Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:
In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.