Late on a Friday afternoon, there are barely any empty tables at Café Excelsior (Fort). If you come here often, you can tell this is an unusual crowd; it’s full of young people – a demographic that’s more McDonald’s down the street. They don’t have the urgency of Excelsior’s regular crowd (office-goers on lunch breaks, students in search of a cheap bite). They are sipping on token fresh lime sodas, or chai, some sitting with nothing in front of them. On a rarity scale, ‘nothing in front of you’ at an Irani café ranks next to a total solar eclipse.
By the time Ritesh Batra walks in, there is only standing room, but people are still coming in. He’s followed by another film director – Shoojit Sircar. Pleasantries are exchanged. Batra claps to get everyone’s attention. Heavy iron chairs squeal as they turn to face him.
Sircar – fresh off the success of his latest film – does a little celebrity-wave and sits down. Batra remains standing. “Welcome…” he begins.
So far, the sessions have featured the likes of actor Radhika Apte and director Sharat Katariya (at Kyani and Co, in March), director-choreographer Farah Khan and actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui (at B Merwan & Co, in April), and casting directors Atul Mongia and Seher Latif (at Excelsior, also in March).
Excerpts from an interview:
What made you start Poetic License?
We shot a scene from The Lunchbox (2013) in Koolar (Matunga). Around the same time, Bastani (Marine Lines) shut down. Even Merwan (Grant Road) was briefly in danger of closing. So I wanted to come back and do something at Irani cafés; something to build awareness about them. I think if I do it for a year, it will make a difference. We did the first session at Koolar and the guys there tell me that people who attended it keep coming back.
You grew up in Mumbai. What are your memories of these cafés?
I studied at Sydenham (Churchgate), so these places are my old haunts. They were cheap places to eat and hang out at. I’ve had a good time here, so, this is personal for me.
What do they mean to the city’s history and its food scene?
They make the city unique. If you replace them all with Starbucks and Café Coffee Days, Mumbai will die, and instead, we’ll be left with something generic in its place.
Think about how much of the city we’ve lost. One of my favourite things as a kid was to sit in the front seat on top, in a double-decker bus. There are so few left now; and they are on their way out. Some would say this change is normal, but it’s not. Anywhere in the world, people fight to preserve them.
Even food-wise, they are pockets of uniqueness; they are local and specific. The bad thing that happened to Mumbai is multi-cuisine restaurants that serve everything, but where nothing is good.
You’re inviting colleagues to talk about films. How does that relate to Irani cafés?
Well, it does and it doesn’t. You ave to see these as cultural spaces; where you can congregate, and have an exchange of ideas. And it doesn’t have to be only people from films. I’ve spoken to writers as well for a session. You see, any city with a big film industry – Los Angeles, Hong Kong, even Mexico City – has these cafés and film centres for the community to meet. Where we’ve failed is in creating a community. The Mumbai film world is a bunch of camps that meet at offices and homes.
You see them as cultural spaces; but do these cafés see themselves that way?
I don’t think they do. And I don’t think that’s their responsibility. They are doing enough just by keeping their doors open, though there’s often more incentive for them to sell. So, we need to do our part.
As much as we love the Irani cafés, they are infamously intolerant of large crowds hanging about. How much convincing does it take to let you host these sessions?
There was resistance initially. We started with Koolar because the owners had been really hospitable during our shoot. Then, we did one at Kyani and it was a mess. A lot of people came to listen to Radhika and Sharat. We disrupted their business and caused chaos. You have to deal with that now and then. But, largely, whenever we’ve approached a place, they’ve been happy to have us. Some have even called us themselves.
What do you hope to achieve in the long run with Poetic License?
We’ll do the sessions every two-three weeks, and not just at the popular ones. We did one at Merwan, which is off the beaten path. We want to do one at Light of Bharat (Shivaji Park), and one at Ideal (Chowpatty). We have a list of 16 places for this year.
We’re also collecting the stories behind these places. We plan to have them in an app that will have RFID tagging, tell you what to eat where. I want it to be funded, have it on tourist guides as something for people to download and use for a Mumbai culinary experience.
I believe all of this work will pay back. The Lunchbox started as a documentary idea. I hung around with the dabbawalas for three-four weeks, and then decided I should write a fiction film.
Isn’t it trendy to shoot these sessions and put them on YouTube? The project would surely get more traction that way.
Yes, people have suggested that I shoot and share them. I know the advantages of technology, but this is about meeting each other. I guess it’s important to be a little old-fashioned. And to anyone who asks about filming them, I say, well, you should have been there.
To keep track of Poetic License sessions, follow @riteshbatra on Twitter.
Your guide to mumbai’s Irani Cafés
Kyani & Co
Opposite Metro Cinema, Marine Lines
What’s special: One of the oldest Irani cafés in the city, it sports the trademark dark bentwood chairs and chequered table cloth.
Order: Irani chai and bun maska
B Merwan & Co
Opposite Grant Road Station, Grant Road (East)
What’s special: This café shot to popularity last year after it almost shutdown. However, it was given a new lease of life soon after.
Order: Mawa cakes and walnut cakes
Gunbow Street, Fort
What’s special: Ideal Corner is spacious and more contemporary interiors since it is one of the newer cafes of the lot.
Order: Mutton Dhansak with rice and chicken and cheese patties
Dhobi Talao, near Gol Masjid, Marine Lines
What’s special: Check out the old photos of Iran on the wall
Order: Mutton cutlet and plum cakes
Ali Chamber, Tamrind Lane, Fort
What’s special: The romance lies in locating this no-frills café in the busy Fort area
Order: Keema pav and caramel custard