I love Juhu beach. I’m fascinated by it. In the mornings it’s a place that the rich frequent, and in the evenings, it’s a place for all,” says Piyush Jha. At this hour of the day, when the sun is almost overhead, Juhu beach seems to be having some me-time. It’s true that Mumbai’s public spaces are shared across classes. From ad guy to filmmaker to author dabbling in crime fiction and satire, Jha seems to have imbibed some of the effortless fluidity of the city.
Multiple facets of existence and their dualities make Mumbai/ Bombay what it is. Mumbai is the city that slogs day in and out. Bombay is the shadow of a dream, tangible, yet not. In between these two, stories are born.
Almost 20 years ago, Jha was sitting visibly bored outside a recording studio where an ad jingle was being recorded, when a friend dropped by. “Why don’t you make a film,” the friend asked casually.
That was all it took for Jha to call up National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and request a meeting with the managing director about a film idea. He had no idea then about what NFDC did nor did he know where their office was. The following week he presented the director with a two-page story titled ‘Chalo America’, based on a short story he had been meaning to write. Soon, the project was on floors, and Jha had his debut feature film in hand.
But it was “Sikandar that changed my mukkadar (destiny),” he laughs. Sikandar, his third film, was nominated at the 2010 Star Screen Awards. At the award ceremony, he met the then editor of Screen magazine, Priyanka Sinha, who he would later marry.
His marriage, he says, led him to the world of writing. “I enjoyed it so much I ended up writing four books!” says Jha. He has written four crime fiction novels — Mumbaistan, Compass Box Killer, Anti-Social Network, Raakshas and a satirical novella — The Great India Bowel Movement. His crime fiction novels visit a metaphorical place called Mumbaistan that captures the grungy, gritty beauty of Mumbai. The first three, which feature his rather popular character Inspector Virkar, are being turned into a web series.
The Great Indian Bowel Movement is the first from his series called Absurdia Indica — satirical novellas about three things that Indians tend to do fairly casually in public: shitting, pissing and spitting. “My idea is to write about normal everyday people who fight a battle every day to feed their stomachs. Sometimes they become a part of the dark side, sometimes they don’t. That’s what I explore… lonely battles against crumbling morals,” he says.
Now we are at a suburban members-only club, which is anything but crumbling. I ask Jha about where his Mumbai or Bombay is. He grew up in Colaba amidst gorgeous art-deco architecture, and then found himself starting life all over again in the suburbs, when his father retired and they made Juhu their home.
Jha is a Mumbai guy. In the distance, across Juhu beach, I can see the early stage work for the Coastal Road. The view from Juhu beach will probably no longer be the philosophical vastness of the Arabian sea. “This sea link was being talked about when I was in school, so you can imagine, how delayed it is,” says Jha. “And now what’s the point of this coastal road? Who is going to use it?”
Jha reminisces about a time when Mumbai was a laidback city. It’s hard to imagine. He remembers swimming at Juhu beach at midnight. People hanging out on the beach, chilling, even drinking. The Hindi film industry hadn’t taken over the country. Film stars weren’t on every hoarding, in every advertisement, doing everything from writing books to hosting shows. In that old Mumbai as a college student, Jha, whose favourite film then was Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, aspired to make socially relevant films one day.
Old and new
In his opinion, economic liberalisation, the 1992 riots and 1993 bomb blasts changed the city’s fabric, instilling fear and changing the city’s physical landscape.
“Is Bombay going to be a part of the world in a way that it will look like just any other city or is it going to retain some of its culture, some of the old world charm?” he asks.
The Bombay he once lived in and the Mumbai he continues to live in, is the central character of all his writing. “I lament through my work. There is an intertwining of the old and the new in my work, in a visceral way. I feel this city not just in my heart, the way people romanticise it, but I feel it in my gut. I feel the rumble, the heartbeat, the pulse in my gut.”
Within the idea of Mumbai dwells the idea of making money. “As a creative person your motivation should be about exploring different ideas,” says Jha, who speaks passionately about collecting junk and upcycling. He’s made a distress-paint cot and upcycled an old grandfather radio into a bluetooth radio.
“Ultimately, I will not have money. But I will have a life. I’ve made good friends so I will always get a meal.”
I ask him if his sense of belonging to the city gives him security. “For me living the creative life, exploring creativity is the paramount reason I exist. Money is a by-product.”
But he has, after all, worked in advertising! Jha laughs and tells me about how friends would often coax him into buying a Mercedes. “I tell them what will I do with a Mercedes? I will reach the same place, in the same time as you do and we are going to hit the same potholes on the road!”
The film festival fiend lavishly uses the term ‘vagabond’ to cover up her instability. Insta: @wanderwomaniyaa