Gautam Benegal, 47, likes to keep things simple. For this meeting with HT, the animation filmmaker and painter, a Goregaon resident, directed this reporter to the large, glitzy Oberoi Mall in the eastern side of the suburb. But instead of meeting at a coffee shop in the mall, he chose a modest bar five minutes from there, where he could relax and have an afternoon beer.
“This is my watering hole,” he said, before grinning and adding, “Well, one of my watering holes.”
Motioning in the general direction of the mall, he said, “All these guys who work at the food court — do you think they eat there? No, they probably go to a khau galli on the opposite side and have a vada pav for lunch before coming back and serving people coffee and burgers.” He took a sip of his beer and said, “The problem is that we’re trying to get rid of these places.”
For Benegal, a National Award-winning animation filmmaker (he won ‘Best Animation Film’ for his 2008 film The Prince And The Crown of Stone) who has been active in the field for 22 years, the gentrification of the city is a cause for concern, which he channels through his art. A year ago, he held an exhibition at Cool Chef Café, Worli, that mourned the demise of the corner Irani eatery.
That exhibition was a subset of an upcoming show called Continuum — The Enduring Spaces of Bombay, to be held in south Goa from January 21.
This one mourns — or, rather, celebrates — the dabbawalla, the vada pav-walla, key maker, tea stall owner and other personalities who occupy what Benegal calls the city’s ‘soft spaces’.
“We’re driving out all these people and forcing everyone to adopt a consumerist lifestyle. My exhibition is a silent protest of sorts against this forced change,” he says.
Having come to the city in 1989 to learn animation under veteran Indian animator Ram Mohan, Benegal remembers falling in love with Mumbai’s inclusiveness and plurality. Mohan is the man behind the animation sequences in films such as Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and well-known commercials such as the one for Vicks cough lozenges.
“These soft spaces had no restrictions. They were frequented by the rich and poor alike,” says Benegal. “People had conversations, regardless of religion, community or socio-economic status. Today, people are simply glued to their screens.”
A familiar bleeding heart complaint, one might think, but Benegal’s concerns also come from an artist’s perspective. He talks about a Facebook meme (an image that gets shared online, sometimes with variations) he saw recently that depicted three panels of a man sitting in front of the computer and one of him sleeping. The panels were captioned ‘At work’, ‘Watching a movie’ and ‘Hanging out with friends’.
“For an artist, externally, there will soon be nothing left to depict any more. This isn’t just about economics; it’s also a loss from an aesthetic standpoint. What am I going to paint, a man wearing a uniform standing behind a counter in an air-conditioned mall?”
The points he raises needn’t be applied to just Mumbai. With the kind of rapid gentrification and real-estate development taking place across other metros, not to mention tier-II and tier-III cities, Benegal feels that the Indian city in general is losing its charm.
“Neighbourhoods in the city are already starting to look the same,” he says. “Pretty soon, people will start sounding and looking the same.”