A Review of Cities on Speed: Mumbai Disconnected

Contributed by Darren Tan

Mumbai Disconnected – a city 4,000 kilometres away, but closer than it seems
A Film By Camilla Nielsson and Frederik Jacobi

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The city skyline of Mumbai at dawn

Mumbai Disconnected opens with Mumbai’s morning skyline, an image not so dissimilar to the backdrop behind the screen in The Pod atop the National Library Building. For a moment, I was not looking into a window of another city but appeared to be staring at a reflection of my own city, Singapore. Throughout this documentary, the Singaporean viewer is treated to several such relatable moments, with varying levels of distortion – most of us who take the MRT are familiar with the peak-hour jam and the desperation of not being able to board the train, a sentiment echoed many folds by Mumbai’s mass of commuters. It is this opening scene that leaves me wondering if one day, Singapore will face the same transport problems as Mumbai.

At its heart, Mumbai Disconnected is a reminder of what can happen to cities that grow beyond what their infrastructure can support. Central to the plot of the documentary is the construction of 96 flyovers commissioned by the government of India to tackle the twin problems of massive over-congestion on the roads and increasingly hazardous levels of air pollution. However, instead of going into a long spiel of its inception and the many obstacles faced in its implementation, Nielsson and Jacobi choose instead to approach the issue through a narrative – specifically through snippets of the lives of three seemingly unconnected citizens of Mumbai.

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A sign of a vibrant city – that is the great city of Mumbai

Bureaucrat R. K. Das tries his hardest to ensure that the environmental impacts of constructing these flyovers are mitigated adequately, lest the project lose its funding from the World Bank. Family man Yasin Patel’s dream of owning an automobile finally comes true with the introduction of the Tata Nano, Tata Motors’ family vehicle priced affordably for middle-class Indians. However, he unknowingly becomes another contributor to these problems plaguing so many of Mumbai’s residents – one of which is Mrs. Veena Singhal, president of the Peddar Road Residents’ Association (PRRA). Unlike most other inhabitants of Mumbai, Mrs. Singhal and members of the PRRA are decidedly against the implementation of these flyovers, as one flyover prominently cuts through Peddar Road, a relatively lush sanctuary of natural greenery and a breath of fresh air among the many vehicles and roads snaking across the city.

Each of these individuals’ circumstances are relatable to a certain degree, in no small part due to the storytelling style. We are treated to an almost first-person perspective of these three characters, and their thoughts and actions reinforce that they are not actors on screen, and that we are not watching a work of fiction with socio-political undertones, but rather a reality with actual consequences.

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“America is rich because American roads are good”

It is easy to draw an analogy between city roads and blood vessels in a body. Roads are crucial for transportation, enabling a city to function, with goods and people where they need to be. In that same vein (pardon the pun), the congested roads is a precursor to more serious issues, and there is an impetus for governments to react accordingly.

In Mumbai Disconnected, the municipal government chooses to build more roads, at the expense of certain groups who have a vested interest in the areas that these roads pass through. In Singapore, the decision to exhume graves in Bukit Brown Cemetery to build an eight-lane highway was met with similar ire from conservationists and the affected families. One could argue that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and because of this, the respective governments should go ahead with their plans. However, one could question how much “good” these actions bring, and for whom do these roads really benefit – society as a whole, or only the group privileged enough to own a motor vehicle?

Mumbai Disconnected tackles a current and serious issue in an accessible and easily digestible manner. While viewers are amused by the quips and antics of the main characters, this documentary makes one contemplate what is generally taken for granted in Singapore. From good air quality, to an efficient and affordable public transport, Singapore has thankfully yet to reach the state of Mumbai’s transport woes. The question is for how long.



Darren is a third-year student in National University of Singapore, studying Business and Economics. In his free time, he likes to explore different interests, such as music, gaming and writing. Amidst the constant stream of web lectures and graded essay assignments, he finds watching movies and writing his thoughts about them strangely therapeutic.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

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