“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I bring out my checkbook”
– Jeremy Prokosch, Contempt (1963)
Quarter hour into Delhi 6, I found myself sitting dispassionately with a hand on my forehead. The last thing I wanted to see after all the hullabaloo over Slumdog Millionaire was a film extolling our culture. The pleasantries among the characters had nearly sealed off the fate of the film as far as I was concerned. And Waheeda Rehman wasn’t helping with her repetitive “Ab main chain se so sakti hoon” (I can rest in peace now) act. It was almost as if Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra was selling nostalgia to the NRIs. As if he was making a film about “our great culture” and never taking it as a platform As if he was trying to make the green card holders break down into tears and say “This is MY country after all. These are MY people”. You know… the usual stuff one feels till the pop corn runs out (Damn, Culture sells). But, to my relief and amazement, Delhi 6 recovers from 0 for 3 wickets to making a decent total.
Delhi 6 revolves around…Heck, chuck it. This would probably result in a census report. Let me just say that there are more people in the film than the number of shots. So we have Roshan Mehra (Abhishek Bachchan) who comes to India to take home his granny (Waheeda Rehman). The first half of the film shows us vignettes from the family called Delhi told through the typically patronizing expat eye (but not Roshan Mehra’s). These people spend their time watching unrequited love among Rama and Bharata, but fight with their own brothers. They adore Rama’s marital fidelity, yet go after married women. They are moved when Rama eats food cooked by a socially outcast character yet ostracize and demonize Jalebi, a so-called lower caste woman. They worship Hanuman but are dirt scared of a wild monkey on the prowl, which reveals itself as the focal point of the plot.
There is some good writing at work here. It is as if we have practically isolated our mythology from our everyday lives and deemed it strongly as strictly fictional. Where the characters in Rang De Basanti (2006) found their history more relevant now than ever, here they see otherwise. I’m sure that two of the sequences are going to receive much flak. The first one being the “Dil Gira Dafatan” song, which captures the quintessential dream. Purists may even be prompted to do a Freudian analysis as the images run the ganut of Roshan’s experiences. You have Jalebi vendors and cycle-rickshaws ruling the streets of New York. You have Americans celebrating the birth of a calf and shaking a leg at Hindu processions. You even have the monkey man, having been promoted to King Kong status, romancing on the Empire State Building. The second sequence is a bizarre conversation between Roshan and his grandfather (played by his real life father!) which does seem tasteless for different reasons. But no one can blame them for being out of place, for I believe that this kind of a film warrants such treatment. It is indeed a good move to show disjoint sequences from a society when you are encompassing extremely large issues and not dealing with a smaller struggle amidst larger ones. If a tighter plot would have been used, it would most definitely have been a failure and would seem like the film was biting more than it could chew.
Sonam Kapoor is a bad decision and I felt Soha Ali Khan could have done better. In hindsight, the character of a typically NRI-incriminating modern Indian woman seems tailor-made for Soha. As funny as it sounds, Abhishek Bachchan saves the day. All the potentially fatal reaction shots are redeemed by Abhishek’s unexpected expressions. He plays it low key an never goes into the overwhelming-love-for-home-country mode and cleverly becomes the visitor alone. Though that is a credit to the script, Abhishek manages well to never gain attention (even if it is a consequence of a weakness). All this is until the 115th minute of the film (trust me, I saw my watch here). Then both the Mehras go berserk. There is a fakir in the film who keeps showing everyone a mirror and goes on about the godliness in oneself. This is a good move that could have driven home the point, never looking tacked up too. And at this explosive plot junction (the 115th minute), Abhishek takes up the role of the savior (yes, the pseudo-Indian who refuses to stay passive), he points the mirror to all and “explains” them the truth of life. This is salvaged to some extent by the supporting cast, but the final quarter hour proves fatal. This time, it is the bumpkin Gobar (the talented Atul Kulkarni) who elaborates to all the sane ones how big Abhishek’s role is in changing the lives of the people. And the massacre of the script follows.
Delhi 6 doesn’t suffer from very many problems per se. It is just that it is irregular. Sequences of sheer brilliance are promptly followed by ordinary ones. Fabulous use of soundtrack is interspersed with the stereotypical utilization of music. Rather than calling these weaknesses, I would like to call them glitches. Sporadic, yet affecting the holistic quality of the film. Delhi 6 presents an open ending and fades to black with the most powerful of all quotes in Hindi cinema that I have heard in recent years – “I returned home”. Just see how profound this line is when you discover for yourself what it means. This line would easily substitute for the last 20 minutes of the film. Let’s hope that the director’s cut (if there ever is one) rectifies the mistake.
Delhi 6 is exceedingly well shot. Mehra uses extreme close-ups and deep focus to the point that you can see blemishes on the actors’ faces. In spite of the detached view that the script offers, Mehra’s camera becomes one among the characters. It does not impose on us the bittersweet and condescending opinions that Abhishek’s character may have. See how he desensitizes controversial statements on the news channels by framing the television set along with the news footage. Not only does this offer a space for audience to analyze their own actions but also plays out as a timely satire on the worst thing on Indian television now. The only quibble is that Mehra does not let the images speak for themselves. I would love to show the same mirror that the fakir uses in the film and show it to Mr. Rakeysh Mehra, or his film rather. And tell him “Look, how your film speaks for itself, why try to adulterate it by your obligation to deliver a social message?”