Not always desolate or unsafe,the mills and their ruins draw Mumbai’s creative set,from filmmakers to fashion photographers and TV producers
A large board near the entrance of a narrow lane leading to the Bharat Silk Mills Compound in Kurla reads,Private Property,Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. On each side of the lane are the remains of factories and warehouses,their rusty machines covered in cobwebs and visible through the broken windows. The lone guard at the cabin asks,Have you come for the shoot? Head straight and then take a right. The shoot is of 24,the American tele-series which is being transplanted in India with Anil Kapoor playing Jack Bauer. A small crew of 35,both men and women,mill around,anxious about canning the last few scenes of the show. Amid the two-acre derelict compound,the production unit has built the sleek headquarters of the Counter-Terrorist Unit.
The ruined architecture of the mills draws many of Mumbai’s creative set,from filmmakers to fashion photographers and TV producersjust as the photojournalists attacked in Shakti Mills last fortnight. The mills shut down in the 1980s,bringing a thriving cultural and historical period to an end and creating a physical void in the heart of the city. These were huge plots wilting away right in the heart of the city. They were offered as locations for films,advertisements and the like, says Abhinay Deo,director of 24. They found an afterlife in images.
In a space-parched city,the empty mills had several advantages–they were located centrally and were often readily available. From the late 1990s and the 2000s,Colaba’s Mukesh Mills,Shakti Mills in Lower Parel,Richardson and Cruddas (1972) Limited Mills in Byculla became favourite locations for directors and producers. They formed the kitschy backdrop to several cinematic narratives,from ghost films like Bhoothnath,Raaz and Talaash,to others such as A Wednesday,Wanted,Traffic Signal and Action Replayy.
Over the years,several mill owners built the rudimentary infrastructure needed to keep the shoots coming. For fashion shoots,Mukesh Mills was more popular than the others,because it was in South Mumbai location and had dressing rooms. Fashion editor Meher Castelino remembers shooting Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan at the mills for a retail campaign in 1993. “The place was in shambles but I knew that it would make for good pictures as we planned to shoot glamorous eveningwear against the backdrop of the ruins,” she says. Designer Rocky S painted a wall in the mill premises grey to add a dark,mysterious vibe to his all-black collection in 2010. In November 2007,actor John Abraham did a promotional shoot for ESPN STAR for the English Premier League,at Mukesh Mills. The photo-shoot had a group of boys passing the ball to Abraham against a graffiti painted wall–the paint wearing off and the bricks exposed.
In a city where every jot of land is appropriated by human activity,the large vacant plots were identified as wild spaces,the exotic other of bustling,busy Mumbai. They offer a grungy lookimpossible to fabricate in a studio. These colossal structures have been around for around 50-60 years before they were discovered as locations. So its almost like these spaces have grown rich with experience and have built a character of their own which is used to either complement or as contrast with the content (of a film), says Deo. They are used either as villains’ dens or as sites of police encounters,or as desolate places haunted by ghosts.
When the Mukesh Mills shut its doors to more shoots for redevelopment in 2010,the Mumbai film industry lost a popular location. Many looked elsewhere. Photographer Dabboo Ratnani sought out the open expanse and the promise of strong light to shoot a calendar at Shakti Mills in December 2010. “I was as shooting a casual wear collection for Mandhana Industries Ltd and Shakti Mills,with its old chimney backdrop,provided a certain depth to the photographs,” he says. The lack of a dressing room or security put him off. “With many entrances and exits,I had to constantly keep a watch on my equipment,” he says.
The government-owned Richardson and Cruddas (1972) Limited Mill in Byculla has a 13-acre campus in south Mumbai,as well as multiple makeup rooms and costume rooms,a four-bedroom airconditioned guest house,and a parking area to accommodate at least 100 vanity vans. Among recent films to be shot here are Talaash,A Wednesday and Besharam. It is also a fully functional mill that manufactures submarine parts. It operates from Mondays to Fridays allowing filmmakers to shoot during the weekend on a monthly (Rs 50 lakh) or weekly (Rs 15 lakh) rental basis. One of the managers of the mill,Shrikant Umrikar,says that the mill that was founded in 1858 came under government control only in 1972. Offering the location for shoots is not our primary source of income. But since it brings in good money,we allocate a certain part of the mill to filmmakers, he says.
Text,Textiles and Art In 2010,when artist Meera Devidayal was looking for a subject for her next project,she flipped through photographs and sketches of a number of Mumbai mills from a decade ago. “The mills had a strange visual quality. With their overgrown greenery,they make for fantastic images,” she says.
Devidayal went on to extensively photograph Shakti Mills,where a group of men raped a photpjournalist,and a few other mills in Lower Parel. “During my visits,I began to see Shakti as a powerful image. Not romantic or nostalgic,but as a metaphor for a universal situation,at an urban as well as philosophical level. About the cycle of life,about change,about industrial dreams,about permanence. It reminded me of Tintern Abbey in England,a 13th century monastery,now in ruins,which I had visited in 1990. The mills also have a kind of sacred and monumental air that the abbeys (there are many,dotted across the English countryside),evoke,” she says. In her frequent Sunday morning visits,she would usually take photographs undisturbed. A local man became a sort of a guide,who would help her explore the abandoned premises,part of which has transformed into a dense jungle.
The mills are the the subject of her next show,that opens next year at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road.
Mumbai’s mills have always inspired art. The mills serve as an important socio-cultural signpost and have,over the years,lent themselves to several interpretations. Sudhir Patwardhan’s works have reflected the struggles of the mill-worker community since 1970s to the time they went defunct. Last year,Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum held a show Social Fabric,which explored various aspects of the city’s mills. It brought together artists from Patwardhan to German visual artist Alice Creischer,Archana Hande to Delhi-based Raqs Media collective. A documentary film Saacha (The Loom) directed by Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar,which was a part of Social Fabric,was recently screened as a part of a larger show at UK’s Tate Modern. The 2001 documentary film wove together the poetry of Narayan Surve and paintings of Patwardhan,to link it to Mumbai’s mill heritage.