FROM BOMBAY TO MUMBAI: Representation, Power Politics and Gender Roles and Postcolonial Spaces in Bollywood Movies


This paper takes on the approach of textual analysis of postmodern, postcolonial city of Mumbai depicted in contrasting versions in two popular bollywood films: Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai  and Wake Up Sid. The real images of the Mumbai and its aspiration to be a modern, developed and affluent city is studied, using a deconstructive approach to understand the ‘real Mumbai’. From Bombay to Mumbai, the image of the city has been depicted in various films in different styles, but these two films specifically deal with the definition and construction of identity, gender roles and spaces in a city. Once Upon a time in Mumbaai shows how a glamorous Mumbai is maligned with dirty politics and controlled by a few, while Wake Up Sid projects a modern lifestyle and image of the city.  This study shows how a city’s attempt in being globalized and modern has divided it into two; one side shows world-class lifestyle practiced by ruling elite, while on the other hand is the majority of the population struggling to keep up with its modern dream. The high-rise buildings, the developed economy and the glamorous business of Bollywood is an exterior facade of the city while the majority of Mumbai is still very much underdeveloped, with slum populations struggling to find a place of their own.


Mumbai, previously called Bombay, was renamed in 1995 in an attempt to decolonize it from its colonial past and to give it more local origin (the name was derived from local goddess Mumbadevi). It was protested and contested because majority of the population considered ‘Bombay’ was sufficient. The renaming was done to reclaim the city and all its symbols of modernity and power for Marathi speakers from all the others (Hansen, 2001). Moreover, it was also an attempt to define the city as more national territory with a cultural history of its own and an emerging modern economy to compete on a global stage.

Today, Mumbai stands tall as the commercial hub of India just like Karachi is for Pakistan. A cosmopolitan city of different social classes, castes, religions and urban spaces known for its diverse and vibrant image. But the promise of the city as ‘the city of dreams’ (Hansen, 2001) attracting the poor is not as fulfilling as it is shown on the global scale and in bollywood movies. The city’s attempt of neat and elite urban spaces, class solidarity and religious mixing was not fulfilled as planned.

One such story of the failing aspirations of modern Mumbai were the ethnic and communal riots of December 1992 and January 1993 which brought out the intolerant, uglier side of the city trying to homogenize its population and spaces. Based on these riots and the history behind it, Once Upon a time in Mumbaai (2010) is a narrated story of power struggle, politics and class differences in the city. The movie is based on reality and its themes reflect urban spaces, gender roles, power relations between the elite and working class and the failure of the city to contain its dream of a modern city.

Whereas on the other hand, Wake Up Sid projects a very different and youthful Mumbai that is welcoming to all. It shows the importance of some of the public spaces in the city and the changing roles and social constructions in a modernized Mumbai for global images.


Once Upon a  time in Mumbaai is narrated by ACP Wilson who came to Mumbai in 1970s. It opens with ACP Wilson summoned for his suicide attempt in 1993 after the Bombay bombings. He told how his attempt of reclaiming the city under the rule of law backfired and put it into this crisis. He narrates the story of Bombay the city in the 1970s when Sultan Mirza, a young boy, came to the city from Madras through Sea. ACP Wilson quotes: ‘Nobody would have thought a boy who came to city through sea would rule the sea one day’. He held the image of respectable and principled man despite being the king of underworld. Sultan was in love with the city and wanted to keep the public lives safe. Therefore, he reconciled with all the other gangs and divide the city according to the police stations among all the underworld. He claimed: “I don’t need land to rule this city because I have sea under my control to get my business done.‘ Sultan was a messiah for the poor and solved all their problems where government failed. He was the connecting link for transferring the money from the ruling elite to the poor. The main idea of ruling the sea was because it was the connected link from India to all the other countries. The story also shows the love life of Sultan with upcoming Bollywood actress Rehana for whom he invest his black money into the film industry. The plot of the film revolves around how ACP Wilson tried to bring Shoaib (Sultan’s subordinate) to overturn Sultan’s rule from the city. This is the story of two men Shoaib and Sultan, who tried to make an identity of themselves in the city while being in the power. Sultan’s aim behind acheiving power was to make the city more peaceful and help the underprivileged while Shoaib just wanted to rule the people and the city. It deals with the theme of identity, class struggle, power politics, and representation in the city.


While Wake Up Sid is the story of a young rich boy Siddarth who is careefree, enjoys life and is not responsible and serious about his future. He met a girl Aisha, an aspiring writer who came to Mumbai for her new job and is elder than Sid. Sid takes her on a visit to the city and also helps her find an apartment. Meanwhile, Sid’s result was announced and he failed the exam. When his father learns about his result, he takes him out of the house. With nowhere to go, he went to Aisha for sharing the apartment for few days. Initially happy to help, Aisha later on gets annoyed and irritated with Sid’s careless nature. Aisha is more of a mature girl, independent who likes working on her own. Aisha works in the leading hip magazine Bombay Beat where she had a crush on her Editor-in-Chief. Meanwhile, Aisha learns how Sid can use his photography skills for her magazine as an intern where he ends up getting a job. After his first pay, Sid moves to his parents’ house. It is then Aisha realizes that she is in love with the new city not because of the city itself but because of Sid. She then writes the article about him titled ‘New girl in the city’.

Both the films deal with making an identity in the city but the motives behind both are in sharp contrast. The former deals with the power struggle, institutions’ role and the underworld; the latter revolves around struggle of the individuals and the opportunities to success for the common man. Moreover, from the former to the latter the city image has changed much and the lifestyle and its urban structures have transformed. It is interesting to study the difference in urban lifestyle, spaces and gender roles in the city which aspires to become the cosmopolitan city of a modern era. But as one past is true reflector of its future, the question for a modern Mumbai for diverse, multicultural, modern and developed infrastructure is still in question. The growth of one segment of the society trying to match the image of the city to the world-class infrastructure and economy has made the majority of population as other. This otherness has created the underprivileged and disadvantage majority to rise to challenge the modern class infrastructure and to claim the city themselves. Mumbai past is evident of this struggle and has survived the repercussions of sidelining the majority. Today’s Mumbai is trying to match its image of world-class city but still a large segment is neglected. The population is growing in several areas while in other, the rise of buildings is evident. The concentration of economy, high-end facility to one side of the city will not justify the overall image of the city. A large underprivileged struggling society, slum population and poor infrastructure will always be there to taint Mumbai’s image as a modern city.


Central to the themes of the postcolonial theory lies the urban space that defines the roles of the gender, the subject/object difference and the representation of individuals. In a modern view of the city, Self representation has become critical leading to identity politics where the power of representation resides with the dominant few who have the power to speak, where and how and for whom. This essential politics of knowledge and power, identity and gender, class difference, city structure and public/private ownership makes or break the dream of a modernized, globalized cosmopolitan city which is evident in the two movies taken for this study.

The following discussion would take on the contrasting reality of a city in its postcolonial struggle based on two Bollywood films. Once upon a time in Mumbaai depicts the ugly side of the city, famous for rendering the underworld and the power politics in the city while Wake Up Sid gives a feel-good, modernist and picture-perfect youthful view of the urban aspirations and dreams that the city promises to everyone who enters. Known for its diversity and openness, it is welcoming to all classes, religions for making an identity and livelihood for themselves (Hansen, 2001).

  1. Knowledge / Power Relations

In Once Upon a time in Mumbaai, the city is divided by Sultan for carrying out his business. He held the power to rule the sea and continue his smuggling to establish his own empire which ultimately gives him the power to solve the problems of the poor. The police is shown as a failed institution unable to take control of the city. Besides, the shift from Sultan to Shoaib is an evident factor in how the power relations can make or break the image of the city. When Sultan ruled, he tried to establish peace in the city and helped the needy. While shoaib ultimate motive was to expand his empire by all illegal means, regardless of taking the lives of people and the city into account. Sultan was the connecting link for transferring the money from rich to poor while Shoiab’s rein saw the rise of the few and neglected the majority. This leads to a chaotic situation in the city leading to riots of the city. The city in this instance was thus subjected by its locals who have the power to make or break its dream of modern, secular city.

In contrast, the knowledge/power relations is shown as very subliminal where the locals are free to choose and do whatever they want in Wake up Sid. However, the people with the wealth and knowledge are seem to be too busy in their lives. They are least bothered by the lives of others but still have the power to speak for the majority of the population. In this instance, the city is taking onto the lives of the individuals. The photographs Sid takes and the article Aisha writes is a clear depiction of it. As the article new girl states: ‘Like thousands of people when I came to Mumbai, I brought some dreams along with my luggage, among which was the dream of  becoming a writer’. Aisha claims her love for the city while taking on its infrastructure, its lifestyle, her new job and home that the city has given her.

  1. Identity and Gender Roles

One can say that Once upon a Time in Mumbaai is a male dominated India where women are objectified and restricted to certain spaces. (Rehana being the superstar has to bear up with gaze and comments from her co-star). Rehana’s role as an actress is not that of an empowered women and she cannot roam around the city without Sultan. Moreover, she was respected in public when she was with Mirza and her identity belongs to the status of who she is with. She even tells Sultan how she was given present on her birthday by the renowned people but who would ask for favors in return. While Wake Up Sid portrays a confident, empowering image of Aisha who is unabashed of the newness of the place. She can roam around freely and assert her identity well among all. She is a working woman, independent and shares the apartment with her friend without giving a thought to the questions of the others. It is like these two women are operating in a different time and era in the city. Today’s Mumbai is seen as a more accessible and open space for the women who are not objectified much while the earlier Bombay restricted the women to private space.

But the problem lies in the fact that no such ideal space exist for the women to roam the street  as freely even today. Although women have broken the shackles of the male dominance in workspace and come out of home, they are still very much restricted in their activities in public/private spaces. (Aisha had to accompany her boss when she went out for a party at night, despite being dependent. She also couldn’t find an apartment for herself without the help of Sid). Moreover, the time has a greater role to play for them to go out in public spaces like the good women are at their private place at night (Phadke & Khan, 2009). For e.g. as much as Aisha can roam around the streets of Mumbai in daylight, she cannot wander freely at night.

  1. Postcolonial Spaces

One of the important public space is the sea in the city of Mumbai. While Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai portrays the sea as the ruling force, it is subjected by the local for controlling the city. In Wake Up Sid, the sea is the connecting force for its local with the city.

The former gives the image of the city as divided space between the ruling class and the poor. On one hand is the glamorous bollywood industry, the high-end bars, the lavish cars and urban lifestyle; on the other is the majority of population struggling to commute through overcrowded trains, streets and beggars depending on their messiah to bring peace and harmony to their lives. However, Wake up Sid shows how high-rise buildings have taken up the entire city and busy streets are a regular view in the city. It is much more of an intermingling space where the class difference is there but not that evident. The morning hours see the rush for the commute to the office while in evening people are busy in visiting public spaces like seaside and roadside stalls for eating. The city is shown as welcoming and peaceful space where people are busy in pursuing their dreams.

It is not that both the images of the city spaces are wrong but the case is, the films deals with different eras of the city. Hence, the transformation of the city from Once Upon a time in Mumbaai to modern one in Wake up Sid can be seen as a positive image. But still question remains how welcoming is the city for the poor. In Wake Up Sid, the skyline of the Mumbaai behind the beach shows a beautiful image of the city while there are young ones enjoying the roadside ride which are seen as marginal but important part of the city, distant from the modern development.


Studying the postcolonial themes in Once Upon a time in Mumbaai and Wake Up Sid, the former gives us a bleak and horrific image of the city where all the glamorous images and industries of the city derives its roots from the underworld while the latter appears to bring our attention to everyday happening of urbanites, busy and enjoying the little joys of life.

Mumbai, earlier known as Bombay, is portrayed in two different perspectives, one highlighting its attempt of becoming world-class city turning into a dystopia while the other giving us a utopian feel of welcoming for all. Once upon a time in Mumbaai  gives the power to the locals in constructing the image of the city while in Wake Up Sid, the city transforms the lives of the people.

Another important factor is making an identity in the city. The former gives the emphasis on identity in achieving power to speak for others while the latter emphasizes on making an identity for achieving independence and getting along with the city. The class difference is highlighted in dividing the city in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, while Wake Up Sid gives us more of an intermixed image of Mumbai.

Another interesting factor for taking these two films is the use of the name of the city in the two movies. the city was referred to as Bombay in Wake Up Sid which caused much furor among a section of people while Once upon a time in Mumbaai draws upon the transformation of not only the past to present of Mumbai but also it deals with the era of its journey from Bombay to Mumbai. The former being the modernist theme makes one loves the image of the modern Mumbaai while the latter reflects how a city’s aspiration to be modern, developed and cosmopolitan are not as smooth as it is planned. There is always a possibility of failing dreams, erupting violence and disrupting images of the city in the history of its struggle to pursue its aspiration of a world-class modern city.


  1. Ashcroft, Bill. Griffith, Gareth. & Tiffin, Helen. (1998). Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies, Routledge. Retrieved from:
  2. Anjaria, Alka. & Anjaria, Jonathan Shapiro. (2008). Text, genre,Society: Hindi Youth films and Postcolonial desire, Journal of South Asian Popular Culture, Routledge. Retrieved from:
  3. Hansen, Thomas Blom. (2001). Wages Of Violence, Introduction, pg 1-18. Princeton University Press, Retrieved from:
  4. Kidambi, Prashant. (2013). Mumbai Modern: Colonial Pasts and Postcolonial Predicaments, Journal of Urban History, Sage Publications. Retrieved from:
  5. Mirzoeff, Nicholas, “The Visual Culture Reader”, 2nd Edition
  6. Phadke, Shilpa; Ranade, Shilpa; Khan, Sameera, 2009, “Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia’s Cities, Routledge.
  7. Teverson, Andrew. & Upstone, Sara.Ed. (2011). Postcolonial Spaces: The Politics of Place in contemporary Culture, Palgrave Mcmillan. Retrieved from:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s