I wish there was more of the Delhi I knew, on celluloid: Poonam Saxena - Hindustan Times

I wish there was more of the Delhi I knew, on celluloid: Poonam Saxena, in The Way We Were

Jan 13, 2024 03:30 PM IST

A certain long-gone Mumbai is preserved in movie after movie. One must hunt much harder, to revisit the Capital of the ’50s to ’70s.

This is NRI season, when relatives and friends who live overseas return home to visit. A septuagenarian aunt of mine mourns that, with every trip, she finds Delhi’s landscape dramatically altered. All the familiar landmarks are gone. It is almost like she is grieving the loss of a loved one.

A rain-soaked Mumbai gleams with nostalgic beauty, in Basu Chatterji’s Manzil (1979); a world both familiar and yet so different can be revisited in his Baton Baton Mein (1979). PREMIUM
A rain-soaked Mumbai gleams with nostalgic beauty, in Basu Chatterji’s Manzil (1979); a world both familiar and yet so different can be revisited in his Baton Baton Mein (1979).

On her next visit, I have decided to screen for her the 1981 film Chashme Buddoor, Sai Paranjpye’s love letter to Delhi. When I watched it recently, I was bewitched by the familiar yet long-gone vistas: the open India Gate lawns, quiet tree-lined streets, bungalows bordered by low red walls and simple white wooden gates, the famed barsati flats with their large terraces.

In her autobiography, A Patchwork Quilt, Paranjpye, who lived and worked in Delhi for many years, said she wanted to explore “the length and breadth of the beautiful city and lay bare its soul, providing a comprehensive Dilli darshan to its audience…”

Another quintessential Delhi film — or rather, the film that captures ’70s and ’80s student life here with unerring accuracy — is Pradip Krishen’s In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1989). Every scene and line of dialogue resonates: scruffy students with guitars singing Bob Dylan songs, Punjabi landladies renting garages to permanently broke undergrads, khadi kurtas, round John Lennon glasses, references to Rosebud (a seedy cabaret joint on Outer Ring Road), even the nicknames (Paapey, Lakes, Mankind, Yamdoot), and the lingo (“avoid, yaar”, “giving it those ones”).

These films remain precious to us because there were so few that preserved this time in Delhi’s life. From the ’50s through the ’70s, most Hindi films were set, almost by default, in Bombay (with a bit of a hiatus in the ’60s, when Bollywood took off to the hill stations). As a result, one can easily revisit those years in that city’s life. There are the almost-empty streets of Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1954). The opening credits of Raj Khosla’s Bombai ka Babu (1960) show glistening rain-washed streets sprinkled with a few people under umbrellas, and the ubiquitous double-decker buses.

Scroll through the years, and the city becomes more crowded, but one can still see the marked difference from the traffic jams, chaos and pollution of today.

Take Basu Chatterji’s acclaimed quartet of Bombay movies: Piya ka Ghar (1972), Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1976) and Baton Baton Mein (1979). If Piya ka Ghar was an ode to the warmth and camaraderie of chawl life, with its friendly community card games; and its lack of privacy (newlyweds Jaya Bhaduri and Anil Dhawan have to sleep in the kitchen), Baton Baton Mein was an affectionate hat-tip to the Bombay local train (Tina Munim and Amol Palekar fall in love on the 9.10 local) and to the suburb of Bandra, with its churches and black rocks by the sea.

By the ’70s, there is more bustle. But even so, the office crowds near Churchgate station seem tame, and the profusion of Ambassador cars and kaali-peeli Fiat taxis infuse the scenes with a sense of nostalgia.

One cannot speak of Chatterji and Bombay without mentioning the beloved Bombay monsoon song, Rimjhim Gire Sawan, from his film Manzil (1979). In it, Amitabh Bachchan in a dripping suit and tie, and Moushumi Chatterji in a wet blue sari, walk hand-in-hand all over the city, in the rain. Most of the sequence was filmed in actual rain, Anirudha Bhattacharjee says in his book, Basu Chatterji: And Middle-of-the-Road Cinema, with cinematographer KK Mahajan shooting out of an old Chevrolet.

Less well-known is the song Bambai Shahar ki Tujhko Chal Sair Kara Doon from Piya ka Ghar, in which Anil Dhawan takes his shy village bride on a tour of the city that includes family rooms in restaurants and a visit to the zoo.

When it comes to depictions of Delhi in songs of that era, I think the best example is the cheery Pyaar Lagawat Pranay Mohabbat from Chashme Buddoor, in which the three friends (Farooq Shaikh, Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi) zip around Delhi on a motorcycle and the audience sees India Gate, broad shaded avenues and the Purana Qila ruins flash by.

We watch films for the plots, the actors, the cinematography. But there is an entirely different kind of pleasure to be had from movies that quietly bear witness to a time that is long gone, fading even from memory, remembered with wistful longing by just a very few.

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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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