CUT TO DELHI
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There is no better way to know a city than to walk. Walk and wait for the city to yield its secrets. As a college student in the Delhi of the early 1990s, Anurag Kashyap did a lot of that, hunting for books at the Daryaganj Sunday market and scoring dope in Paharganj—a place that he returns to in his new film, Dev.D. Dibakar Banerjee, director of another film with a Delhi address, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, grew up in Karol Bagh, got beaten up by neighbourhood toughs and got a good look at the street-smart side of the city.
Not too many artists have tried peering into the heart of Delhi, one of the largest cities in the world and home to nearly 1.5 crore people. While Mumbai and Kolkata have near-mythical status, celebrated and reimagined in films and fiction, Delhi has not been seen as the stuff of legends. But Oye Lucky and Dev.D have company. Suddenly, we have a list of films that include the city in their frame, either as prop or as character. The end of last year saw the release of Subash Ghai's Black and White and Oye Lucky. Nikhil Advani's Chandni Chowk to China and Dev.D hit cinemas this year, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Delhi-6 releases this month and Abhinay Deo's Delhi Belly later in the year. For the city, these few screen images add up to something significant. They rub some colour into the bare outline that is the idea of Delhi, give identity to the geography of the city's everyday life.
As Banerjee does in Oye Lucky, a film that so charms you with its city vignettes that you are tempted to ignore its weak storyline. The director homes in on a west Delhi colony, where our jugaadu Lucky is growing up to be a master con, beating up studious boys from English-medium schools and taking his girl on a ride —"Tilaknagar se Rajouri tak". No open vistas here, only a dead greyness. Electric wires hang over the scene like streamers, unpainted houses run on each other. And as Lucky and his friends gawk at the bikes and Mercedes zipping past, you sense the bracing pull of aspiration (ABCD chahida mainu, DVD bhi chahida mainu, goes the soundtrack). No oye-hoying sardars either, but a grim Paresh Rawal as Lucky's violent father. In a neat turn, Banerjee gives the city's famed heritage the blink-and-miss role (the Humayun tomb makes a shadowy appearance and Qutub Minar gets screen time only when Lucky and friend Bangali do the clichéd photo-op). "The cityscape changes with Lucky's career graph," says Banerjee. "From an inner city ghetto, Lucky moves to the para-legal world of fixers and farmhouse parties and finally to the tony neighbourhoods of south Delhi."
The old heart of the city, Chandni Chowk, has been filmed a number of times. But it might get a closer, intimate look in Delhi-6, a story Mehra says he wrote after "digging into his memories of growing up". Mehra's last hit Rang De Basanti looked at the unsavory side of political Delhi, and had the effect of making candlelight vigils at India Gate the big cliché of pop culture. Delhi-6 promises to be different. "It represents the culture and ethos of small-town India that exists in Delhi, surrounded by a new city. In some ways, it is representative of the heart of India," he said.
Then there's Kashyap's Dev.D, which turns Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's listless love story into an electric tale of sex and drugs. A breathtaking film on many counts, it also takes you on a trip to Paharganj, transformed from tourist cliché to a netherworld done up in acid pink curtains, Che Guevera ashtrays and blue streets. "Paharganj is a place where the people of the world come to find themselves. It has always been in my mind as a congregation of lost souls. What is Devdas but a lost soul?" says Kashyap. Dev makes the journey to this underworld to get a fix of his poison and lose himself in its psychedelic embrace. One of the moments that stay with you from the film is a morning shot of a blue dawn breaking over neon lights of Paharganj, numinous and for many residents of the city, deeply familiar.
Neither of the directors and writers started out with a plan to get Delhi right. Banerjee, who also directed the delightful Khosla ka Ghosla, says, "I just wanted to capture life as I knew it very well and tell a story in a way that would cut the chain of conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema," he says. The city that shows up on screen as a result is a place of constant change, a restless, complex world of quirky characters, casual deceits and unexpected grace.
That's a change. For Delhi has mostly landed bit roles in Indian cinema. Filmmakers have cast its wide, tree-lined avenues and ancient monuments but not looked at lives beyond iconic Delhi. One of the earliest film memories of the city is that of the Merchant Ivory production The Householder and Sai Paranjpe's Chashm-e-Baddoor. Dilliwalah Jaideep Sahni, who wrote Khosla ka Ghosla, says, "The film in which I first consciously realised Delhi to be present and that it was a beautiful city was Chandni." Other cinematic moments were the rain-washed city in Monsoon Wedding and shots of a powerful capital in Dil Se and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi.
Sahni attributes the change to the rising stock of realism in Indian cinema. "A new generation of writers and directors have grown without being influenced by the '80s tradition of 'nowhere' cinema. So they are setting their stories in real places they know or have researched well, Delhi being prominent among them for urban stories.".
Looking at Delhi as a hunting ground of contemporary urban legends helps. For it is a city as much of jugaad as of djinns, a fact that often goes unmentioned. Britain-born Sam Miller and author of Delhi: Adventures in a MegaCity, an extraordinary account of his walks in Delhi, says, "Those who write about Delhi tend to evoke a sadness about a lost past… They rarely deal with it as it is now—one of the largest and fastest- growing cities of the world." Author Amitabha Bagchi, who also evoked the many layers of Delhi in his novel Above Average, points out that Delhi "is architecturally and experientially richer" than what it is given credit for. But, yes, it remains a city difficult to love. He admits he says it occasionally, apologetically, "only to myself and my wife."
For Bagchi and other writers, the films are a welcome break from the hand-wringing over the past. Miller says he found in Khosla ka Ghosla "an extraordinary sense of the speed at which Delhi is growing, and of how isolated, small and powerless 'ordinary' people can feel in it."
The films also enrich the cast of Delhi types: the real-estate agent and Mandi House theatreperson in Khosla ka Ghosla. Oye Lucky shows us the peculiar mix of hypocrisy and religion in jaagran singer Gogi Arora, who listens to Meera bhajans as he cuts deals in seedy restaurants and Dolly who dances to trigger-happy audiences but fasts on Tuesdays. And what of Dev himself? Abhay Deol in Dev.D is the authentic Delhi rich brat, complete with an out of control BMW.
You also hear on screen the music of the city's many tongues. "If you take the time to relax and look around, Delhi is a real festival of tones, sight, sound and smell. What is known as Delhi-ese itself has many dialects, the old Delhi one, the upper civil service one, the lower-level public interaction government service one, the political one, the shopkeeper one, the Punjabi refugee one, the NCR one, the corporate one, and now an IT/BPO one too, and various lovely flavours of dialects of Delhites who have come and settled down in Delhi from all parts of India," says Sahni.
Ranjana Sengupta, who makes a case for the thousand-year-old city in her book Delhi Metropolitan, finds it significant that it is becoming the setting of tales that explore India's class faultlines (Yeh gentry log peete angrezi hain, karte desi hain, says Lucky's friend Bangali). "The Delhi that is being explored in Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky is the world of the 'service' class—the middle to low ranking urban professional. Such classes exist in all Indian cities. But Mumbai's status as the iconic, dream merchant metropolis is so completely established that explorations of other, less glamorous universes have to be situated in other locales. And it is significant that that locale is Delhi."
Delhi's lack of a regional identity and the astounding pace of its growth also makes it a unique experiment in India's modernity. As Miller points out in his book, it is for "better and worse" a world city. "Delhi has a sense of continuous decay and regeneration that I have not met elsewhere. And the world ignores its experiments with modernity at its own peril," he says. It is this fractured, but evolving, modernity that cinema is beginning to engage with.
So if we had to draw up a wish-list for Delhi films, what would it include? "It's a great setting for a migrant's tale, partly because it has all that is ancient and all that is modern. The farmers on the banks of the Yamuna and their relationship to the city also fascinated me," says Miller. "It is also a natural ground for political stories," says Sahni.
Sengupta would plump for futuristic Gurgaon. "It is particularly suited to the cinematic imagination—think of the skyline—and embodies contemporary Delhi's favourite '21st century world city' mythology. I think there'll come a time when the Gurgaon skyline will rival Marine Drive as the iconic symbol of the aspirations a city symbolises."
And while we are at it, it wouldn't harm to take a look at another film that just released this Friday. Based on the 2007 sealing drive in Delhi, it stars Manoj Bajpai and is directed by Faridabad-based Anand Kumar. The title: Jugaad.
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