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Delhi meri jaan

india Updated: Mar 16, 2009 19:47 IST
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

There’s been a rash of Delhi-based films recently. But have they done justice to this great city? Aren’t we still waiting for the quintessential Delhi movie? Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi tells more...

During her first year in Mumbai some time ago, grins Vatsala Chawla, whenever her friends and family phoned from Kolkata and asked what the city was like, she’d have to laugh. “Because I sounded like a broken record,” she says. “I’d keep saying: ‘Just like the movies!’”

And it was just like the movies, Vatsala says. From the moment she stepped off the Howrah-Mumbai Mail at the station and, clutching her suitcase, joined the purposeful throng that thrust itself out to the streets, she had a peculiar sense of déjà vu. Not because she’d been to Mumbai before, but because she’d seen Mumbai before. Over and over and over again, in all its moods, with all its people doing all the things that people in Mumbai do – all in the movies.

“My first year in Mumbai was filled with what I call ‘movie moments’ that I’d ‘seen’ before,” says Vatsala. When she moved to Delhi from Mumbai last year however, Vatsala had no such sense of familiarity. She’d seen pictures of the major monuments, of course. And there were parts of the city she’d caught in films and on TV.

But there was no déjà vu. “Maybe if I’d moved to Delhi this year, I’d have had a movie moment,” she muses. “After all, so many films have been set in Delhi over the last six months, it could be possible.”

Delhi justified?
Vatsala is right. Though filmmakers swear it’s sheer coincidence, no less than five movies have been set in the Capital in the last six months, with another few on their way. Dev D, Delhi 6, Chandni Chowk to China, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye and Jugaad are already out, and Delhi Belly is due for release in a few weeks.

The media, as always, has been quick to jump on this as a new trend – and with five such films released almost consecutively, it does seem more than a coincidence. So does this mean that Delhi is the new Mumbai when it comes to cities in movies? And, more important, do these recent movies reveal the quintessential Delhi the way so many films give us the quintessential Mumbai?

To answer the first question, we have Rakeysh Mehra, two of whose three films, Rang De Basanti and the recent Delhi 6, have been set in Delhi. “All these films were released at about the same time, so it does seem as though Bollywood is shifting its focus,” he says. “But that isn’t true. What is happening though, is that Delhi can’t be ignored any longer.”

We’ve seen Delhi on screen before, of course. Who can forget the misty, winter night of Silsila when Amitabh romanced Rekha in the Lodhi Gardens, singing Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum? And no one could have missed the majestic Rajpath when Rishi Kapoor called out to his Chandni. More recently, the Ajay Devgan-Ayesha Takia starrer Sunday showcased every monument in Delhi, from the Qutub Minar to India Gate, from Tughlaqabad Fort to Jama Masjid. But in all these cases, Delhi was just the backdrop. And a pretty backdrop at that.

But there’s more to the city than that – and that’s what hasn’t come through on screen so far. So the answer to the second question – have these films managed to reveal the quintessential Delhi? – is, no. Not yet, anyway – though it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

“It isn’t possible,” says Anurag Kashyap, maker of

Dev D.

“Delhi has so many characters and layers that it is impossible to put all of it together. It is a thousand cities in one city.”

Virgin land
Kashyap’s answer is fair in one way and unfair in another. Because the fact is that Mumbai – or any city for that matter – is also a thousand cities in one city.

The difference, though, is that Mumbai has long been a sort of default city as far as Bollywood is concerned, primarily because it’s Bollywood’s base. (In Bengali films, Kolkata is the default city and in Tamil films, you’ll be familiar with Chennai.) So aside from scenes at Marine Drive, Juhu beach and other iconic Mumbai sites, the whole Hindi-movie watching world is as familiar with life in a slum as it is with life in a chawl as it is with life in a suburban apartment building as it is with life in Malabar Hill, with everything happening in between. No wonder Mumbai can now be seen as a character in its own right rather than just a background.

But Delhi doesn’t have a home-grown feature film-making culture, which explains why the Capital hasn’t had much of a role on screen so far – and why any depiction of it has been so one-dimensional, one way or another.

The fact that filmmakers have now recognised its potential as a place that can become a character is a start, but it’s only a start. Five films or even 10 films set in Delhi will not make it a place of ‘movie moments’ for non-Delhiites. Delhi needs lots of films before it can reach that stage.

So Abhinay Deo, maker of Delhi Belly, contradicts Kashyap when he says: “Yes, Delhi has many shades, but it is also unexplored.”

Real city
Which makes it an exciting place to explore, and some amount of exploration has begun, with these few films. Dibaker Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla, about a land grab, and more recent Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, about an ambitious petty thief, reveal some rather non-pretty, yet quintessential bits of Delhi.

Kashyap’s Dev D takes us through distinctly insalubrious Paharganj and GB Road, a far cry from the majestic city of monuments non-Delhiites associate with the Capital – yet, very much part of existence in the city.

Mehra gave us a cross between a college student’s Delhi and political Delhi in Rang De Basanti, and then swept us lovingly into the galis and havelis of Chandni Chowk in Delhi 6. Jugaad, though it flopped, took on the issue of the demolition of illegal constructions. Deo’s own Delhi Belly follows the lives of three just-out-of-college young men, and their struggles to make a life in Delhi. And Chandni Chowk to China… well. Maybe that’s what happens when Bollywood gets too Bollywood in Delhi?

All the films named above (except for CCTC) were written or directed by people who were originally Delhiites, before they moved to Mumbai to make films. “We all seem to know Delhi like the backs of our hands,” says Dibaker Banerjee. “I lived in the city for a good part of my life, so the instances of my life, the settings, the stories and the people I portray are all reflective of that.”

And Abhinay Deo, a native Mumbaikar, is making Delhi Belly because his writer is from Delhi. “He wrote the story based on what he knows best, so I had to make my film there,” shrugs Deo.

Script is king
Which explains why the Delhi films are often so realistic – and also explains why they could only have emerged now. Thanks to the multiplex phenomenon, filmmakers have realised that the script is king and that while we’re still perfectly happy to be entertained by a good, frothy, feel-good Bollywood commercial film, we’re also perfectly happy to be entertained by strong stories that could just as well nestle in the alcohol and drug dens of a city and make, as Kashyap says, “a drug addict into a hero and a small town girl demand her sexual rights without inhibition.”

“Gone are the days when the janta was happy to see a song and dance sequence in a foreign location,” says Mehra. “Now they are happy to see the mustard fields of a village – as long as they’re real. How long will we show only India Gate or the Qutub Minar as Delhi? People know there is a city beyond that, and it is flourishing, and they want to see that. The same goes for Mumbai or Muradabad. The demand is for authentic flavour.”

But authentic flavour alone can’t turn a place into a city of ‘movie moments’. If the story is weak, the film has no audience, and if there is no audience, it’s goodbye movie. Jugaad for all its realism vanished so completely that few people even remember that it existed. And much as the visual beauty of the first half of Delhi 6, when Abhishek Bachchan discovers Chandni Chowk, remains in the memories of the audience, the second half ensured that it too, will soon be a weak memory.

The importance of the strong script means that the story’s setting doesn’t really matter – and yet, to be strong, a script has to be true to the setting, or viewers will reject it instantly. “Any good film is one that has a good story and strong characters, and the backdrop could be anything,” explains Deo. “Bheja Fry, for instance was a hit, and it was set in a house. But the backdrop adds to the zing. It gives the film its flavour, essence and plays an important role in shaping the character.”

It’s a paradox, but it works. A city can shape a person as much as people can shape a city, so as Kashyap says, “It doesn’t matter where we are as long as the story is good enough. And when the story is good, justice is done to the city.”