Films that deal with Delhi as a city largely involve emigrational situations. Exploring Delhi-6, DevD, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Chandni and Khosla Ka Ghosla.
“Sheheron mein se shehar suna tha, shehar suna ek dilli…1”
– Chandni (1989)
Ibn Batuta, the traveler of travelers, once wrote
…we came to Delhi, the capital of the empire. It is a most magnificent city… combining both beauty and strength…Its walls are such as to have no equal in the world. This is the greatest City in Hindostan…i
And yet, unlike Mumbai which has been both a backdrop and a character for cinema audiences to sample, Delhi has only recently emerged from being a mere site to a metaphor. Since, in her many nooks and crannies one can still find relics of time past bundled cheek by jowl with the concrete and glass of modern skylines, Delhi contains ‘sites of many distinct cities, founded by different Emperors’. ii It is at the same time Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad2, New Delhi and more. The crucial question when discussing Delhi as a cinematic city is the lack of any systematic reflection on its inhabitants lived realities.
Cinema’s relationship to the city has been more voyeuristic than philosophic. Cinema has the potential to both read a city as a text but also to write it. Films that deal with Delhi as a city largely involve emigrational situations. Narratives deal with characters that traverse borders and classes or have aspirations thereof. A reflection perhaps, of the melting pot that it is for many who come to the city every month in search for a better life and greater opportunities. There is even a stereotyping of a power seeking, opportunity hungry Dilliwallah, caricatured to perfection in the figure of builder Khurana (Boman Irani) in Dibakar Bannerjee’s Khosla ka Ghosla (2006).
The wide contrast between the city in Asia and the city in the West is the continuous presence of the countryside where the majority of population lives. This countryside supplies the city with a constant flow of migrants and labour. Due to globalization, city life witnessed an accelerated flow of images at every level. Our everyday experience today of the city is infused with a new visual display of signs within the city space.
Globalisation has spurred a rapid profusion of urban consumption, scores of satellite television channels, and a new, expanded music culture centered on the film industry. For Jonathan Raban, ‘the city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, may be more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’ iii
The discussion of cultural production particularly with regard to films and literature relies on Benedict Anderson’s study of nation as an ‘imagined community’. The concept of imagined community suggests that film too has played particularly pivotal role in the ongoing development of national identities. Hostility to the city as a space that evokes order, discipline and the power to control is a recurring theme in literature and poetry. Yet, in most ‘moving images’ Delhi’s intrinsic complexity and rich heritage are reduced to famous architectural markers that provide scenic albeit sterilized markers of it’s existence.
In the famous Rishi Kapoor, Shri Devi song from Yash Chopra’s Chandni, quoted above, the physical landmarks of the city are echoed when the gorgeous couple zips along the wide lanes of the New Delhi on a motor bike. The song takes us through prominent structures that very well define Delhi’s physical space. Yet, the romance is realized to the cinematic happy ending, away from the very city that is the site for its germination. The transience is both in the cultural imaginary of the script and the cinematic apparatus where Switzerland and Mumbai witness the resolution.
According to Walter Benjamin, the monument is a spectacular space that renders the city to the world displacing the everyday sites of memory. Drawing on his thesis, Graeme Gilloch writes, ‘While the city’s proud monuments most clearly articulate the glorification of history, in their ‘afterlife’, these same structures come to unmask the modern metropolis as the locus of mythic delusion. iv In such a context, the spectacular visual access and performative potential of the cinematic medium can enliven public spaces from anonymity.
Though there have been many films that have constructed and recreated the city on celluloid, a reconciliatory point for Dilliwallahs attuned to being architectural precincts on screen, is Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 (2009).What Benjamin had written, ‘in thousands of eyes, in thousands of objects, the city is reflected’ v comes alive in this film as the Old city is both memorialized and celebrated with all its inconsistencies and tales across generations, class, religion, gender and even citizenship. In the hallucinatory dream sequence where Chandi Chowk, the bustling and chaotic artery of the Old City blends with the New York skyline, the director is able to somewhat hint at the simultaneity of today, tomorrow and yesterday within a single geographical space. Roshan’s (Abhishek Bachchan) dream is a representation of the various aspirations, relationships and individuals who throng the streets, homes and roof tops of the city! That his lineage – of being a non resident Indian is at odds with his current situation of being in a community that does not recognize individual space come through the mis-en-scene of the song. And as the narrative unfolds he gets a clearer understanding of his own identity and finds himself inevitably and inextricably linked to the lives of those in his Delhi. An experience echoed by many off screen, including William Darlymple in his City of Djinns, ‘…minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust.’ vi
Yet, this existentialism is not limited to just his character. Bittu (Sonam Kapoor), represents the restless, young India that would rather be a kite without a string than stay back in a street where strings of kites often tangle with others’. Her claustrophobia in the tightly woven communitas is an important cinematic reflection on the conditions and motivations of Delhi’s inhabitants. The lines Bada Kas Ke Gale Lagata Hai, Dhadkan Ki Dhoom Sunata Hai/ Iske Baye Taraf Bhi Dil Hai, Iske Daye Taraf Bhi Dil Hai / Yeh Sehar Nahi Mehfil Hai (Yeh Sehar Nahi Mehfil Hai) 3 covey the dualism she and many other youngsters experience. Her desire to be part of Indian Idol – a nationwide, talent hunt for aspiring singers – seems consciously crafted. Being in the capital of the country does not integrate the character with national imaginary. To access mobility Bittu has to aspire to transcend the walls of the city – both real and imaginary.
Contemporary references notwithstanding it is not surprising that the historical reality of the Indian nation state i.e. partition and ensuing communal hatred inform the subtext of Delhi-6. The plight of the city’s many inhabitants over 5000 years is echoed in the figure of the Kala Bandar4 or Black Monkey that is a ghost like figure that terrorizes the people. The rioting and chaos are symbolic of what the nation and the city, have witnessed – fracas and murder – in the name of religion, dynasty and rule. The monkey-man episode is therefore not just an event that the city has experienced but encapsulates unsolved mysteries and various threats the city has undergone in the past decades from unknown and unidentified strata.
At the microcosmic level, the verisimilitude of the location is heartwarming. Scenes of pigeon flying, kite contests, pickles being dried out on roof tops are visual realities that any visitor to or member of Old Delhi would testify to. That roof tops are scenes for conviviality of lovers, friends and families reveals that multi-layered existence of the people. Inner courtyards guard family secrets (as did Zenanas of Shahjahanabad) and streets buzz with commerce, trade and movement (as did the Bazaars of yore). Architecture in this instance, becomes a means to understand and access the psychology of characters and link to their and the city’s past. The pincode 110006 is not just a physical address but a site of civilizational history. This can be discerned from the visual and textual elements embedded in the narrative.
The first half of the film elaborates deeply ingrained cultural practices like the lavishly performed folk tradition of Ram Leela and a cow giving birth on the streets as people queue up to witness and share the miracle of birth irrespective of religion or status. The film shows the characteristic alleys of Delhi and the typical foods, religions, beliefs and people that one might encounter in daily life. These alleyways and dimly lit spaces become, through these dual representations of their social function, a connotation of the past and of India as it is today. The cinematic gaze is thus both nostalgic and critical. In the second part of the narrative the indulgent gaze is problematized.
Similarly, through multiple layered narratives of poetry, music, drama and paintings; Rakeysh Mehra’s Delhi-6 also tries to deal with several issues like law and order, corruption, superstitions, the caste system and communalism etc that the national capital territory and rest of India faces every day. On the other hand, the film may be read as a confluence of Hinduism and Islam represented through its architectural heritage and the emblematic ‘Old Delhi’. A happy departure from ‘these Chandni Chowk types!’ ala Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001).
And outside the walled city lies another reality – of a capital that has changed drastically in the last decade. Urbanization has increased dramatically and with it the density of population has further intensified. Infrastructural developments in the form of flyovers and shopping malls have been offset by resettlement colonies and unauthorized constructions. With each passing year, the illegitimate colonies of the city link to some more. And as construction workers and migrant labour toil amidst cars zipping by, the metro dots the cityscape where earlier greenery dotted horizons. Delhi is also therefore a city experiencing a flux through influx.
Dibakar Bannerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2009) deliberates on this condition of the city. The film is a light hearted take on the amoral story of Lucky Singh (Abhay Deol) who carries out one audacious theft after another to become a master thief. Based on a real life criminal, the film holds a mirror to the pressures and pettiness an aspirant for a better lifestyle may face in the city. The quest for an individual identity metamorphoses in to a Dario Fo-esque5 absurdist anarchy. The city of Delhi is shown sleepless as the thief continues his chicanery for a lark. Unlike, Mumbai that city known to never sleep, Delhi’s stillness at night is characterized tongue-in-cheek. The desire to attain social and financial mobility at any cost, as showcased through all the major and minor characters in the film, is a psychological portrait of a large part of Delhi’s population. The fashioning of Lucky’s identity at the cost of other’s in the city is also a satire of the social relationships and associations the city hosts. The undercurrents of class tensions are clearly articulated in the lines “Ye gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi.” 6 The stereotype of the Delhi socialite is held up both for parody and re-established as an identifiable marker of the city’s hierarchies. The desire to both become and out do the archetypical is the quintessential contest of class and social differentiation. And its cinematic depiction is crucial to the interrogation of cinema’s simulation of public spaces. Thus, besides being an economic resource, a city can very well act as a psychological resource for a filmmaker or writer. As the film traverses familiar lanes in action and dialogue, “Tilak Nagar se Rajouri ka chakkar laga doonga…”7 it enlivens the Punjabi sub-culture and makes real, the flat dimensions of the city’s map.
On location filming along with other details of the production design make the people more real as opposed to cardboard cutouts or milling crowds of the past. Thus, it films a city and its people in search of an emphatic identity amidst the crowds. The fact of deliberation is prioritized over the possible fulfillment, thus typifying middle class Delhi’s dreams, hitherto only depicted never celebrated.
Jonathan Raban in his book Soft City, presents a magical journey into the experience of city life. ‘The urban landscape and the related conflicting practices play themselves out in spatial, aural, and bodily configurations.’ vii Soft City is a kind of an imaginative defense of a city life, ‘its unique concept of privacy and freedom’. viiiThat the city is a symbol of desire is also because it comprises a desiring populace. Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009) interprets this complex through the sexual lives and interactions of semi-urban and urban youth. Here, Delhi is not a mute artistic edifice, in fact its many crevices and corners are revealed as sites of action, enquiry and growth. The changing social mores of the city and its ever expanding limits also parallel a change in notions of acceptability in the contemporary youth. For once, the city is a cradle for uncertain relationships and has its recklessness chronicled as opposed to its historic stoicism and consequent immobility. The vacuum that exists in the urban part of the city is symbolically represented through the relationships of the central character Dev (Abhay Deol).
That the film, which is a recasting of the already adapted Devdas by Sharat Chandra Chaterjee, is set in Punjab and Delhi is a bold recasting and realignment of the city in the Cinematic imagination of the country per se. That Delhi, despite its walled, veiled and conventional associations, is the space where a sex scandal and pre-marital sex are made palpable and immediate makes it a photographic print amidst other cinematic portraits that iron out the character contained in rough edges. Here, the portrayal of a fairy tale love story of a sex-worker against the backdrop of physical landmarks of Delhi does not qualify it as film on Delhi. Instead, it is the imagined city of cinema becoming the real at the intersection of mental, physical and social spaces. The relationship between the ‘real’ city and the represented cinematic city is driven by subjective and projected direction. In the lines “firanginiyon ki latt hai babu…aise thode chchootegi…daani mahatama, bade baap ka launda!” 8, the underbelly of drugs and money is also a slice of life of the very same city.
It is quite evident that cinema’s fascination for city began very early in its history and shifted as early film making progressed from actualities that recorded everyday events (workers leaving the factory) to the early narrative action movies and beyond. Yet, one can always ask why the city has become such an aesthetic focus for cinema altogether? According to Anna Claydon, like cinema, ‘the modern city is an iconographic form of the twentieth century and shares many of cinema’s obsessions with speed, light and movement: the cinema and the city are kindred expressions of modern humanity.’ix
Further, the very concept of a city on screen is iconic and specific cities are positioned in the minds of people in the manner they have been portrayed as there are many who haven’t seen and experienced these spaces otherwise. The potential to represent both the physical and symbolic makes the city in cinema a site for renewal of desires and memories both lived and heard. The city represented on film is the city for every human. As in the words of renowned poet and lyricist Gulzar,
…ho tujhse milna purani dilli main
chod aaye nishani dilli main
ballimaran se daribe talak
teri meri kahani dilli main
oho…kali kamali wale ko yaad karke
tere kale kale naino ki kasam khate hain9
– Bunty Aur Babli (2005)
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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