Saturday, February 21, 2009

Delhi 6 – A simple mirror of complex images

It was after ‘Rang De Basanti’(RDB) that I took note of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. I knew he had made another movie called ‘Aks’ but I never really got around to seeing it, although I am sure watching Bachchan and Bajpai in the same frame would have been a delight. Be that as it may, with the added amplification of Rahman’s soul stirring numbers and the fact that Bachchan Jr. was going to be featured in it, I was quite eager to check out ‘Dilli 6’. Despite what people say about him I think Abhishek is a fine talent and has proved his acting prowess time and again while working with the finest in the sub continent and hence I was quite certain he would deliver yet another clinical performance in this one too.

One of the biggest reasons I had liked RDB was because of the way it showcased Delhi only a true ‘Dilli-wallah’ could have managed to do. Having spent some of the best days of my life there, I have a rather personal investment in that city. Be it those wide and serene roads of Lodhi Estate or the buzzing and snaking back alleys of Karol Bagh, Dilli will always be a part of me. Hence, ‘Dilli 6’ already had a small portion of my affection even before I had started viewing it.

As the credits roll by the movie starts off by coming to the point right away. We are told that an ailing old woman (Waheeda Rehman) has only a few months to live and sitting beside her in a quintessential American clinic somewhere in New York is her America-born confused desi grandson Roshan (Abhishek). Having become the bird of migration over the last few years, the old woman now wants to die in the arms of her biological mother – Delhi. The city that is a vital part of who she is. Thanks to her rightfully scorned son who has vowed never to return to that fateful and unfriendly place which threw him out because of his love affair with a Muslim girl (an always effervescent Tanvi Azmi), Roshan takes it upon himself to leave his grandmother back in her natural nest.

The two reach Delhi amid rampant reports of a bizarre ‘monkey man attack’ epidemic which is causing mass hysteria in the city. An amusing sighting, Roshan feels, as he dives head first into an ocean of notoriously friendly ‘jalebi-wallahs’, openly hostile policemen, overtly affectionate friends of his family and of course, the obliviously aloof love of his life. The life in Delhi-6, Chandni Chowk, engulfs him in one single sip. Surrounded by a mirage of characters who are so unpretentious Roshan finds himself wondering who is now family and who is not. Almost everyone seems more than ready to help when needed, regardless of caste, faith or gender. An observation I particularly found quite endearing in India’s context. Buried in the shower of elaborate Rama leelas and dried home made chillies, he begins his journey back to roots he never knew existed.

Time chugs along as Roshan easily blends into a version of India he has never known before. Notwithstanding his obvious adherence to his ‘American-ness’ or as Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) eloquently puts it ‘Burger-chaap’ness, Roshan begins to fall in love with that part of Dilli to such an extent that he no longer feels the need to return to the one nest he actually recognizes – New York.

The real beat of ‘Dilli 6’ picks up pace in the second half. What catches you unannounced is the rapidness with which the same friendly, affectionate and unashamedly well meaning ‘janta’ turns shockingly menacing overnight at the slightest hint that the famed ‘monkey man’ could be a Muslim and that what is now a proud Islamic establishment was probably a temple a couple of centuries ago. All this, at the saying of a nameless God man who comes to the place to ‘fix’ the menace but ends up becoming the cause for one. It is in this deep seeded hypocritical and culturally oversensitive vein of India, that Mehra explores real pain and suffering. The good old ‘Jalebi-wallah’ is beaten black and blue in broad daylight as communal violence spreads faster than the invisible shadows of the infamous ‘Monkey Man’. The epitome of Hindu faith, the old tree where people tie bells so that their wishes may come true is set afire one quiet night as several parallel subplots run amok as Roshan prepares for a final showdown.

‘Dilli 6’ attempts to do a lot of things in the limited frame it is given, which to some, might come across as a little hasty on Mehra’s part. The dozen subplots that run along with Roshan’s story do not necessarily harm the main narrative but do little to amplify the love story that he finds himself becoming a part of with Bittu. An angle that, I thought, could have used a few more sensitive and emotionally subtle scenes. After all, Dilli is the city of dil-wallahs is it not? So a little more attention to carefully woven ‘dil-wallah’ scenes between Roshan and Bittu would have served well. But looking past that, ‘Dilli 6’ is a wonderful attempt at capturing some complex human emotions against the backdrop of a fakir’s broken mirror. It is a tribute to the simmering pot of frustrations and endless grievances middle class India has to go through which is always ready to explode in the face at the slightest provocation – even if it is a fictitious one.

Performances wise everyone chips in their bit in this enterprise. Abhishek does a good job as Roshan who seems unsure about where he really belongs but slowly becomes more convinced with each altercation with something that opposes his belief system. Sonam is alright albeit she doesn’t get a lot of scope to display histrionics given the generous cast in the mix. Some extremely talented folks make an appearance in pivotal roles – the legendary Waheeda Rehman, the subtle yet tragically still in love Rishi Kapoor, the flawless Om Puri, the talented Vijay Raaz and Atul Kulkarni and of course the quite underrated Pavan Malhotra. There are also a host of new/recognizable faces who add more substance to the storyline. Music is the best part of the story, as it was with RDB too. Rehman excels with every composition but the one I loved the scenes for the most was ‘Dil gira dafatan…’ where Roshan gets up in a dream sequence and walks through a cloud of imaginary backdrops that mix Old Delhi and New York beautifully on a vibrant canvas with scenes from his past and present. Simply beautiful. Editing could have been a bit more natural in some vital places that I found a little hard to digest given the rather smooth flow of the narrative. Come to think of it, even RDB had its share of shoddily edited edges that somehow took the backseat with the performances.

On the whole ‘Dilli 6’ may seem a tad preachy and philosophical to some towards the end but it does not say anything out of the ordinary but simple reminds us of what we as Indians become when put to test at the stake of religion. A grim reflection of the kind of cultural bondages we are told we belong to whereas the only one that would eventually matter is humanity. Or as the crazed fakir puts it, ‘...look in the mirror for the answers…’

Go ahead and check out ‘Dilli 6’. You might find a mirror that fits you too.


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