Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
No form of art other than cinema has the tools or the mileage to carry a place the furthest it can ever go in the imagination of the viewer. It's not just the digitally portable format I'm referring to, but also the contextual filters that cinema bring to a place that have the potential of altering its lived destiny. Art, literature, and other forms don't even come close, especially in India, where we neither read nor absorb.
But often a place's reputation, its capacity for deceit especially, is so casually manufactured it crushes the modesty, and most crucially, the violence of its everyday realities. For more than half a century now, Shimla has played host to a number of film projects, some of them illustrious, some unremarkable. What has remained consistent though is the average Indian filmmaker's chauvinistic view of Shimla, as a place so un-Indian, it can only be mined through the elitism of the tourist rather than the consciousness of the resident.
Poster of Love in Shimla
Small towns in India suffer from an identity complex. So much of our cinema and news is centred around the cities, it feels like a collective achievement to even be noticed " for reasons good or bad. RK Nayyar's Love in Shimla (1960) was one of the first films to arrive in Shimla, turning it into both a film and a tourist destination. You could understand the infatuation " a relatively young republic, learning to find its feet and rationalise the capitalist overtures of activities like cinema and travel. Predictably, the two overlapped, painfully miming each other's novelties, with the precision of a man drunk on the privilege and access.
Regardless, Nayyar's film put the town on the map, not because it was intrinsically woven into the story, but because it felt alien, a place in India unlike India. If you've seen our popular cinema through the '90s, you'll know that that pragmatic approach to geography did not change even decades later. Merchant Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah (1965), a film about a travelling and struggling Shakespeare theatre company, is comparatively more solipsistic, charmed but not prisoner to the charms of the town.
Still from Shakespeare Wallah
On one hand, it might sound cynical that a resident must moan about his town's scattered though consistent presence in Indian cinema. Because from a strictly economic perspective, it has probably only brought rewards and livelihoods to locals. From a socio-environmental viewpoint however, Shimla has been feeling its pulse for years now, moaning from under the sheet of its manufactured image, about infrastructural and environmental hell it must look away from to appear both beautiful and peaceful.
Shimla appears in our cinema, not as character but as backdrop to arbitrary choices, not as blood and soul but as the sheen of a second skin that actors momentarily borrow to wear on set.
In 3 Idiots, a honeymoon-like sojourn traces Rancho (Aamir Khan) back to the town. In Imtiaz Ali's Jab We Met, Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) traces Geet's (Kareena Kapoor Khan) secluded second life back to Shimla as well. Both directors view the place through the lens of mysticism, where people either hide or go to find themselves. It's the same old 'the hills are calling' bogus spiritual argument that most tourists tell themselves to escape to the drug dens of the hills. It's also a clichÃ© that has been stretched beyond repair.
Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor in Jab We Met
Not to mention that filmmakers who make simplistic, thin-as-ice connections between hills and romance, forests, and peace are probably yet to realise the reconstructive powers of cinema, its ability to radically alter types written in stone. For the longest of times, we, the residents of this town, also believed the half-realised poeticism of the hills " its posturing of safety and security. The actual narrative has been anything but.
Shimla is riddled with potentially catastrophic problems like encroachment and overcrowding, crime, and drugs that only getting worse by the day. And to top it all, the town must still redeem itself, from its aching tentacles and beaten edges to rise to the expectation of this touristy view of an idyllic destination that must have no wrong " because it echoes no wrong. A town that can't heal itself, let alone those who seek refuge here or think it is anything close to refuge.
Most of Shimla's middle class population lives in crowded, city-like suburbs that perpetually struggle for basic amenities like water, parking spaces, good neighbourhoods or even accessible roads. Most films shot in Shimla, however, always restrict themselves to the touristy extremes of the Mall road, that two-mile stretch of British leftovers that have so bullishly become the town's story, it's the only one that outsiders want to see. For that, we are partly to blame as well.
Perhaps Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black (2005) and Vikramaditya Motwane's Udaan (2008) are the only films that justifiably use the town as prop or structural backdrop. About an elite Anglophone family living in Shimla, the surrealism of Black adequately borrows from the gothic buildings of 'British' Shimla. Udaan, on the other hand, has used both the town and co-incidentally my old school (Bishop Cotton School) as a borrowed destination for middle-class aspiration. It's not ideal, but at least the filmmaker's imagination doesn't submit to the vacuity of a travel postcard.
On the other hand, there is Imtiaz Ali, who nonplussed writes his naivety into his cinema with the confidence of a teenager filling his first scrapbook or watching his first pornographic image. Ali's sense of poeticism is so weak he needs to be rescued by the hills or at least their blissful distant existence. His use of Shimla is so laughably predictable that even a handful of the common sightseeing blogs do better in their 100th iteration of '10 things to do.' Incredibly, this reading of the town did not evolve in the eight years between Jab We Met and Tamasha " where else could a brilliant mind and someone with implausibly endless resources yet poetic struggles be born in, but except Shimla.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a cynical view of the globalised world. No town or place belongs to anyone or no one. Shimla's problems, however, are for its residents to face and its tourists to ignore, in the same way that its British heritage is for the filmmaker to notionally capture for the lazy tick of a fine sunset with an architectural anomaly in the silhouette. No other place in the country perhaps offers as many contradictions, including the fact that it might be the only British thing which while we glorify in the sheets, will eventually tear down in the streets. Cinema's grasp on the socio-economic eventualities of such decadence should be trusted, but because our general filmmaking is so impersonal there is yet to evolve an anthropological view of Shimla, especially of its citizen that is not soaked in some wet dream of mysticism and romance. This is a town is just as merciless and demanding as any other place in the country, if not more. Things, obviously, aren't as they seem or are sold.
Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.