In the denouement of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), protagonist Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a street urchin in Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura, flees a brothel after a desperate crime and disappears into a raucous street procession celebrating the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. High-angle shots show us narrow roads packed with a seemingly endless stream of dancing bodies that take in Krishna and then spit him out on the other side into a quiet, empty street. He’s no longer running, but seems suddenly small and alone, breaking down into tears in the film’s final close-up. 

It’s a scene that captures the very pulse of Mumbai (called Bombay until the 1990s), where, in the words of writer Jerry Pinto, “every deserted street corner conceals a crowd”. In the city’s constant churn – of people, capital, industries, trains – losing oneself can feel like finding oneself, and vice versa. Krishna arrives alone and penniless in Mumbai from a village near Bangalore and is drawn into a dense underworld of pushers, gangsters, conmen and sex workers, whose daily hustle offers a taste of both the liberating and lacerating sides of the city’s inexhaustible anonymity.

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Salaam Bombay! stands out for its natural locations and realistic (though never anthropological) portrayals of Mumbai’s demimonde, but the city looms large throughout Indian cinematic history, as the home of Bollywood, a repository of India’s colonial past, the country’s cultural and financial capital, a hub of crime and inequity, and a cosmopolitan melting pot where people of all stripes commingle, sometimes uneasily. 

To mark Salaam Bombay!’s release on Blu-ray and digital platforms, here are 10 other great films set in Mumbai. 

Salaaam Bombay! is out now on Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

Shree 420 (1955)

Director: Raj Kapoor

Shree 420 (1955)

A scion of one of Bollywood’s reigning dynasties, actor-director Raj Kapoor won over audiences in India and abroad with his turn as a Chaplinesque ‘vagabond’ in 1951’s Awaara, a role that effortlessly blended Kapoor’s star power and on-screen charisma with the humble aspirations of a new nation’s ‘common man’. Shree 420 sees a similar tramp named Raj – outfitted in a comical bowler hat and ill-fitting trousers – arrive in Bombay with the hope of finding work, only to be pickpocketed within minutes of setting foot on its grimy streets. But as he soon learns, the real thieves of this town walk around in expensive suits and commit their crimes in swanky offices.  

As Raj is taken in first by the city’s houseless and then by venal businessmen, a grand story of rags-to-riches-to-reckoning unfolds in elaborate studio-built sets. Despite its artificial backdrops, however, Shree 420 manages to capture Mumbai in its truest form: as a land of teeming masses, who represent consumers to some and comrades to others.

Chhoti Si Baat (1976) 

Director: Basu Chatterjee

Chhoti Si Baat (1976)

Actor Amol Palekar became the face of a new kind of Hindi cinema in the 1970s: that of the average, middle-class man, with his average, middle-class aspirations. Chhoti Si Baat stars Palekar in a classic Bombay tale of love-at-first-commute. Arun, a meek office-goer, shares shy glances with the beautiful Prabha (Vidya Sinha) on his daily bus ride to work, but he can’t muster the courage to make a move. When he encounters a romantic rival in the lugubrious Nagesh (Asrani), Arun enlists life coach Colonel Julius Singh (legendary actor Ashok Kumar) to help up his game. 

Basu Chatterjee’s caper unfolds against iconic Mumbai locations – the erstwhile Samovar cafe, Jehangir Art Gallery, the decades-old Eros Cinema – and offers a charming version of the city rarely seen on screen: neither tragic nor glamorous, but filled with regular people who are the stars of their own quotidian dramas.

Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980)

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980)

In this classic of Indian Parallel Cinema, a movement that developed since the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Naseeruddin Shah take the Bollywood trope of the ‘angry young man’ – popularised by Amitabh Bachchan in a string of 1980s action hits – and turn it into a vehicle for blistering class critique rooted in ordinary urban life. 

Shah plays Albert, a Christian mechanic with a terribly short fuse, whose father, a mill-worker, is about to go on strike. The film charts Albert’s slow transformation from a boorish, oblivious young man, who scoffs at his father’s union activities and takes pride in his roster of wealthy clients, to a true denizen of Mumbai’s working-class, awoken to the business elite’s empty promises of upward mobility. Mirza combines surreal musical elements and documentary interviews with mill-workers, while Shah turns in a live-wire performance as Albert’s diffuse, aimless rage finds a proper outlet: the injustices of bootstrap capitalism.  

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) 

Director: Kundan Shah

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)

One of Hindi cinema’s most enduring cult comedies, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro twists and turns around a pair of photographers, Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (Ravi Baswani), who find themselves embroiled in a rotten real-estate scam when one of their pictures captures an incriminating detail in its background. A disarming blend of slapstick and satire, Kundan Shah’s indie follows its goofy, earnest protagonists throughout Mumbai – from their little studio in the coastal Haji Ali area to newspaper offices, construction sites and police stations – on a grand tour of the city’s web of corruption. 

This saga of disillusionment ends in a stage performance of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, which is hijacked by the film’s motley characters in a rambunctious gag. The irreverent scene seems hard to imagine in today’s censor-beleaguered Bollywood, which only makes the film’s closing image feel more timeless. Poised in front of the Gateway of India, Vinod and Sudhir mock-slice their own throats, as if to say: the truth comes here to die. 

Bombay (1995) 

Director: Mani Ratnam

Mani Ratnam uses one of Indian cinema’s favourite tropes – star-crossed lovers – to paint a tragic portrait of a city torn apart by the fissures of faith. Set during the riots that ripped through India after the destruction of the historic Babri mosque by fundamentalist Hindus in 1992, Bombay follows a Hindu-Muslim couple who flee their small town in south India for the melting pot of Mumbai, only to see the parochialism of their hometown balloon into something much bloodier in the city that never sleeps. 

Controversial on release, Bombay uses its journalist protagonist to castigate politicians who stoke religious animosity for their own ends, but the film’s most powerful appeal – as with most of Ratnam’s films – is to the heart. A swooning romance set to one of the most beloved soundtracks of the 1990s (composed by A.R. Rahman), the film pictures Mumbai as a city of overflowing passions, where desire, desperation, rage and redemption all swirl in a heady mix. 

Kali Salwaar (2002)

Director: Fareeda Mehta

Kali Salwaar (2002)

“This city asks no questions of you,” the great writer Saadat Hasan Manto once said of Mumbai. In Kali Salwaar, Fareeda Mehta’s imaginative adaptation of Manto’s 1961 story, a small-town prostitute and her pimp arrive in Mumbai and are fazed by a city whose indifference is both seductive and lonesome. As the two struggle to eke out a living, they’re absorbed into a tight-knit world of fellow underbelly types drawn from Manto’s various writings, as well as Manto himself, played here by Kay Kay Menon as a mordant talent plagued by alcoholism and censorship.

With this metafictional sleight of hand, Mehta crafts a slightly anachronistic, semi-fantastical world where street lingo mixes with literary Urdu dialogue and sex workers peddle their wares with the graces of palace courtesans. The film locates great poetry and wit in the transactional lives of its drifters and hustlers, rendering them – as Manto often did – as the city’s true artists.

Maqbool (2003) 

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Maqbool (2003)

In the first instalment in Vishal Bhardwaj’s excellent trilogy of Bollywood-ised Shakespeare adaptations, Mumbai’s humid heat and nocturnal grime substitute for the foggy Scottish moors. Some of Indian cinema’s finest actors feature in a slick crime drama that feels as epic as it is modern. The late, great Irrfan Khan stars as the gangster Maqbool; Pankaj Kapoor plays his boss, Abbaji; Tabu is Abbaji’s concubine and Maqbool’s lover (which makes her a truly twisted Lady Macbeth); and Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri delight as corrupt, astrology-obsessed cops, riffing on the weird sisters. 

Bhardwaj gives the source material the masala treatment, with stylised shootouts and song sequences, but Maqbool also heralded a newer, smarter kind of Mumbai mafia movie, in which sociopolitical and psychological intrigue supersedes schlocky action. Drawing on India’s turn in the early 2000s towards economic liberalisation, Bhardwaj evokes an underworld whose age-old honour codes are threatened by the influx of new money, foreign alliances and corrupt media. 

Om Shanti Om (2007)

Director: Farah Khan

Om Shanti Om (2007)

Very little of Om Shanti Om is set in what one might call ‘real’ Mumbai. Farah Khan’s thrilling reincarnation saga takes place in large part at Film City, the famed Bollywood studio lot in the suburbs of the city. But few films have so lovingly breathed life into the Mumbai that glitters in the dreams of the millions of Indians raised on Hindi cinema: a mirage-like world of fantasy, romance and stardom. 

The film features megastar Shah Rukh Khan in a wry, self-reflexive role as Om, a struggling actor in the 1970s, who is infatuated with a screen goddess (Deepika Padukone) and becomes collateral in her violent murder by a greedy producer. Om is then reborn as a parodic version of Bollywood’s dynastic stars – a self-absorbed young actor with rock-hard abs and a silver spoon in his mouth – who eventually recalls his past life and decides to avenge his lost love. A Vertigo-esque melodrama with opulent song-and-dance sequences and cameo-studded industry spoofs, Om Shanti Om is as sincere and open-hearted in its cinephilia as it is self-aware. 

Court (2014)

Director: Chaitanya Tamhane

Court (2014)

Chaitanya Tamhane’s festival hit Court observes the many different worlds that jostle for space within Mumbai, each with its own textures, rhythms and sometimes even laws. The film opens in the city’s slums, where a Dalit (‘untouchable caste’) folk singer is arrested for purportedly inciting a man to suicide through his protest songs. In the courtroom drama that ensues, he is prosecuted by a middle-class lawyer who takes the local train, spends her evenings on household chores and attends nationalistic plays with her family, while his defence lawyer is a well-heeled young man who frequents upscale marts, hippie pubs and pro-democracy events. 

Shot with a patient, long-take style attuned to the granular details of urban spaces, Court traces the arcs of caste, class, language and religion that can both insulate Mumbai’s communities from one another and facilitate unexpected solidarities. 

Kaala (2018) 

Director: Pa Ranjith

Kaala (2018)

A dispute breaks out between the residents of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, and the politicians looking to raze their homes and build upscale apartment complexes. As the skirmish heats up, the crowd parts, and the actor Rajinikanth enters the frame, his each gesture – the flick of his hand, the swish of his veshti – captured in slow-motion and set to electric guitar riffs. 

It’s a scene lovers of Tamil cinema will have seen dozens of times: the Thalaiva or ‘leader’, as Rajinikanth is known to his fans, entering a fray to fight for the underdog with inimitable panache. But in Kaala, Pa Ranjith’s coup is to deploy India’s biggest superstar and his adored, larger-than-life persona in service of a distinct political vision rarely seen in mainstream Indian cinema: Dalit empowerment. 

Ranjith tells a Bombay tale as old as any – of greedy capitalists disenfranchising the city’s poor of their meagre land – but with thrilling, no-holds-barred style that draws on the vibrant cultural traditions of lower-caste slum communities, from folk drumming to contemporary hip-hop. 

Further reading