Mumbai- As of October 29, 2023, marked the final day when Abdul Kareem Karsekar, a resident of Prabhadevi and the owner of the very last registered Premier Padmini taxi in Mumbai (bearing the registration number MH-01-JA-2556), could operate his beloved car. The iconic Premier Padmini taxis, popularly known as 'kali peeli' taxis, have been an intrinsic part of Mumbai's identity for several decades. As the city's 20-year cab age limit takes effect, Mumbai will bid farewell to the iconic Premier Padmini taxi starting the upcoming week.
It is a nostalgic day for Mumbaikars too, as their beloved premier Padmini taxis will no longer be seen on the roads. These iconic taxis, named after the legendary Rajasthani Queen Padmini of Chittorgarh, have graced the streets for almost 60 years, endearing themselves not just as a premium vehicle but as the common man's car. However, the memories and emotional attachment these taxis hold for the common man will never fade.
Years earlier, the Mumbai Taximen's Union sought the government's assistance in preserving at least one 'kaali-peeli' but faced obstacles in their efforts. Despite their disappearance from the streets, Premier Padmini taxis continue to hold a special place in people's hearts and imagination, often depicted in murals adorning Mumbai's walls, as noted by Pradeep Palav, an art enthusiast from Parel.
As the news spreads, a wave of nostalgia floods social media, with people expressing their sentiments and urging for the preservation of a few of these cars as monuments, to honour and remember this bygone era.
The iconic Premier Padmini cabs not only served as daily transportation but also held significant cultural importance in Mumbai, often featured in Bollywood films. They were frequently showcased at the start of old Bollywood movies, establishing the city of Mumbai as the backdrop.
The black-and-yellow color scheme of Mumbai's taxis, suggested by freedom fighter V.B. Gandhi, remains the city's hallmark. The distinctive color pattern—yellow on the upper part for better visibility and black on the lower part to conceal stains—was Gandhi's recommendation.
Graced by numerous Bollywood movies from the 1960s to the 2000s, the Padmini taxi has etched its elegance in cinematic history. From the charisma of Megastar Rajesh Khanna in "Chhailla Babu" to Amitabh Bachchan in "Khuddar," Farooq Sheikh in "Gaman," Nana Patekar in "Taxi No 9211, or more recent Anil Kapoor in Fanney Khan (2018) " the Padmini became an integral part of these stories, not just in the hearts of Mumbaikars but in the homes of every Indian.
Remember the peppy song from the 1982 blockbuster "Hat Ja Bajoo Nahin To Uda Doonga.." that depicts a surreal moment where the protagonist, portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan, dreams of soaring through the sky with his beloved car, Basanti. This unusual and fantastical scene symbolizes the deep connection and almost sentient attributes ascribed to the car. Basanti, in the narrative, possesses intuitive abilities that allow her to discern and decline unrighteous passengers, adding an allegorical layer to the theme of righteousness and ethical conduct in life, as conveyed by the director through the vehicle.
In one paragraph of the song, Amitabh sings, "It is for you that my life meter goes on," which bears a pun indicating that his livelihood is solely dependent on the taxi -"तू क्या है ये पूछे कोई हम से, अपना मीटर चालू तेरे दम से.. चाल चलन की साफ है तू भी ऐसी ..मैंने तो न देखि तेरे जैसी"
The reference to Basanti as a Premier Padmini taxi in the film is symbolic of the lower-middle-class ethos in India. The portrayal of Amitabh Bachchan's character earning his livelihood as a taxi driver signifies the hardworking nature of this demographic, reflecting the struggles and aspirations of the lower-middle-class individuals in society.
The Premier Padmini taxis were an intrinsic part of the cultural landscape in India, especially in urban areas like Mumbai, and they were often associated with the working class, including taxi drivers who worked diligently to make ends meet and support their families. These characters exemplify the dedication, perseverance, and toil of those who work hard to provide for their loved ones.
It may be noted that during the 1970s and 1980s, Mumbai favoured the Padmini over the larger Ambassador, a car once popular in Kolkata and Delhi. The Padmini became a beloved choice due to its comfort and compact design, garnering immense popularity with over 63,200 registered taxis across the city. However, the emergence of other car models gradually overshadowed the Padmini. The Santro model claimed an 80% share, while WagonR and i10 secured 10% and 4% respectively of the taxi market.
In the classic Bollywood film "Gaman" released in 1978, the Premier Padmini taxi emerged as a steadfast and recurring motif intricately woven into the fabric of Mumbai life. As the narrative unravelled the poignant tale of Ghulam Hasan's migration from Uttar Pradesh to the bustling city of Bombay, the Premier Padmini taxis stood as a symbol of stability and support. Ghulam's journey as he cleans and eventually drives these iconic taxis symbolizes the struggles, aspirations, and daily battles faced by migrants in the urban landscape of Mumbai. Shaharyar's poignant lyrics in "Seene Mein Jalan Aankhon Mein Toofan Sa Kyun Hai...Is Shahar Mein Har Shakhs Pareshaan Sa Kyu Hai?" beautifully capture the emotional dilemmas experienced by individuals in this city, resonating with the turmoil and distress felt by every person within its confines. These taxis, an inseparable part of the city's everyday life, served as a symbol of resilience and challenges encountered by individuals striving for a better life in the metropolis.
The story of the Premier Padmini as a taxi dates back to its debut in 1964 as the 'Fiat-1100 Delight,' featuring a robust 1200-cc engine and a distinctive steering-mounted gear shifter. Notably smaller in size compared to other bulkier taxis like the Plymouth, Landmaster, Dodge, and the Fiat 1100, affectionately referred to by locals as 'dukkar Fiat'.
Through the years, the model underwent a rebranding journey. In the 1970s, it evolved into the "Premier President" and eventually transitioned to the famed "Premier Padmini," named after the legendary Indian queen, Padmini. Manufactured by Premier Automobile Limited (PAL), this iconic car retained its identity until production ceased in 2001, leaving an indelible mark on Mumbai's cultural landscape.
Following the cessation of production, around 100-125 Premier Padmini taxis remained unregistered due to spare part unavailability and other factors. Car dealers eventually facilitated their registration in 2003, with the last registered taxi from that period now set for retirement.
Adored by taxi drivers for their compact size, reliable engines, and ease of maintenance, the lack of spare parts became a significant issue after production ceased. This led drivers to transition to various hatchback models from Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai.
In a report by TOI, emotions run deep among Padmini taxi drivers. Karsekar, who owned 8 Padmini cars at one point of his life, expressed a deep desire to preserve this last registered vehicle despite the scarcity of spare parts. The cab is cherished for its nostalgic charm, drawing a preference over modern alternatives due to the unique experience it provides. Karsekar shared touching accounts of passengers deliberately choosing his cab to uphold memories associated with these iconic taxis, highlighting their enduring appeal.
Another driver, Raees Ahmed, whose Premier Padmini recently reached its age limit, attributed his ability to support and educate his family to his 15-year tenure driving this model. These personal stories underline the profound impact and significance of the Padmini taxis in the lives of both drivers and passengers.
The news of the Padmini taxis making an exit from Mumbai's streets sparked a wave of emotional reactions on Twitter. Many Mumbaikars, while acknowledging the shift to other vehicles, expressed overwhelming sentiments, indicating that their memories and fondness for the iconic Kaali Peelis (black and yellow taxis) will endure, ensuring the taxi's legacy lives on for future generations.