The chaotic Indian setting for hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, cricket-obsessed Mumbai will shock, seduce, sadden, charm and confound you in equal measure
“Howzat!” I slowly turned 180 degrees to see my flailing wicket and four Indian children, arms aloft in joyous glee. Like the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, my story begins with a game of cricket. I walked away from this impromptu one at the Maiden Oval 20 rupees lighter having been clean bowled by a nine-year-old. I didn’t even see the ball! Life moves quickly here in Mumbai.
Slumdog Millionaire gave us a look at a way of life many wouldn't care to imagine. The setting for Danny Boyle's Oscar-laden epic arched western and Indian eyebrows alike, with its tale of lost love set in harsh Mumbai.
Many tourists deride and dismiss Mumbai as a dirty, but necessary, stop-off point on their way to the overly-stomped tourist hotspots of Goa and the Keralan backwaters. But, give the ‘City of Gold’ a chance to shine and you won’t be disappointed.
Initial impressions left my cricketing pride dented, my pockets lighter and my mouth gasping. So, what to do? Phone a friend? Seven million people now have mobile phones in Mumbai, testament to its rapid economic growth, and the shrill cry of umpteen ring tones. No, my fate was already planned out, as a yell of "Chai, Chai, Chai" rang out with pride. Such pride, you'd think this was the best chai (tea – available everywhere!) in India. Pausing between slurps, taking in the warm sincerity and the unwavering smile, I was pretty much convinced.
If you're looking to strike it culturally rich in Mumbai, look beyond the attentions of Colaba's hustlers and tourist bars, and you’ll find a greater beauty - the people. They are undoubtedly the stars of the show. All 16 million exist side-by-side in a complex and compact wave of social extremes.
A glance around confirms this, as grand Victorian architecture sits adjacent to sprawling slums and daunting glass high-rises – the canvas of contemporary urban India.
Mumbai attracts those with, and those without. To see one side of the extreme, Reality Tours (www.realitytoursandtravel.com) offers enlightening trips into the Dharavi slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire. Witness how from this saddening predicament emerges inspiration. A quarter of a million people here are busy making an annual turnover of £700m. Plastic is just one of many thriving industries inside the slum, collected and reshaped into bottles for further use - an amazing sight to behold.
At the other end of the scale is India’s hugely successful film industry – Bollywood. Mumbai lies at the centre, with a staggering 1,000 films released every year. These lavish productions often reflect themes integral to Indian society, which begs the question: ‘Where can I get a taste of Bollywood?’
No need to use a lifeline, you can’t go wrong here. Take in a blockbuster at Colaba’s Regal Cinema (Mukerji Chowk), or one of the city’s many art-deco cinemas (try Eros Cinema: Maharshi Road), peer behind the scenes with a Bollywood Tour ($75) run by industry bigwigs www.bollywoodtourism.com or simply look pretty and you might be invited to ‘star’, as an extra, as i was, in a flick of your own (make sure you are comfortable dancing sober, for 11 hours, though).
After crying so much at my dreadful Bollywood dancing that I could’ve laughed, a visit to the Gateway of India made me laugh so much I could cry. Every morning souls are soothed through the medium of ‘laughing yoga’. This comprises an energetic mix of stretching and chanting mantras, such as “ one, two, three... laughter is for free” and “east or west, laughter is the best”, leaving the most miserly participant struggling to suppress a smile that doesn’t swallow their ears.
Feeling bowled over? Take stock with a stroll along Marina Drive to Chowpatty Beach, which has acted as a backdrop to countless Bollywood movies. Of course, in Mumbai, you’re never alone. Families congregate to swim, walk and mingle among fairground rides and atmospheric stalls selling spicy dishes of bhelpuri (Indian salad) to awaken those senses once more.
Mumbai poses many questions, and this bustling metropolis will shock, seduce, sadden, charm and confound you in equal measure. Take a deep breath and soak up as much as possible before formulating your final answer. You’ll be enriched either way.
Leopolds Café (Colaba Causeway), a Mumbai institution, serves Indian and western meals alongside ice-cool Kingfisher beer. Tendulkar’s (Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg), owned by Indian cricket legend Sachin Tebdulkar, serves traditional, Chinese and western fare, alongside his mum’s special recipe Bombay duck! While Bademiya (Tulloch Road) offers seekh kebabs filled with spicey meats in a balmy outdoor setting shared by waiters, chefs and diners alike.
Accommodation is available for all budgets from the high-end Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, overlooking the Gateway of India to the mid-range Hotel Diplomat (Mereweather Road) based in the Colaba tourist district, to basic and budget dorm rooms at the Salvation Army (also Mereweather Road).