There is something wrong with the parrot drawn on a black wall in this uneven Ghatkopar slum. Its neck is missing and it seems to be inspecting its own back at an odd angle. The parrot, it turns out, used to be an owl. An artist had drawn the nocturnal bird first but then the rustic residents of Sahyadri 2 — one of the many slums perched like Lego blocks on this Asalpha hillock — decided that they didn't want to wake up to "a bad omen". So, his chalk hastily replaced the hawk-like beak with a pouty, curved bill.
From the Mumbai Metro, however, you won't be able to see this mutant bird. Nor the mural of a cat sitting inside a soapy bubble — inspired by a resident's kitten — or the painting of a palm holding a turtle whose blueprint, Hari, lives nearby. All you can see from the air-conditioned train is a loud, multi-coloured installation of shanties that is likely to make filmmaker Rohit Shetty go: "Next song location."
Last month, Dedeepya Reddy's non-profit initiative 'Chal Rang De' tied up with the Metro and paint manufacturer Snowcem Paints to give the drab vertical slum a postcard-like makeover reminiscent of Italy's vibrant Positano village. As a Metro traveller, the artist in her would cringe at the morose sight of the grey hilltop houses. An eye-popping paint job could change the perception of Mumbai's slums, decided Reddy, cofounder of creative agency Fruitbowl Digital.
After getting residents on board — "I even showed them Photoshopped 'after' renditions of the slum," she says — Reddy got her team to create a website and found several hundred volunteers, including senior citizens, online who finished painting 175 walls in two weekends. The muralists came later. Reddy's brief to them was: "Reflect the life of Asalpha's locals or relate to them". So, besides its many women home entrepreneurs and cats, you will also find an astronaut dangling from a planet on a wall here - -a reminder to local kids to dream big. "Many of my school friends have come over after the paint job," says seventh grader Siddhesh Jadhav of nearby Shivneri Vidya Mandir school who chipped in by painting three walls.
Doused in 400 litres of sponsored paint by around 750 people, the slum is now not only distracting Metro users but also seeing foreigners with SLR cameras ascend its stone stairs. Just ten days ago, a buzzing noise that sounded "like a giant fly", made an elderly resident Krishnamma step outside her tiled 10ft-by-10ft home. Above, three drones circled her freshly coated neighbourhood. "Flying cameras with red and blue lights," recalls Krishnamma as she engages in a mock-broom fight with her three-year-old neighbour Dev — one of the many happy, photogenic kids etched in the murals.
The day-long painting exercise stripped Reddy and her team, who had never stepped into a slum before, of their own grim stereotypes. Spontaneous lunch invitations from residents gave them a peek into the obsessive cleanliness of the one-room home dwellers. "They are now like family to us," says Reddy, who bit into pooran poli at the one-room home of the affable Surekha Gade, a housewife whose son's wedding invitation card bore the names of their deceased cats, 'Lalu' and 'Prasad'. Reddy now calls her "billiwali aunty".
Along with hospitality, though, came servings of mild hostility. One resident who had a protective black sheet on his outer wall refused to let it be painted at first but relented on seeing how good the neighbour's wall looked. Last-minute compromises with colour palettes had to be made. "Some residents didn't want the colour green," recalls Reddy, who treasures such insights into India's prejudices as "learnings". Some requests for tweaks, though, were rooted in reason. Freelance IT entrepreneur Vinayak Gade (27) says his family asked for the wall near the passageway outside his home to be changed from dull greyish-blue to a sunny yellow so it would reflect the light from the sole overhead tubelight onto the stairs better. Such changes didn't really interfere with the view. Pan out and Asalpha now looks a lot like Positano. Baffled vegetable vendors who sit beyond video game parlours and kirana stores here now find themselves directing tourists towards "colour".
Next on Reddy's radar is a Bandra slum known as Tabela. Team member Sumitro Sircar says they are also toying with the idea of revamping hospitals, jails and railway stations through artwork. Meanwhile, at Asalpha, the exteriors are becoming as clean as the interiors. 'Billiwali aunty' Surekha Gade has stopped mopping the floor outside her corner home for a month now. "Earlier, men used to routinely spit paan outside our door on their way up or down," says Gade, who had grown tired of chastising them. "Now, they've stopped spitting because of the paint," smiles Gade.