The city with a beating heart: Delhi 6
A soft breeze wafts the chimney tops on the morning terraces; night clouds trail away in the East. Bustle and rumours from the city all around; calls and shouts close and far, muffled car honks, and the familiar smell of the city. You’re in Delhi. Oh, it’s a film, of course, it’s a vision. Like a memory of a childhood place where one would like to return to, but whose charm and magic are so powerful that they recreate the reality, and this dream is what people need to continue hoping. And then there is the heart of this city, there’s a "beating": a violence which can destroy it, but which is also its blood and its life. The two communities, Muslim and Hindu coexist there and, implies Director Rakesh Mehra, are the city’s treasure. This diversity and difference, along with its potential violence, but also its liveliness, make up the character of the city.
Then there is the History. Culture and tradition are also part of Delhi (above, the Ramlila, fascinating sections of it all film long, as a reminder that history is what builds a common world). We are in purani Dilli, Chandni Chowk. Any capital has a history of course. But it is often seen as touristic artificiality only, alas. Here on the other hand, we don’t get to see the city from a touristic point of view, viz the way the Taj Mahal trip is done. Roshan (the hero, played by Abhishek) sees it, and photographs it, but not us (or just at the end, in a parting glance). What we see is Roshan’s reaction to it. So many masala movies would have given us a full frontal view. The "echo" of that grandeur is given, that's all. What Rakesh Mehra is doing is recording the significance of these buildings and sites. He’s communing (and communicating) with them: this old door, that archway, that view under the sky. And he gives us the night scenes, the ordinary life. It’s a choice, a selection of course; you can never show everything.
A number of negative reactions welcomed the movie in 2009. Here’s Shweta’s take:
“Contrary to what I've heard from other reviews, I don't believe that this is a homage to Delhi - old/new/any part. It’s a fantasy, composed of what the director would LIKE to remember of Delhi (oh that sounds harsh, isn't it?). I almost suspect that he has forgotten what Delhi was like, and would like it believe that this was it - it happens to a lot of folks who move away. Don't get me wrong, I love Delhi, and I love Chandni Chowk, and visit every time I am back there, but its hard to buy into the fantasy of Abhishek believing living in Chandni Chowk's crowds, dirt and smells to be the best thing ever.”
I’d like to ask: what is a city? It isn’t just a location, it isn’t just geography. Of course, a city has an objective side, but that’s like figures and facts. But inhabitants will have their own appreciation of their city, different probably from one to the other. If you have found a job in a town, or if you’ve been sacked there, you won’t consider the place in the same way. But dwellers aren’t the only people who can have an understanding of a city. A tourist, a student, a businessman, all have their own experience. Nobody owns a city. I have lived in Paris, I know the town well (or do I? Can you ever "know" a city?). But I can’t deny one-day visitors their superficial impressions: can I say they are wrong? They’re personal; they’re their own experience of the place. They’re entitled to their impression. When a director decides to film Delhi, he cuts, he chooses, he frames certain districts, certain aspects, his own. The aspects or dimensions of the city which he has chosen to show.
This sentence (above) sums it all for me: Rakesh Mehra is telling us that he isn’t making an objective documentary of Delhi: he’s a lover of Delhi, like shop-owner Vikram Kapur in Rohinton’s Mistry’s Family matters, who’s in love with his city (Mumbai) to the extent that he collects old photos of the roads and buildings; for him the city is like a woman he loves! And this connects to what Rakesh Mehra is doing in Delhi 6: he’s suggesting that a community of people such as the one in Delhi (it would be the same in any other city) can only live together if they love this community as a whole. On the contrary, if individuals or clans exclude other members of this community, then danger and strife aren’t far. That’s why the older characters are so important, Ali Beg (Rishi Kapoor), and Mrs Mehra (Waheeda Rehman): they represent the roots, the history, the trans-generational element. If we spectators forget this basic approach to the film, of course we can easily criticise the director. Here’s what Buddy 51 (who’s written 147 reviews on IMDb) says for example:
“Like most mainstream movies made in India, "Delhi 6" provides a relatively upbeat, prettified look at life in that country. Any hint of poverty is pushed to the edges, while the foreground becomes an almost nonstop dizzying swirl of music and color. And I do mean "nonstop," for if there is one thing "Delhi 6" has in abundance it's musical sequences, some of which drag on for an insufferably long time, adding an unnecessary burden to the movie's overall running time.
Of course Delhi in the film is “prettified”: when you love a person or a place, you are attentive to its beauty: indeed, you see beauty where others do not! But I don’t know if our Buddy recalls this scene:
I myself had rarely seen such a “hint of poverty” in mainstream Indian movies. But anyway, can we seriously criticise Mehra for loving Delhi and urging its inhabitants to work hand in hand to build a brighter future? Can we afford to disregard his call to have religious communities accept each other? Can we decide that the Black monkeys of intolerance, hatred and ignorance are only symbolic? The people at PPCC have decided that:
Sweetness? Sentimentality? Why not after all? I prefer a little sentimentality to insincerity and superiority (1). But what’s wrong with impressionism? I don’t think Delhi 6 is impressionistic, BTW, and it isn’t a big mess either, from my perspective. (Towns are a mess anyway, life is a mess!). It isn’t because there are a lot of characters that they’re hard to catch up with! I found them all quite endearing, even the villains, like the slimy money-lender, or the obnoxious police officer. They just belong to the whole picture:
(see Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance for another effort of that kind)
And I’m not the only one who thinks the same (dunkdaft):
One by one each of the fabulous ensemble cast is introduced. And that too, coming with a unique point. Unique moral is attached with each character. Like the issue of being untouchable, being a muslim, being an unmarried sister who is getting older, dowry, being extreme hindu or a muslim; each characteristic is introduced along with the character. And that works the most for the movie.
Many reviewers contend that the movie’s preachiness is OTT. This brings us to its “message”, which we’ve broached a little already. Roshan the American exile (oh, yes, right, another minus: Abhi’s accent isn’t 100% Brooklyn… Big deal) preaches that God is in all of us, and not solely within the Muslim or the Hindu communities. And he uses the mirror trick to make his point clear. If you look in the mirror, you’ll see… what, by the way? I read lots of people saying “we get it, sir, we get it!” (PPCC)… but what exactly do they get? Truth is, I don’t know. Because they don’t say it.
What’s preachy about the fact that God resides in each person’s heart? And that if you hate your neighbour in the name of God, you’re hating God’s residence itself? It’s only preachy if it’s disconnected from reality (have some of you seen On the waterfront ? Father Barry is also a “unrealistic” preacher – but preaching often needs this “unrealistic” courage). Who says the world doesn’t need that courage, and that message, today, of all periods of history? Who says India doesn’t need Jalebi’s and Gobar’s hand-touch? And anyway, who started criticising Roshan for being preachy? Madan Gopal (Om Puri), in the movie. Rakesh Mehra knew he was going to incur that type of criticism. In fact that mirror trick is rather clever: it reminds one of Socrates’ plea to “know thyself”, which is probably what a lot of fanatics in the world should do before exploding bombs on their fellow humans brothers. And it is Roshan the preacher, after all, who was first scandalised by his Daadi’s fatalism:
Practically no one whose review I read celebrated the glorious section that I would call “the tale of two cities”. It accompanies the song “Dil gira dafatan” (which most people did mention as successful), and it also contains the mirror symbolism too, by the way, look!:
What’s at stake in that scene? It isn’t just a song, beautiful and evocative as it is! It is Art, fresh and sparkling, gushing from the fountain of poetry and love. It starts with that morning breeze on the rooftops: Roshan is half waking, half dreaming; he’s walking in Delhi’s gaaliyon, and he’s in New York at the same time. Suddenly before his very eyes, New York is getting “delhified”: his family and the familiar people are present in the double reality which his dazzled and childish gaze follows. At one stage the bespectacled “crazy fakir” lifts his mirror to him, and it reflects the street, where Bittu is passing, as if she didn’t know that she’s being seen. Is it a dream? Or are we, like Alice, through the looking-glass, on the other side? Could it be that this mirror is our Dream door (and Roshan our Guide), beyond which language becomes a riddle, and magic transmutes reality into beauty, with
This fabulously rich scene glides effortlessly through one mirage to the next, one vision to its association, one evocation of the past (Roshan’s Dad there in the car together with his reunited brother) and of the present (Bittu’s fleeting grace, her everlasting femininity), to the entrancing melody of one of master Rahman’s most beautiful songs. We are in Rakesh Mehra’s wonderland. Rakesh Mehra the wizard of Oz, the Black Illusionist Monkey! A delightful Bittu throws the dove up in the sky: she’s free! and Roshan, in his reverie, flies in a merry-go-round airplane, waving ecstatically to little boys below; oh, and now this reminds him of that faraway B&W movie, “King Kong”; he has now become one of the airplane pilots who circles the Empire State building in a desperate try to save Jessica Lange from the terrible Kaala Bandar who’s holding her… But no, she’s not frightened of him, she’s holding him in his arms… The looking-glass has become the cinema itself: we spectators are looking at ourselves on the silver screen: we live, we laugh, we fear, we cry, we are plunged in Alice’s creation, her transformation of our reality into beauty and fun and meaning!
I must confess that I was very happy to follow Roshan-Abhishek during his trip back to Delhi. He managed to charm me, which is saying a lot, because my eyes were clearly elsewhere:
(Sonam Kapoor, an interesting combination of Ash beauty and Kajol charm)
But here’s why Aishwarya was right to choose her Abhi:
One last comment concerning the movie’s message: it’s difficult for the Christian that I am not to see in Roshan’s mission a kind of Christ-like incarnation and only half-hidden sacrifice: his arrival in India, his discovery of that world, his love for his people (Jesus didn’t love a woman, that’s the limit of the comparison), and his failed attempt to make enemies forgive one another, then his death (the flat heart beat) followed by a resurrection, once the Father (Amitabh) lets the Son re-emerge from the white Other World – we even have the all-pervasive presence of the Holy Bhoot in the shape of Bittu’s dove: a Trinity of love.
(1) For example, Thebollywoodfan writes: “There's lack of equilibrium in individual and collective energies transferred within and outside that territory in Delhi allocated zip code 6, because of an uneven juxtaposition of the use of these four sources. This begs for trouble. And trouble it instigates. Except that it's not entirely wasteful, and has its share of positives for those who are willing to play along and give it a chance.”
Phew! I really prefer it when a movie is more… straightforward!