This love note to Delhi is beautifully written and crafted, even if it completely falls apart towards the end.
FEB 22, 2009 – ABHISHEK BACHCHAN IS POSSIBLY the greatest strength as well as the crippling liability of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6. This isn’t about the actor’s performance as Roshan, a symbolic outsider, the NRI who, in many ways, is more Indian than most of us within the country. I refer to the baggage that a popular star brings with him when he looms on the posters of a film that features AR Rahman’s finest soundtrack in a while, and is advertised as hailing “from the makers of Rang De Basanti,” that explosive pop-culture touchstone which instantly hot-wired itself into the zeitgeist. The expectation is that of yet another audience-pleasing blockbuster entertainer, whereas Delhi-6 is really a densely layered, beautifully textured multiplex movie – in the niche sense of the word – whose pleasures are far more understated.
It’s not that Delhi-6 wears its grim intentions like a proud badge of honour. When Lalaji (Prem Chopra) enters a Ramlila celebration with his young wife, it’s hard not to laugh when the latter is blessed with the benediction, “Sada suhagan raho.” (The old goat must be pushing eighty, but when have such pesky considerations been taken into account while social rituals are being mindlessly observed?) Even when Mehra uses a sexually charged gag from Midnight Cowboy (the one involving a remote control), he is canny enough to set up a payoff shot with a wicked visual pun. And yet, despite this humorous undertow, Delhi-6 isn’t what you’d call a casual entertainer, the kind that instantly works its way into the bloodstream and triggers the relevant brain centres for “laugh” and “cry” and so on.
In a way, Mehra lets us see what Swades might have resembled had it been tailored towards a multiplex audience. The gears of this story are set in motion when Roshan’s grandmother (Waheeda Rahman) expresses a wish to relocate from the US to her Chandni Chowk home, to live out her last days. (Her words, “Jahan ki mitti, wahin mil jaaye to achcha hai,” recall one of the most beautiful lines in Swades: “Apne hi paani mein pighalna barf ka muqaddar hota hai.”) But where Ashutosh Gowarikar employed his hero, played by Shah Rukh Khan, as the epicentre of epiphanies, Mehra reduces Roshan to one of the many players in a dynamic ensemble. And where Swades was developed scene by detailed scene, sequence by expository sequence, Delhi-6 comes across as if Mehra dynamited a similar story and reassembled a film out of the charred scraps that survived.
Rarely has a message-heavy movie seemed so weightless – at least till the shockingly graceless final stretch, which implodes under the treacly burden of its good intentions – and seldom have the stories of so many characters (extensions of Kunal Kapoor’s family in Rang De Basanti, the other side of the Delhi yuppie) been orchestrated with such fluidity. Delhi-6 is so extraordinarily written, the i’s dotted and t’s crossed with such unblinking attention to detail, even a radio set gets something of a graph, evolving from broken family heirloom to playing Mukesh hits from Teesri Kasam. The film opens with a man awaking at night to relieve himself, and in what’s possibly the most liquid leitmotif committed to celluloid, even this apparently insignificant act is echoed throughout. The one thing Mehra and his writers cannot be accused of is laziness; the script submitted to the studio was undoubtedly pockmarked with footnotes and annotations.
The characters aren’t developed through conventional devices (instantly identifiable quirks; long lines of establishing dialogue), and yet, to the last person, they register as fully formed human beings, real enough to be sitting in the seat next to us. We get to understand people like the smarmy photographer Suresh (Cyrus Sahukar) by piecing together the scraps of information Mehra provides, in vignettes that sometimes flash by in a matter of seconds. Through his scenes with Bittu (Sonam Kapoor), we know Suresh is an unconscionable flirt. We know he owes Lalaji money. Through the scene where he offers an “imported cigarette” to Jaigopal (Pawan Malhotra), we know they share some sort of boyish friendship, a notion that’s bolstered when, on a scooter, they pass by Jalebi (Divya Dutta) and whistle at her. We even know what happens to Suresh at the end, in a wordless shot that generously provides closure to this minor character.
Other characters are developed on the margins of the marvellously filmed song sequences. (One of the reasons Delhi-6 feels so fleet, clocking in at two hours plus change, is that Mehra marshals every screen second towards the telling of his story. In other words, cigarette breaks these songs aren’t.) Within the span of the Masakkali number, Bittu is presented to us as someone who’s beginning to find Roshan interesting (he’s accompanied his grandmother to India), someone who’s bent on becoming Indian Idol, and also someone who’s conservative (and considerate) enough to serve refreshments to prospective in-laws who’ve come to appraise her worthiness. (Sonam Kapoor is quite wonderful as this young girl torn between the traditional Indianisms hard-coded into her genes and the laidback charms of Western culture, which just lets people be.)
Roshan, meanwhile, is defined by the surreal dreamscapes of Dil mera (set in motion by the magic of the full moon). As he ambles through the bylanes of Chandni Chowk and lands up in Times Square, now populated with his family from America as well as his newfound acquaintances from India, we gather that the lines are beginning to blur, that India is beginning to feel as much home as America. (The end of this sequence even anticipates the end of the story.) In a span of just two features, Mehra has established himself as a man who knows his music and believes in songs as an intrinsic part of his storytelling. The first half of Rang De Basanti ended unexpectedly with a song (Tu bin bataye, which left us with a happy image of the group of students to hold on to, as we negotiated the sadness of the second half) – and here too, the first half ends with the Kala bandar number, a happy montage which foreshadows the sadder latter portions of the film.
About three-quarters of Delhi-6 is a gently probing masterwork, and a master class in editing and photography and writing a sprawling, serious film that’s utterly light on its feet. The irritants in these portions are mostly minor, arising mainly from Mehra’s itchy inability to keep from flagging us with his Big Points – the spiritual side of our great nation (exemplified in a scene where, as the character played by Deepak Dobriyal so memorably puts it, “mother cow giving baby cow”), the politics inherent in Indian-American relations (Bittu accuses Roshan of poking his nose where it doesn’t belong), the messy cohabitation of politics and religion (a sadhvi interrupts a Ramlila segment, as Ravana drags Sita away; the gods on stage bow before her), or the heavy hand of patriarchy that strangles individual dreams, especially those of women.
When Bittu remarks that she wants to become Indian Idol because that’s the only out for an “ordinary middle-class ladki” like her to make the transition from a nobody to a somebody, the line grates – a sweetly personal dream is inflated into a thudding aspirational reality for a certain segment of society. And the icky symbolism of likening Bittu to a pigeon with its wings tied is the sort of thing that sounds good in poetry and on paper; when blown up to the big screen and presented in all its vulgar finality, the delicacy in the thought is lost. But at least, through his expert staging, Mehra coats these conceits with enough sugar and honey that they go down easy. (And besides, this being the film with the shortest shot lengths in recent memory, where entire scenes pass by in the blink of an eye, the annoyances don’t linger.)
Where Delhi-6 begins to seriously unravel is towards the end. There’s a moment where a television screen flickers with reports of a black monkey (namely, the Kala bandar) that’s terrorising the neighbourhood, while another channel extols the Chandrayan mission – and it appears that this dichotomy (between superstition and science, between the old and the new) is, in a way, reflected in the film too. You begin to wonder if (a) Mehra wanted to experiment with structure and storytelling rhythms and therefore decided to take on an idiot-proof plot with a clichéd Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai message, or (b) after the success of the well-intentioned Rang De Basanti, he was hit by one of those warm-fuzzy thunderbolts that unfortunately fills moviemakers with missionary zeal, and realising that merely the clichéd message wouldn’t cut it with a jaded modern audience, he decided to experiment with structure and storytelling rhythms.
What’s also frustrating is that Mehra can’t seem to decide if his protagonist is a mere mortal or… something else. Towards the end, Roshan – whose very name smacks of the illumination he’s going to bring to the dark corners of the Third World – remarks, “India works. The people make it work.” But the way Mehra stages his final scenes, it appears otherwise – that a God is needed to make India work, a deity that resides within each one of us, and yet is only capable of working through the pure heart of an Indian from outside India, someone who’s imbibed all our good qualities (love, respect, and so on) and has transcended the bad ones like our faith in superstition and the class system. (In a strange coincidence, the Tamil filmmaker Bala’s recently released Naan Kadavul is also about a man who just can’t help being God.)
During the shadowy dance-drama behind the opening credits, against a red-orange sky silhouetted with skeletal trees, and as a fearsome Ravana terrorises the land, the voice of God promises, “Ati sheegra Avadh mein aata hoon.” And that coincides with Roshan’s arrival in India. And thereon, Mehra loses no opportunity to parallel the events in Roshan’s life with scenes from the Ramlila. (For instance, when Roshan offers to help an untouchable, we cut to Rama accepting the low-caste Shabari’s hospitality.) Roshan is the product of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father, but it’s a third religion that’s invoked as he evolves into a reluctant messiah who suffers for his fellow-man’s sins. (This transformative arc even has a resurrection scenario for a coda, along with a spectral sequence that oddly reminded me of the meeting between Harry Potter and Dumbledore towards the end of the final book in the series.)
And yet, Roshan isn’t a catalyst as Shah Rukh’s character was in Swades; he’s a passive onlooker, who, at most times, is all too human. All of this was no doubt fascinating during the discussion stages, but up there on screen, these whimsical metaphors become unbearably literal. (It’s far easier to accept the idea of a kala bandar, illustrated by a camera that jumps about like a monkey on steroids, than to actually see the creature take concrete shape.) The mad-fakir holding up a mirror is another dreadful miscalculation, a moral science lesson delivered with the kind of simple-minded sincerity that’s downright laughable in these cynical times. Poor Atul Kulkarni, playing the Chandni Chowk equivalent of the wise fool, is stranded with the unenviable task of mashing these conceits into sound bytes that can be digested by the average audience member.
But if the missteps in the closing portions appear egregious, it’s also because the earlier achievements are so extraordinary. For all its problems, Delhi-6 is a genuinely challenging and rewarding film, filled with what has become one of the most welcome clichés in recent Hindi cinema: a large cast of actors who can actually act, not just in the broad, gestural sense of the word but in terms of embodying lived-in characters who seem to have lives outside of the stories they appear in. Whether it’s Rishi Kapoor playing a melancholy variation on his lover-boy persona as a man of a certain age who let The One get away, or Prem Chopra distilling a lifetime of onscreen disreputability into the oily character of a moneylender, or even Abhishek Bachchan (surely the most reluctantly heroic of our stars) slipping into the skin of a reluctant onscreen hero, it’s an intriguing toss-up whether Delhi-6 is driven by life imitating art, or art imitating life.
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