I recentlty read Neal Stephenson's new novel, Reamde, which is about (among other things) regular people who get swept into the circles of very dangerous criminals, and find themselves in desperate situations doing very desperate deeds. Watching the recent dark comedy Delhi Belly, I was struck by the similarities of its basic outline to that summary of the novel. Most of us will never find ourselves face-to-face with the likes of the movie's diamond smugglers or Reamde's panoply of international gangsters, terrorists, and spies. But there is something nevertheless compelling about such stories; even with its veneer of silliness, it's hard to watch Delhi Belly without thinking, what would I do if that happened to me?
Tashi (Imran Khan) is a young, unambitious Delhi reporter who lives in squalor - borne more of laziness than necessity - with his two roommates, the lecherous photographer Nitin (Kunal Roy Kapoor), and a depressed commercial artist named Arup (Vir Das). Tashi's breezy fiancee Sonia (Shenaz Treasury) has cluelessly agreed, as a favor to friend, to deliver a package that is quite obviously (to the audience, at least) contraband. Sonia asks Tashi to complete the delivery, but thanks to a series of mishaps the package is confused with a stool sample of Nitin, who is afflicted with the filmi's titular ailment. Needless to say, the intended recipient, a diamond smuggler (Vijay Raaz) isn't too pleased with the delivery. And when the young men discover that they have a cache of stolen diamonds, they make a series of spectacularly bad decisions that lead to them chasing all over the city trying to sell the diamonds and, later, recover them. Tossed in the mix is a colleague of Tashi's, the worldly Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan), whose homicidal ex-husband Rajiv (Rahul Singh) is violently jealous of Tashi - as if Tashi's life isn't complicated enough, an attraction is developing between him and Menaka.
Delhi Belly is, in an objective sense, a very good movie. It's well crafted, nicely paced, and genuinely funny at times (despite a generous helping of toilet humor). The three young men in their filthy apartment evoke a sort of parallel-universe version of Chashme buddoor, where post-modern ennui and bitterness replace the dreamy innocence of the trio in Sai Paranjpe's charming movie. The characterizations are mostly lively, even if the characters are not always likeable. The acerbic Menaka is especially appealing, though (partly because she is an older actor) she seems at times to belong to a different movie with more mature characters. Tashi is the least lively; he moves through the film in a nearly emotionless haze. This is probably intentional, as he seems rather buffeted and passive in his life, bullied into marriage by Sonia's family and shoved into a violent underworld he isn't at all prepared to handle. And so even his dazed performance is engaging in its own way.
And yet, despite Delhi Belly's strengths, I can't exactly say I enjoyed it. Usually I relish high-fidelity renderings of Indian life, and this movie offers a very unusual serving of that, with its young urban atmosphere, its salty language, and its open, realistic, and often funny sexuality. But perhaps I am simply too old for a movie like this one. There are for sure some Hindi movies I like more than I would like their Hollywood counterparts, simply because they are Hindi movies. Delhi Belly, though, is mostly in English, and while I can take some interest in it as an Indian movie, perhaps the overwhelming ways in which it is a youth movie leave me, teetering on the brink of middle age as I am, somewhat cold.
Then there is the question I raised in the opening paragraph - what would I do in Tashi's situation? The characters in Reamde do violence I could never imagine myself doing, but in the simple morality of that story the correctness of their actions is never really in question. In Delhi Belly, by contrast, Tashi and his friends, motivated entirely by selfishness, take steps that ensure their bad situation gets worse and worse. While that could arguably add an interesting shade to what is essentially an absurd sort of comedy, it does make it harder for me to root for them unconditionally. And that leaves me feeling that I missed the point - that if I were younger, with nothing to lose, I would sympathize with them and be more willing to get into the spirit of the movie.