“Mumbai mein ek bhi jagah nahin jahaan bomb ko shanti se uda saken,” (“There isn’t a single place in Mumbai where you can go to peacefully explode a bomb”) goes one of the funniest lines in the excellent new film Shor in the City. The context is that three small-time lawbreakers have a bomb in their possession (it was in a bag they stole from a train) and want to blow it up in an isolated setting, just for fun. But where and how? This city doesn’t encourage solitude and privacy at the best of times, but the film is set during the chaotic ten days of Ganesh Chaturthi. Roads are jammed, people dance wildly along the streets. “So much shor – how is a man even supposed to hear himself think?” a character wonders aloud.
It’s a question that will recur through the story, but some of the tensest scenes in Shor in the City hinge on silences. Fooling around with an AK-56 and other weapons recovered from the bag, the excitable Mandook (wonderfully played by Pitobash Tripathy) “fires” the unloaded guns at his nervous friends and then places a revolver to his own temple; time freezes as we wait, breathlessly, for a blast that will never come. (When a blast does come in a later scene, the build-up is stretched out, so that the long, silent wait is nerve-wracking, while the actual explosion feels almost like deliverance.)
Much of the pleasure of watching this film is to see the skilful weaving together of its three main stories, all of which are about people struggling to earn a living by fair means or foul – or to just keep their heads above water, while making whatever compromises are necessary. In the first, Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor), the most grounded of the three friends, tries to maintain some personal integrity even while running a pirated-books business. (He even gets a whole set of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – what else? – reprinted because a few pages are missing, something that wouldn’t have troubled the conscience of most pirates.) In the second story, a foreign-returned entrepreneur named Abhay (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is terrorised by extortionist goons as he tries to run a small (legitimate) business. And in the third, a young batsman looking desperately for a break must organise ten lakh rupees with which to bribe a selector.
The constant shor in the background of these people’s lives is juxtaposed with patches of quiet, saner moments, such as Tilak’s attempt at self-education by haltingly reading the Coelho (which also gives him something to talk about with his new wife); or the cricketer Sawan’s relationship with a girl who is frustrated by his lack of initiative but who also clearly loves him. The characters’ paths intersect at times (and the detail of weapons changing hands is a little reminiscent of Babel), but there is no strained attempt to connect the threads; each story is taut and well-executed on its own terms. This script is so confident and focused that it doesn’t even feel the need to dwell on who the bag originally belonged to. (Terrorists planning an attack? Perhaps there’s another major story there, but so what? The ones on offer are interesting enough.)
What all this adds up to is a fine microcosm of a metropolis and its residents. There are many telling contrasts – between the guy who spends a month’s salary on a ridiculously fancy phone (and keeps the plastic cover on for weeks) and the man who rides a scooter now but assures his wife that they’ll graduate to “a big car – a Nano” soon. Even the most despicable characters have a moment where they look almost pathetic and helpless as they ask, “Don’t we have a right to earn our living too?”
I particularly liked the way the film uses the Ganesh Chaturthi motif. In the hands of directors Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, this most familiar and mainstream of festivals – taking place in a contemporary setting – becomes a primitive, pagan thing. Watching the frenzied revelry and the continual sense of danger (some of the devotees being thugs and criminals of various stripes) is a reminder that many festivals in their origin were pretexts for people to let out the accumulated repressions of the year (and that Hindi cinema has long associated festivals like Holi with a scale of deviant behaviour that ranges from “harmless” eve-teasing to gang-rape).
Of course, the festive shor can facilitate some positive developments as well. It allows a likeable character, wounded during a heist, to simply walk away while policemen and bank managers bow piously before a giant Ganesha statue. It creates a smokescreen that allows Abhay to get revenge on his tormentors without drawing much attention. But by the end there’s little doubt that “visarjan”, apart from being the elephant-god's final immersion in the water, can also indicate a man hurling a revolver into the same sea after committing a triple-murder with it. As they say, it’s a city of unlimited possibilities.