Infrastructure out of control

Humour is a powerful element in Mumbai Disconnected, directed by Camilla Nielsson and Frederik Jacobi. Mumbai is growing like it was on steroids. But a collapsing infrastructure is threatening to put an end to the booming economy, and is making the daily commute close to unbearable for Mumbai's 20 million citizens, where 13 people die every day on the railroads.

In "Mumbai Disconnected", we are presented with three characters. Veena Singhal was born and raised in Mumbai, and has lived 39 years on Peddar Road, where she is president of the Peddar Road Residents Association and has fought for eight years against a planned flyover, a highway overpass, which according to her and the other area residents would increase pollution 540 percent and destroy their neighbourhood.

"...the Mumbaikers themselves are well aware of the near grotesque aspects of their situation, and miraculously, they are able to make things work."

"...the Mumbaikers themselves are well aware of the near grotesque aspects of their situation, and miraculously, they are able to make things work."

Yasin is one of the city's millions of immigrants. He lives in the northern outlying districts and must fight his way onboard the overloaded trains to travel to the Crawford Market downtown, where he sells stuffed animals on the street corner. He is driven by his dream of a better life – and of one day owning his own car. And between these two we find a government bureaucrat, Mr. Das, the Vice President of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, whose job is to find solutions to Mumbai's overwhelming traffic problems.


Camilla Nielsson

Born 1970, Denmark. M.A. in visual anthropology and Certificate in Culture and Media from New York University (NYU). Her film "The Children of Darfur" (2006) won the Monte Carlo TV Festival Grand Prix, TV3 Award in Spain, and Miradas Doc Award. Co-director on "Cities on Speed — Mumbai Disconnected", selected for IDFA’s Reflecting Images: Panorama.

Frederik Jacobi

Born 1974, Denmark. Trained as a cinematographer. Shot the film "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" (2006), recipient of the DGA Award, "Afghan Muscles" (2007), which won Best Documentary at AFI, the US film "Death in Love" (2008), selected for Sundance. As director, the short film "The Sound of Plants Fighting for Life", shot in the Amazonas, with himself as lead actor. 2009: Debut as screenplay writer with the feature film "The Expatriate" by Jørgen Leth and "Cities on Speed — Mumbai Disconnected" (2009), selected for IDFA’s Reflecting Images: Panorama.

Upfront Films  

"We have called it a comedy about infrastructure. Mumbai can be a tough place to live. 10-13 people die every day on the railroad tracks, and it would all be too easy to make a dystopian film about the city. It is such a huge organism, and it suffers daily from collapse. But the Mumbaikers themselves are well aware of the near grotesque aspects of their situation, and miraculously, they are able to make things work. They can sit in a traffic jam for three hours and still find the humorous side of things, and this life-affirming spirit is what we wanted to capture. And of course, it seemed obvious to borrow a bit from the humor that generally characterizes Bollywood films."

What about the stylistic side of things?

"The film's style emerged from the encounter between our characters and the camera. Both Veena and Yasin quickly began speaking spontaneously to the camera. This became a filmic space that is central to the narrative. Veena always spoke unprompted and without encouragement when she was in her car. Yasin trains every morning and uses the physical atmosphere to formulate his strategy in the city. And in Mr. Das' office, there is a bureaucratic ping-pong match across the desk which we tried to capture with the camera.

Tell us about your experience of being dropped in the middle of a city of 20 million people?

"It was overwhelming. We first and foremost approached the assignment with great humility. At the same time, however, we felt that we as outsiders might be able to see other things that the locals could not. For example, we spoke with an Indian director who said that she would never have thought to enter the Maharashtra State Road Development office and film the way we have."

What was your greatest challenge?

"Permits were a huge problem. The Indian writer, Suketu Mehta, wrote in his book, Maximum City, called Mumbai 'the city of no.' People on the street are very helpful if you are stuck on the train or get lost, but among those in power, there is so little room for human consideration that its easiest for them to just say 'no,' regardless of what you are asking.

Were there any strokes of luck?

"We had plenty, particularly when it came to our main characters. Veena seemed quiet motivated to share her story about her fight against the flyover, and the film was an opportunity for her to reach an international audience. Yasin told us straight out that he wanted to be a Bollywood actor, and he was clearly something of a performer, so he was excited to be involved in the project. He was also politically aware, and he saw the film as an opportunity to bring up some very sharp points about Western views on issues such as the environment and consumption in his part of the world. And even though Mr. Das may have been the one who had the least personal interest in taking part, he was a classic example of a bureaucrat who doesn't simply hide away in his office, but who truly fights for his cause, and who has a high sense of honour when it comes to doing his job well. In that sense, then, we were very lucky to find such interesting characters to work with. They were almost like three archetypes."