Filmmaker Udayan Biswas’s Mumbai Hustle begins with a prison shot — a high wall crowned with coils of barbed wire, shadows of other fences and trees promising freedom from the other side — except it is a stretch of Dharavi in Mumbai. The long-haired man sizing up the wall wants to break free, if only through graffiti and music. “Had I not been a rapper, I would have been a hoodlum. I would have been f****** drinking on the streets and stealing because my area is like that. The slums are like that,” he says, as Biswas, 29, sets the tenor of the 22-minute film. Mumbai Hustle was screened at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France this month, after a run of festivals in Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala in 2018.
“Growing up among musicians and being a musician myself, I have been fascinated by the process and struggle a musician goes through in creating his music. In my third year at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, we had to shoot a documentary as one of our final projects. I had been following the underground movement of rappers from Dharavi, who were using a post-modern form of music, hip-hop, to speak about their concerns and representation in this big city. When I saw this kind of an underground movement brewing in India’s economic capital, I knew there were many more layers to this culture that had to be investigated,” he says.
The film does away with the traditional mould of a documentary and observes the culture of hip-hop by following Dharmesh Parmar or MC Tod Fod, Aklesh Sutar or MC Mawali and Sreejit Nair aka Mayavi from Swadesi, who have also featured in the Bollywood film, Gully Boy. We also see Tony Sebastian aka Stony Psyko and Rajesh Radhakrishnan or Dope Daddy, who have rapped in Kaala, starring Rajinikanth, as well as featured in Gully Boy as themselves.
The boys meet on open terraces above dingy buildings, practise beats in moving vehicles, perform in concerts and relax in secret hideouts. “Once the filming began we were somehow managing to keep up with their youthful energy, observe them objectively and shoot a film around it. They started introducing us to their hideouts where they jam, write and escape from the city,” says Biswas.
His team, comprising cinematographer Kushal Banerjee, editor Bhisma Pratim and sound designer Niladri Roy, creates a film where the camera movements are wild and fluid. There are saturated grainy images and light leaks. The soundscape features recorded original vinyl scratches, magnetic tape winding sounds and microphone feedback as a homage to the music video makers of the ’90s, which is considered the golden age of hip-hop.
Growing up in Delhi, Biswas trained in tabla at a very young age, built his foundation in Hindustani classical music, and gradually developed a taste for jazz, funk, soul and eventually hip-hop. “A new world of knowledge opened up when I started listening to political rappers such as Public Enemy, Peruvian American rapper Immortal Technique, Krs One, Kendrick Lamar and Mos Def. Never before I had experienced a musical genre so dense with metaphors and reflective of its own time,” he says.
Biswas’s fascination with Satyajit Ray led him to learning music and painting and, ultimately, to FTII. “At FTII, I was exposed to a world of literature, art, music and varied kind of films from our country and the world. We shot fiction, non-fiction and music videos and it opened my understanding about what else the medium of cinema can achieve. We were allowed to experiment, fail and get up. That probably gets reflected in our works,” he says.