Mumbai bids farewell to beloved double-decker buses made famous by Bollywood films

The double deckers were first introduced to the city by the British colonial government in 1937, who wanted to model the city after London as Mumbai, formerly Bombay, expanded rapidly and needed better transportation.
Last Updated : 14 October 2023, 04:49 IST
Last Updated : 14 October 2023, 04:49 IST

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As the sun set over the Gateway of India in Mumbai one evening last week, a group of about 90 bus aficionados gathered near the monument for a small celebration to see off the city’s last remaining old double deckers before they set off for their final journey. 

A bus driver and conductor cut a cake to commemorate the retirement of the vehicles, while families snapped photos to remember the moment. As the open-top bus took the familiar twists and turns as it has done for decades along the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Marine Drive, passengers chanted slogans in Marathi that called the bus “Mumbai’s pride.”

Among those present at the gathering were Ankur, a photographer who documents life in Mumbai who only wanted to be identified by his first name.

“The emotions I have for Mumbai’s buses cannot be put into words,” he said. “All I can say is that this city is nothing without them.”

Mumbai’s bus operator, Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking, is removing the old double-decker buses from the city’s roads as part of an ongoing green transition. The old red models were decommissioned in late September, and the open-air buses, known as Nilambari, took their last trip on Oct. 5. The operator has about 400 electric buses and plans to lease more to add to its total fleet, which currently stands short of 3,000 buses, it said.

“The new models have AC and are better for the environment, so they are nicer,” said Yatin Angare, an automobile engineer who loves buses and owns some 2,000 tiny bus models. “But for us locals, memories are attached to these older ones.”

The double deckers were first introduced to the city by the British colonial government in 1937, who wanted to model the city after London as Mumbai, formerly Bombay, expanded rapidly and needed better transportation. At its peak, Mumbai had almost 900 of these models on its roads.

The role of the buses in Mumbai’s transport network expanded alongside the city’s and India’s economic growth, with the BEST Undertaking introducing open-deck versions of the double deckers in 1997 to encourage tourism. The buses traversed a scenic route along the Arabian Sea, past the Taraporewala Aquarium, the Victorian-era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Kala Ghoda Art district, ending at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum.

“These buses became extremely popular with lovers and children alike, especially on Sunday afternoons,” said Bharat Gothoskar, the founder of tour agency Khakhi Tours and a Mumbai conservationist. “Sitting in the front seat on its upper deck would give you a television-like view of the city.”

The buses further endeared themselves to Indians thanks to their starring roles in many Bollywood movies. Actors Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor shot the sequence for the popular Hindi song Janu Meri Jaan from the 1980 movie Shaan inside a Mumbai bus. In the critically acclaimed 2007 movie Taare Zameen Par starring Aamir Khan, a nine-year-old boy with dyslexia roams the city on a red double-decker bus after running away from school.

Outside of Bollywood, this year’s animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse depicted an Indian version of the superhero in a city called Mumbattan rescuing citizens in distress against a backdrop that showed the buses.

As the buses are phased out of Mumbai’s transport system, that’s throwing up questions of how the city of over 22 million with an over-burdened transit network can cope in the interim. Traffic jams are a way of life, and riders hanging off bus and train doors frequently result in accidents. 

“We are already short on buses,” said Rupesh Shelatkar, president of Aapli BEST Aaplayachsathi, an association of bus lovers that is also an advocate for commuters. “Decommissioning a few models before procuring more will burden the city.” 

One way that the Mumbai government is trying to alleviate pressure on Mumbai’s roads is by expanding its metro network, with a critical fourth line connecting the city’s southern island to its northern suburbs opening in December. The Aqua Line is expected to draw 85% of its commuters from Mumbai’s roads.

Meanwhile, bus lovers are hoping that the decommissioned buses won’t all be headed for the scrap heap. Organizations like Shelatkar’s have requested for one of the red models to be preserved in a bus museum. A spokesperson for the BEST Undertaking said in a phone interview that it is working on the process.

“I used to think I am the only one crazy about buses,” said Angare, who said he wants to buy a double decker to keep in his backyard. “But they have a lot of lovers in this city.”

Published 14 October 2023, 04:49 IST

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