It was a privileged to have seen this mesmerizing film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it played to an enthralled audience. This is filmmaker Manjeet Singh’s debut feature film as writer, director and producer who was at the screening to answer questions about the film and I had a chance to talk with him.
Based on the director’s childhood memories, Mumbai’s King is a coming of age tale shot completely from the point of view of children living in the vibrant streets of a Mumbai slum with high rises looming in the background. Much of the film shows the comradeship between two adolescent boys, Rahul, and his balloon selling best friend, Arbaaz, as they skulk about trying to come up with ways to make money and play pranks while stealing food from local vendors.
What impressed me most about this film, right from the beginning, was the stunning intimate imagery of the steamy smoke filled alley ways and recesses where kids bathe and play in garbage filled rivers that flow through the deep underbelly of the slums, and where the city’s dregs collect and builds up into mounds of waste. The movie explodes with an abundance of vivid life that spills out in a haze of sounds, music and color evoking, at times, the visual style of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and City of God (2002).
Set during the Ganesh Festival, the story focuses on Rahul whose drunken father abuses him and his mother and their infant son. Rahul runs away from home one night while defending his mother and spends nights on the streets for fear of his father’s violent temper. During the day while Rahul and Arbaaz follow a girl he has fallen in love with through the streets of the slum, they conspire to get revenge on his father by ambushing him one night and giving him a beating.
The non-professional actors are actual kids from the area where the movie was shot and their characters are based on their own lives and the events they experienced. Much of the dialogue was improvised and created on the fly by the slum kids who have a great chemistry on screen.
Filmed with small digital cameras and using a minimal crew the filmmakers were able to capture authentic uninhibited performances in the most intimate settings. I knew instantly from seeing the images that this film had to be made by someone with personal knowledge of this environment.
The movie culminates in a suspenseful chase through a gathering of festival revelers celebrating the birthday of Lord Ganesh when the father is spotted by the boys and they put their plan for revenge into action. Rahul’s infant brother is lost in the chaos as the mother also joins the chase when she spots her runaway son and attempts to follow him.
Manjeet Singh is a talented new voice emerging from India. His honest vision of the poverty that surrounds the burgeoning city of Mumbai may not be appealing to middle class Indian audiences who are usually averse to anything that doesn’t show their country in the most positive light. But this filmmaker has poured his soul into making a serious film that faithfully and powerfully depicts the genuine atmosphere and issues of a significant segment of the population living in less than ideal conditions. It deserves to be seen by a wide audience and I hope that more filmmakers will follow this trend to move the film industry in India towards a more open and truthful style that reflects the extraordinary lives of real people no matter what their social status.