Dotted throughout the bustling streets of Mumbai, are our iconic kaali peelis, which are now set to bid adieu to generations of buzzing Mumbai travelers. Be it Amitabh’s beloved Basanti in Khud-daar, or blurry drunken nights out with friends, kaali peelis feature in every aspect of the collective memory of Mumbai. So now, as we rise to pay our respects to this historic portal, let’s journey through the nostalgia of its evolution.
For this, we must first venture back to the 1940s and 50s. At the time, there were two categories of taxis – ‘Badi taxi’ or large taxi (typically six to eight seater American cars) and ‘Baby taxi’ (typically smaller, more economical cars of European make). Besides the difference in capacity, there was also a marked difference in fare.
Fresh out of the clutches of the British Raj, a majority of taxi drivers would be men from the Sikh community, newly migrated after Partition; a community of individuals known for their honesty and hard work.
Eventually, a vintage 1964 Mumbai witnessed the launch of a new car. This was the Fiat Millecento launched by Premier Automobiles Ltd (PAL) under licence from Fiat, Italy. This was the car that would, soon enough, take on the name “kaali peeli” — a car known for its efficiency and most importantly, it's reliability.
While the city of Kolkata decided to move ahead with the Ambassador, Mumbai took on the Premier Padmini. Wondering why the name has an uncanny familiar ring to it? Might help to know that the car was named after the 14th century princess of Mewar, who was also known by the name of Padmavati.
As for the bee-mimicking black-and-yellow hues that lent the vehicle its name, that may be traced back to Vithal Balkrishna Gandhi, a freedom fighter who would later go on to become a Member of Parliament of free India. Gandhi would eventually recommend this colour combination to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In accordance with Gandhi’s recommendations, the upper half was to be yellow so that they can be easy to spot from a distance and the lower half was to be black to prevent any stains from tarnishing the visual aesthetic of the car.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, it isn’t the appearance of these taxis that hold an appeal in the hearts of Mumbaikars. It is the fact that these taxis are, in many ways, totems of simpler times; sentimental emblems of generations gone by and the transitions that not only Mumbai, but all of India has undergone socially, culturally, and politically.
The kaali peelis carry with them the ethos of perseverance and an undying desire to leave behind a legacy that is inherent to the city of Mumbai. It bears the musty breath of the Mumbai rains, the sweat of a hard day’s work, and a hunger for representing more than itself.
The last kaali peeli to be registered was in the year 2003. This dates the last known taxi to be registered at the ripe age of 20. In accordance with policies set forth by the Maharashtra government, taxis have been assigned a 20-year age limit. This was introduced in order to prevent the use of older vehicles, which are likely to be more polluting.
As we gear up to bid farewell to this historic icon, we pay tribute to the Mumbai middle class which keeps alight the fire of change. The kaali peelis once served as a function of luxury for daily commuters who would otherwise use the local train or bus services. Now, as they reach the finish line, we carry forth with us the memories of strife, hustle, failure and success that the streets of Mumbai are rife with.