Having just released a new book of photographs, Sunhil Sippy says the camera saved his life
You might think there can be nothing really novel about a Mumbai photobook anymore, but ad filmmaker Sunhil Sippy makes a compelling case for his newly released collection of photos, The Opium of Time: Photographs of Mumbai 2010-2020: “I would say that the book is relevant because of the period it covers—from 2010 till 2020.
Since the pandemic, the city’s topography has evolved radically. The book celebrates the last phase of the old city.” Sippy tells us the title ‘The Opium of Time’ is borrowed from German writer W.G. Sebald. He feels it perfectly sums up his 131 images. “My objective was to create something timeless. I wanted to leave behind for the city an emotional document, not an intellectual one,” he says.
The Opium of Time, says Sippy, 50, resulted from personal circumstance. In 2012, he met with an accident outside Delhi and nearly lost his left foot. “It’s a strange thing, but the camera saved my life,” says Sippy. Describing his rediscovery of photography as “therapeutic”, Sippy adds that the long period of recovery also offered him a fresh opportunity to reflect on his own relationship with Mumbai, a city that has been home to his Sindhi grandparents since Partition.
Every day, Sippy would slip away to walk the streets with his Leica rangefinder camera. He befriended his subjects and heard them bare their souls. One evening, he walked up to the nearby Chowpatty beach to find the book’s most haunting image: a bird sitting on a headless Ganesha idol. Sippy says he was uncomfortable with this particular visual for the longest time. “There was a part of me that was feeling it represented the dystopian or apocalyptic quality of our city. But today, with the passage of time, I feel I can better appreciate its beauty,” he says.
In the book’s foreword, Zoya Akhtar writes that Sippy likes putting a “picture to an ache” you can’t “articulate”. She is right. Not only is Sippy’s monochromatic book cinematic, it is also evocative. The grandson of yesteryear producer G.P. Sippy, he says, “There is a series of horseracing images in the book, which, honestly, has a more natural connection for me. My grandfather was also a punter.” Better known as the director of the independent film Snip!, Sippy also found that he couldn’t altogether escape the old-world, fading glamour of Mumbai’s single-screen theatres. Cinemas in Khetwadi even threw him out. “They were like, ‘Who’s this guy with a camera?’. I do try to be invisible but I am 6ft tall. It doesn’t always work,” he laughs. ■