Yet Untitled 009 - Sammy Davis Jr and the Mumbai attacks
Class, dialogue and a short film about both
Nine editions later, here are my thoughts on the ongoing drama of our shared experience. First of all, I never thought I’d make it this far with this newsletter without getting seriously stuck, and that hasn’t happened 🎉🎉🎉. Apparently, stuff had been lining itself up to be expressed for a long time and now that i’ve given it an outlet, it’s come a-gushing.
Makes me really interested in what’ll happened once I’ve gone through all the obvious stuff. When will that happen? Edition 10? Edition 100? Who knows?
The drama of carrying on brings Rudyard Kipling’s poem IF to mind. Here’s a stanza:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
While on one hand these lines feel like a bad dream from boarding school, the image of Tom Cruise hanging off a rock face without a rope is something I can relate to each week as Friday, 6:30pm IST approaches. The feeling that my life depends on what I’m doing here.
So, thank you, once again. And enjoy edition 009!
I was 28, living on my own in Mumbai when ten gunmen came in from the sea and killed a lot of people in a series of co-ordinated attacks - one of which happened at the famous Taj Palace Hotel.
I had only lived in Mumbai for less than 4 years, but the place felt like home. And this home had been brought to its knees. Blood had been spilled and tears had grown so big behind the eyes that they stayed jammed and flooded the brain.
Two days later - after the guns ceased and the dead had been cleared away - three friends and I found ourselves on ground zero with our cameras. I can’t remember the exact impulse, but I remember calling them the night before and expressing the need to go. They had understood in a second.
Once I arrived in the vicinity of the Taj hotel with my Pentax Spotmatic and a few rolls of Kodak 400TX, I initially didn’t know what to look for. I saw a lot of eerily empty streets. I saw spent candles lit in memory of those who had died. I saw a lot of animals oblivious to the strange goings-on of men.
I saw exhausted people passed out wherever they could find a place to lay their heads. I saw the hotel’s blackened walls. I saw policemen with frowns that felt like they would become permanent. But none of this revealed what I was looking for - and I was looking for something. I kept pressing the shutter, but found no meaning.
Then I met Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr.
‘Sammy’ was a taxi driver who plied his kaali-peeli (black & yellow) cab in the Colaba area. I asked whether he had been safe in the course of the dark night that had just passed, and he asked me if I’d like to join him for breakfast.
Already, something different was taking place - I could feel it. See, in India we have this shitty thing called Class which keeps people apart. Perhaps it’s there everywhere, but in India it’s especially pronounced. I’ve grown up with it and have likely passed it on to my children. Despite being conscious of it, I know it still works through me in both subtle and banal ways. On any other day, had Sammy Davis Jr asked me to break bread with him, I’d likely have made up an excuse and taken my leave.
But on this day, class did not operate. I was curious to see what would happen.
We ate together in a small Irani cafe in Colaba, and I learned a bit about Sammy (a bunch of American tourists had named him so because of his resemblance to the famous man). He told me about the gunshots, the rumours, the deaths, the terrorists, about the one they caught alive. What I remember best is that he and I both comforted each other - as Mumbaikers whose city had been shot in the knees.
I bid farewell to Sammy - who I never saw again. Since then, the old Kaali-peelis - the rugged Premiere Padminis (India’s Ladas?) have ceased to exist, replaced by newer sedans that just feel…different. Uber likely sounded their death knell.
God knows what Sammy’s doing now, but I am so grateful to have met him. If I hadn’t, I’d be in possession of a bunch of black and white photos from that morning inflected with far less meaning than they possess at present. After talking with Sammy, I knew that Mumbai was my home. When it was hurt, I felt the pain along with all my fellow Mumbaikers.
We live in a world where our beloved homes are in constant danger - if not by war then by stilted weather-systems and other man-made idiocies. In the midst of all this, what can we do except care for and take care of each other; strive to develop “a stronger, more refined emotional intelligence”, as Craig Mod mentions in the compelling current issue of his newsletter ‘Roden’. ?
Only then can we start challenging the stupid old ideas that have hindered our humanity in the past and endanger it in the present.
SHANU TAXI - my tribute to Mumbai’s Kaali Peelis
I made a short film in 2006 - about a young taxi-driver in Mumbai who finds a mobile phone left behind in his cab. He returns it, but the incident makes him more ambitious with his dreams, leading to a run in with the barriers of class, an encounter which is both tragic and touching.
The script was born out of a conversation I once had with an actual cab driver called Shanu. It was a conversation leading to a dialogue but somehow - because of my own inhibitions - did not become one. I think that the film was an attempt to change this, to somehow compensate for a missed opportunity.
The film was invited to film festivals all over the world (including the stupendously wonderful Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival) and struck a chord with audiences of many nationalies. In it, you’ll see the lovely Premier Padmini taxis I reference above, and the even lovelier Vikas Kumar, who played Shanu with great sensitivity and such authenticity that he was stopped by cops and questioned as a real Mumbai cabbie!
Also (I made this connection only as I was finishing this newsletter) - two of the three friends who were with me shooting photos on the day I met Sammy Davis Jr were key collaborators in making SHANU TAXI as well.
See what I mean? This newsletter collimates so much scattered meaning in my life, aligning it all with the people in my life I hold dear. Another reason to thank you, dear Yet Untitler! Here’s SHANU TAXI.
Watch it with headphones if you can - the soundtrack (and the sound design) are just fantastic - the kind of thing you get when you work with a bunch of amazingly talented people (also when you don’t know your ass from your elbow about film-making but are willing to take risks - mostly because you don’t have a choice!).
Psst. A great film about Taxis: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth.
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It’s been a busy week.
My twins turned 8. Watching them bound out of bed and into the world each morning reminds me that this world’s worth fighting for. I’ll leave you with an image of them, and a question:
What’s a chance encounter that really changed your perspective significantly?
I’d love to know. Write back to me, or drop me a comment.
I mean it - I want to know!
See ya next week!