A recent Outlook India piece by Sunil Menon (one that also happened to mention this blog, I'm delighted to say) lamented the absence of a sense of place in many Hindi films. Traditionally, Menon argues, geographical realism yields to movie magic, be it in masala films that are "officially headquartered in cloud-cuckoo-land (with branches in Switzerland)," or even in more serious films that make only passing invocation of locale through picture-postcard shots of landmarks.
But my own experience of Hindi movies of late has been quite different from this. From Kahaani's vibrant Calcutta, to Chhoti si baat's bustling Bombay, and even Tere ghar ke samne's romantic traipse up and down the spire of Qutub Minar, I have felt exquisitely connected to locale in many movies I have watched in recent months. Almost certainly this is a lingering effect of my first trip to India, taken earlier this year, which converted many of the colors and locales of the movies from flat scenery to real, swirling, sensual associations in my mind. One of the most potent experiences I had - one that made India pop off the movie screen and into the rest of my senses - was a bicycle-rickshaw ride and walk through Chandni Chowk on just the second full day of my trip. Rakeysh Omprasad Mehra's Delhi-6 whirls through those very same churning streets, and watching this excellent movie closes the feedback loop of my experience - watching Hindi movies has made India a fascination for me of limitless depth and life, and seeing India inperson has made Hindi movies breathe with a new vivacity.
Annapurna (Waheeda Rehman) has been living with her son and his family in New York for many years, but her only wish is to return to her home in Delhi and spend the end of her life there. Her grandson Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) takes her there, and meets the extended family of relatives and neighbors who welcome Annapurna back into their crowded Chandni Chowk lives. Roshan is thrilled by the sensory overload of the neighborhood, the brilliant pageantry of the Ram Leela plays, the broad spectrum of people he meets there. He makes a bumpy adjustment to the realities of life in old Delhi - city streets choked by the holy spectacle of a cow giving birth, the arbitrary exercise of power (and reaping of baksheesh) by the police. He is caught up, too, in the fear and excitement that grips the city because of seemingly random capers of an enigmatic assailant, Kala Bandar (the black monkey). As Roshan gets pulled deeper into the mystery of Kala Bandar, he becomes a part of Delhi 6, and Delhi 6 becomes a part of him.
Among the many pleasures of Delhi-6 is Roshan's broad sense of wonder as he greets the tumult of Chandni Chowk for the first time. As Roshan gazes across the crowd and exclaims "Awesome!", I can't help but share in that wonder and relive it with him. Roshan is a foreigner, despite his family roots in the community - he grew up in America, speaks Hindi only as well as is expedient for the story, and greets the city and its inhabitants with wide-eyed fascination (and occasional indignation) that is palpably identifiable to a firang like myself.
The people Roshan meets there provide the texture that brings the location to life. Central among these is a close family friend, the avuncular Ali Baig (Rishi Kapoor), one of the wealthier inhabitants of the neighborhood, who becomes a father figure and confidant to Roshan. Rishi Kapoor is delightful in this role, a more natural performance than his scene-chewing in Luck by Chance. Less loveable but just as compelling is the cranky Madangopal (Om Puri), father of Bittu (Sonam Kapoor), who hides her makeup and navel-piercing from her family and dreams of Bombay and stardom. Madangopal's ambitious but somewhat stupid brother Jaigopal (Pavan Malhotra) teases the apparent simpleton Gobar (Atul Kulkarni), who of course turns out to be smarter and wiser than anyone gives him credit for. A sinister money-lender (Prem Chopra) wields his power and influence like the jeweled walking-stick he carries. The sweet-shop owner Mamdu (Deepak Dobriyal) greets Roshan with overflowing warmth and offers of sweets; he declares, "Bhookh mitane ke liye kutte khate hain - insaan khaate hain jodne ke liye." (Dogs eat to sate hunger - people eat to bond with each other.)
I adore this sort of neighborhood ensemble cast that brings to a movie a vibrancy, an essence, a palpable sense of life in a particular place. This was something I loved, too, about Shyam Benegal's Welcome to Sajjanpur - and here, as in that movie, Divya Dutta once again utterly fascinates in a very brief but completely riveting role. She plays Jalebi, a low-caste woman who collects trash and, with a compelling mixture of viciousness and sadness, harrasses neighborhood boys who cringe superstitiously away from her. And she is a harbinger of the divisive mentality that lurks below Chandni Chowk's affable surface.
The people generate the pulse of Chandni Chowk, all these religiously, ethnically, economically diverse souls cramped together in the narrow galis of the old city. And they live together in relative harmony, until the tension of Kala Bandar drives wedges between them, splintering the neighborhood. Roshan, of course, ultimately helps to repair the shattered community. But he is not so much the prodigal savior, as is Shah Rukh Khan's character in Swades. Roshan is not a smarmy hero, swooping in with great knowledge from the West to rescue the backward locals. Instead, he is something of an accidental savior. After his initial tourist reaction to Delhi 6 subsides - and when internecine tension threatens to set the neighborhood ablaze - his first instinct is to flee back to the comfort of the US. But finally, moved by love (both for Annapurna and for Bittu), Roshan sees, and takes, an opportunity for self-sacrifice.
It is a very satisfying character arc, in a very satisfying movie. Roshan's growth, the superb cast of richly diverse and colorfully sketched characters, the swirling sense of Chandni Chowk, the beautiful array of A.R. Rahman's songs, all combine and resonate with my own memories of Delhi, for a movie I am sure I will return to whenever I want to relive my thrilling afternoon in Delhi 6.