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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Jan 2024  Farrukh Dhondy | Bombay as the City of Gold… Is the BBC docu on right track?

Farrukh Dhondy | Bombay as the City of Gold… Is the BBC docu on right track?

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Jan 19, 2024, 10:58 pm IST
Updated : Jan 19, 2024, 10:58 pm IST

BBC's Mumbai Documentary Offers Tourist's View, Lacks Deeper Insight into the City's Complexities

 "City of Gold" documentary offers a glimpse into the complexities of contemporary Mumbai. (PTI File Image/Representational)

Farrukh Dhondy


“O Bachchoo should we be afraid of the Word?

The broken promise, the violated vow

Or should we marvel at the poems we’ve heard

Which promise solace in the here and now?

Is the Word both the curse that hurts and stings

The lying falsehood, calculated to deceive

Or is it the music of flutes and strings

O Bachchoo be thankful for every word you receive…”

From Ey Don’t be Silly Yaar, by Bachchoo


Years ago I saw a film called City of Joy set in what was then Calcutta. I can’t recall what joys it celebrated, perhaps because apart from several short visits and filming some of its British history there, I am, alas, unfamiliar with its more recondite charms -- though I am with those of London and Mumbai.

This week the BBC launched a documentary series called City of Gold about contemporary Mumbai which they still (British conceit?) call “Bombay”. Being a descendant of a Bombay Parsi family who, three generations ago, made its fortune in that city and then lost it in a pathetic and trusting way, I was of course viscerally attracted to see what the Beeb meant. What gold?

I watched Episode 1. Though this is not a review, I must admit that I found it bland and cliched, a foreign tourist’s view of the City of Contradiction, of false diamonds, of contaminated pearls, of several Long John silvers, of as-yet-unradioactively-exploded-uranium and of course of the stimulating, and for some off-putting, permeating odour of golden-dried Bombay Duck….

Oh God, I could go on, but I am sure, gentle reader, you are already sick of the indulgence of an insightful city-lover. And that was the problem with “Aunty’s” doc.

There was no attempt at insight, at analysis, at pointing to the contradictions, the paradoxes, the ironies of the culture in this growth of goldenness within what one interviewee labelled “The Big Mango”.

It was a tourist’s view of the growth of some millionaires, one of whom, from lower middle class origins, had made it big as an entrepreneur of online arranged marriages. Then there were two designers of clothes, who no doubt deserved their eminence in the City of Gold, but whose clothes and customers we didn’t see. We weren’t told what they had done differently to saris, salwar-kameezes, gowns or garments. But yes, they’d hit the jackpot.

Paradoxically, or perhaps even through some fixation, an impressive lady interviewee said that the English language was the sine-qua-non of the route to success. And yet, the footage of the documentary seemed to contradict precisely this.

The social-media-entrepreneur who had got at the mines of the City of Gold was mainly exploiting, without mastery of English, a non-English- speaking public. And this particular commentator hadn’t noticed that very many of the people who get rich in India are non-English-speaking such as several BJP and Shiv Sena politicians who’ve had a nibble, if not more, at the metaphoric gold of this and other cities.

Yes, in my generation, the first after Independence, what Salman Rushdie called “Midnight’s Children”, English was the passport to a good professional job. But in India’s eras of capitalist expansion, the necessity for the owners, if not for the workers who operate on salaries in the call centres, was not an educated insight into Shakespeare or even Amit Tripathi.

As I hinted above, Mumbai was a city of promise, if not of gold, for generations before the new money came into being. My grandfather was, in partnership with his brother, a building contractor. He was a friend of the Maharaja of Jamnagar and agreed, through no more than a friendly handshake, to build a university and hospital for his pal. These were built and just then this maharaja died. His son and heir refused to pay for the completed buildings, saying that there was no legal written contract. Khurshed Dhondy, my grandad, was subsequently, through his own naïve foolishness, bankrupt.

As an invitee to a literary festival in Mumbai a few years ago, I was asked by my friends and British co-writers to guide them around the city on our Sunday off. I borrowed a car from childhood friend Dolly Thakore and drove Ruth Padel, Roddy Matthews and the biographer of Farokh Balsara around British Bombay, pointing out the buildings such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, the Prince of Wales Museum, the old Customs House, the oldest Christian church, etc.

I then drove them to what was “Crawford” (but is now Mahatma Phule) Market and they saw the cages of puppies and kittens and asked if they were being bought to eat. I said that’s in North Korea, this is India -- we Indians buy them for pets. Thus reassured, my guests got into the car and I drove them to crowded Byculla and down an alley called Khambatta Gulley. Of course, they all wondered why they were there. I said it was one of the most important buildings in Bombay and stopped at the dead end.

Yes, they were perplexed, until I asked them to step out and check the writing on the foundation stone. It said “DHONDY TERRACE” -- my ancestor’s home. My cousin then spotted us from his first floor balcony flat and we went up to have a beer and then to view the secret Titian owned by the family. But that’s another story.

Will I watch Episode 2? Curiosity conquers caution.

Tags: bbc documentary, bombay, farrukh dhondy column