As the world continues to urbanize, cities get denser. The densification of cities makes them an epicentre of millions of stories. One way to portray these stories from around the globe is by depicting cities in movies. Some stories are so tightly woven with the environment they occur in, that they cannot transpire in any other place but in that one city. The movie Slumdog Millionaire loses meaning without the essence of Mumbai in it. The devil wears Prada, but only in New York. 

Creative heads from the cinematic world realize the importance of location and places in a storyline, hence continue to find innovative ways to bring the essence of each city to life.

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Slumdog Millionaire ©

Cities as a Tool to Add Authenticity

Period Dramas highly depend on the depiction of cities to bring authenticity to their storytelling. So many movies have failed to hit the mark with their audience solely because they couldn’t recreate the old-world charm. In a period drama, a city is not just about a building in the background or the clothes people are wearing. Its essence lies in the way the people move on the streets, interact with each other. 

A city is captured in the unrest its people feel due to the political and economic changes it is undergoing. It is layers and layers of history, which can be decoded piece by piece and incorporated into a narrative to bring an entire timeline to life. The movie Jojo Rabbit enraptured the world, not only because of its gripping narrative but also because it showed us a Nazi Germany, that felt believable. Cities are thus resources with the potential to recreate lost worlds for the movie directors.

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A scene from Jojo Rabbit ©

City as a Backdrop

Most movies only use the cityscape as a backdrop, but some manage to do it so well that the city becomes the reflection of the leading character’s state of mind and emotions. Creative heads use the changing scapes of cities through seasons to show a character’s transition and growth. As the urban form changes colour from daytime to twilight, the inner demons of the protagonist come to life. Cityscapes, their built forms, their alternating colours are used as creative devices to show solidarity between the lead and the city. 

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An autumnal scene from When Harry Met Sally ©

Dystopian Cities Add Turmoil and Unrest to the Plot

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is celebrated for its futuristic depiction of Los Angeles. But that is not all it does, the movie predicts an urban setting of a corporate world, a city overcrowded. Ridley’s depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles highlights the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. It adds drama and a sense of unrest and discontentment to the story. The dark undertones to the moving images of the city highlight that the protagonist’s problems are more deep-rooted in the functioning of the society than it seems.

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Blade Runner ©

Utopian Cities and Happily Ever Afters

All the Christmas movies and romcoms have one thing in common – the protagonist lives in a utopian city, that is bereft of all urban problems. These movies deliberately fail to include the homeless, or the poor or the ones that are struggling in their narrative. These cities seem politically and economically stable, with a social structure that is just and fair. There is no discrimination based on race, colour, caste or money. The movies choose to do so, so that the only problem gripping the minds of the audience is of the protagonist with a broken heart. Feel-good movies greatly depend on Utopian ideas of urban living to make the idea of happily ever seem true.

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A scene from Confessions of a Shopaholic in New York ©

City as a Living Character

While most movies use the cityscape as a backdrop, some successfully integrate it with the tale such that it comes to life. In the movie “Lost in Translation”, Tokyo is not just a brilliant backdrop, but it is a not-so-friendly stranger that the main characters of the movie have to live with. Tokyo is a living, breathing, talking and moving entity in the film. The characters find themselves lost and lonely as they are not able to connect to the city, they don’t understand its language and culture. While Tokyo is an unwelcoming friend to the distressed main characters, there are movies in which the city is the one in distress. 

Most superhero movies revolve around the idea of “saving the city”. The Dark Knight Trilogy shows a gritty, dark and unwelcoming Gotham to call attention to the problems holding the city hostage. The sole purpose of our superhero in these movies is to save his one true lovehis city. Thus, the city plays a role that begets character development.

Gotham City in The Dark Knight ©

As the world continues to urbanize and people grapple with its repercussions, cinema becomes an important medium to highlight social evils that arise out of the political, economic and planning reforms in cities. Cities around the globe are faced with issues of transportation, environmental degradation, social and economic disparity, land use and planning problems. While their problems seem similar, the solution has to be unique. The essence of each city is derived from its culture, landscape, and most importantly people. While planners and designers can change physical form with ease, changing the social fabric needs sensitivity. Filmmakers add this sensitivity to the portrayal of cities. They transform the cities into living breathing characters as compared to the large machinery they are believed to be.


Prerna is an urban design enthusiast, looking at the world with a critical eye. She often finds herself using pen and paper to untangle the wires running in her head. She believes that the urban situation in India needs more research and hopes one day to be able to contribute to it successfully. Currently yo can find her overdosed on coffee with a ook in her hand.