Lights, camera, Bollywood: exploring cinematic Mumbai

Often called mayanagari (city of dreams), Mumbai is synonymous with Bollywood, India’s largest film industry and one of the biggest movie machines on earth. As the entertainment hub of the country, it’s no surprise that the city is home to hundreds of Bollywood actors, directors, film-makers and wannabes, and the city also appears in the storylines of dozens of critically-acclaimed movies, from local hits such as the Academy-Award nominated Salaam Bombay!, 2013 romance The Lunchbox and crime drama Chandni Bar to international releases such as The Hundred Foot JourneySlumdog Millionaire and Million Dollar Arm.

If you’re interested in the art of film-making and understanding how, over the last century, Bollywood has influenced and shaped Indian popular culture, take time to explore the many movie links in this cinematic city, from Bollywood studios and shooting locations to vintage cinema halls and striking wall art inspired by the stars. Here’s a quick guide on how to turn your trip to Mumbai into a blockbuster.

Low Angle View Of Gateway To India Against SkyMumbai’s iconic landmarks set the scene for many local and international hit films © Lorybelle Castillo / EyeEm /Getty Images

Get behind the scenes in Bollywood

After opening its exclusive doors only to actors for decades, Film City Studio in Mumbai has now partnered with the state tourism department to offer visitors a chance to step into their favourite Bollywood movies, or at least the sets where they were filmed.

One of India’s largest film studios, Film City offers weekend bus tours to both indoor and outdoor shooting sets for such hit movies such as Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year and Josh, to name just a few. Visitors can get lucky with snapping photographs of celebrities too, as stars regularly visit the canteen on the premises.

Welcome to fabulous Bollywood signMumbai’s ‘Welcome to Fabulous Bollywood’ sign © OlgaCanals / Getty Images

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For a more detailed look at the industry, tour companies such as Viator, Mumbai Film City Tours and Thrillophilia offer group tours giving insight into different aspects of Indian film-making, including its history and growth, the technical processes of editing and dubbing, and iconic movie locations. As in Los Angeles, you can also take a tour of the lavish, or sometimes humble, homes where some of India’s top cinema stars live or were born. Khaki Tours and the Mumbai Darshan Tour (run by Maharashtra Tourism) are reliable options.

The Art Deco frontage of Mumbai's historic Regal Cinema © Joe Bindloss / Lonely PlanetThe Art Deco frontage of Mumbai’s historic Regal Cinema © Joe Bindloss / Lonely Planet

Hit the Mumbai theatre trail

Mumbai historians take pride in the fact that the very first Indian movie, Raja Harishchandra, filmed in 1913 by Dadasaheb Phalke using cameras, lights and projectors shipped over from Europe and America, has its origins in the city. In the heyday of Indian cinema that followed the end of WWII, Sandhurst Road – today occupied by the railway lines of the Harbour local line – stretched from Girgaum Chowpatty to Dongri, lined with the grandest movie theatres of its time: the Olympia, the Coronation, the New Alhambra, the Majestic.

Most of these have vanished, or now stand as forlorn shells, lost in time, owing to the onslaught of multiplex culture. However, a handful can still be visited, screening mostly obscure regional movies, in a setting of decaying art-deco grandeur. Cinephiles should seek out the Alfred Theatre near Kamathipura, or the nostalgically dilapidated Nishant Talkies, New Roshan Talkies and Moti Talkies, dating from the transition away from silent films, dotted between Grant Road and Sandhurst Road.

Bollywood stars attend the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival opening ceremony at the Royal Opera HouseBollywood stars attend the 18th Mumbai Film Festival at the recently reopened Royal Opera House © AFP/Getty Images

To catch newly launched Bollywood movies in a classic theatre setting, head to the graceful, art deco Regal Cinema on Colaba Causeway, the rocketship-shaped Eros at Churchgate, or the Metro INOX Cinema(originally built and run by MGM, the Hollywood Studio), still sitting pretty at Marine Lines.

Having completed the movie theatre trail, tourists can head to the recently reopened Royal Opera House near Girgaum Chowpatty, an architectural marvel from 1912. As well as hosting the opera talent of its day, the place is also credited with being the making of the Kapoor Khandaan family, the first proper Bollywood dynasty, who grew up watching stage shows and musicals at the opera house in the dying days of the Raj.

Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, Maharashtra.Numerous Bollywood dance performances have been filmed to a backdrop of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel © Lars Ruecker / Getty Images

Locations, locations, locations

Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Bollywood films, it may help to hire a guide, or at least a taxi and driver, to explore the most prominent landmarks in the city that have doubled up as movie locations. Start with the Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel – settings for many a Bollywood dance routine – or head to the Colaba and Bora Bazaar markets that featured prominently in Aamir Khan’s Talaash and Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol respectively.

Film-makers have long been drawn to the scenic promenade of Marine Drive, where parts of the motorcycle action thriller Dhoom, 2003 comedy-drama Munnabhai MBBS, and coming-of-age film Wake Up Sid were filmed. There’s something undeniably cinematic about the crowds of young Mumbaikers gathering on the edge of the urban sprawl to soak up the fresh breezes and calming sunrises and sunsets. Come in the wee hours of morning, when the city wakes up.

Next, head on to Bandra, the swanky northern suburb whose boutiques, bars and restaurants cater to many movie stars and icons of the industry. Stroll around Bandstand, Carter Road, Chapel Road, Pali-Hill and the Worli Sea Link and you may spot a star or two in the flesh.

Alternatively, wander through the surrounding backroads and narrow by-lanes, where you’ll stumble across larger-than-life murals depicting classic Bollywood movies, such as the 1960 historical drama masterpiece Mughal-E-Azam and superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, and Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema.

Slums sit on the edge of an urban river polluted with waste in Dharavi slums, Mumbai.Insightful river tours run to Dharavi slums where some of the scenes in Slumdog Millionaire were shot © Thomas Young / Getty Images

Off-Beat Bollywood Locations

Not all movie locations are glamorous. A number of agencies run trips to the vast slum area of Dharavi, where parts of Slumdog Millionairewere shot. This doesn’t have to be an intrusive experience. however. On the best trips, guides from the community will introduce you to local people and explain not just the area’s significance to Bollywood, but also how its fame has helped residents transform their lives. In the process, you’ll be providing work and income for Dharavi residents.

Another interesting spot is the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat, where thousands of washermen make their daily living pummelling the laundry of city residents in concrete washtubs in the open air. Bollywood paid tribute to their energetic trade in the namesake movie Dhobi Ghat.

Any list of popular movie locations in Mumbai would be incomplete without a mention of its beaches: Juhu, Girgaum Chowpatty, and Aksa beaches. An untold number of films have set their stars on the sand, with Juhu the beach of choice for cast-of-hundreds song-and-dance numbers. See it in its prime in the 1971 Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan flick Anand.

There’s one more cinematic experience we shouldn’t overlook. Film-makers periodically drop by Apollo Bunder and the cheap backpacker guesthouses of Colaba when they need extras for crowd scenes, offering a modest daily payment in exchange for a fascinating glimpse at how Bollywood works from in front of the camera.

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