arty-farty culture.