Sunday, February 22, 2009

Delhi 6 - Ode to a City

It was Mohammed Ibrahim Zauq’s love for the city of Delhi (old Delhi – Shahjahanabad - to be precise) that resulted in that gem of a she’r

इन दिनों गर्चिह दखन में है बहुत क़द्र-ए-सुख़न
कौन जाए ‘ज़ौक़’ पर दिल्ली की गलियाँ छोड़ कर

(In dinon garchih dakhan mein hai bahut qadr-e-sukhan
Kaun jaaye ‘Zauq’ par Dilli ki galiyan chhod kar
Agreed, there are many patrons of poetry in Deccan these days
But who, ‘Zauq’, wants to leave the by-lanes of Delhi)

It is the same love for this city of contradictions that Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra displays so warm-heartedly in his latest Delhi-6. The second-line of the couplet above goes beyond being just a line mouthed by one of the many lovable characters of Delhi-6. The sense of nostalgia the director has towards a city he has grown up in is clearly evident if each and every frame, each and every passage of the film. It is this love that makes him (with the able support of his cameraman Binod Pradhan) see the chaotic by-lanes of Chandni Chowk as a picture of beauty. The Chandni Chowk of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 is visually arresting. Almost as if the immortal lines below were written by him, not the legendary Mir Taqi 'Mir'.

दिल्ली के न थे कूचे औराक़-ए-मुसव्विर थे
जो शक्ल नज़र आई तस्वीर नज़र आई

(Dilli ke na the kooche auraaq-e- musavvir the
Jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi
The by-lanes of Delhi were but a painter’s canvas
Every face I saw, was like a painting)

Interestingly, what might be the director’s rose-tinted vision of nostalgia is perfectly in sync with the NRI protagonist’s vision of Indian exotica.

While scripting this ode to the city where he grew up, Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra together with co-writers Kamlesh Pandey and Prasoon Joshi, create a rich tapestry of myriad ‘real’ characters and heart-felt vignettes. Almost every character, irrespective of the length or its role in the larger scheme of things, is written with utmost care. Even the most clichéd stock-characters like the feuding brothers (Om Puri and Pawan Malhotra) or the cunning moneylender (Prem Chopra) has a veracity that rings true. And the actors embodying those characters further add an element of believability.

In a way, Rakeysh Mehra’s Dilli-6 is a microcosm of India, the very embodiment of the cliché of Unity in Diversity. One of my earliest memories of Chandni Chowk is of watching on DD the Prime Minister’s address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort every year on 15th August. Almost like a routine every year, the commentator (mostly Jasdev Singh) would underscore the point about unity in diversity where a temple, a mosque, a gurudwara and a church would occupy the same space in an aerial shot of the area. In Delhi-6, Rakeysh Mehra expands on the same through its characters and incidents.

Even when the writers create characters and sequences that we have seen so many times before, he adds so much more to them that it doesn’t make them seem like horrible stereotypes. For example, there’s nothing new about the two quarrelling brothers who have built a wall bang in the middle of their courtyard because they can’t agree with each other. But, just look at the way how their dispute is established through two noteworthy scenes – one, where at a jagran, the two brother literally start playing the game of one-upmanship by out-shouting each other while singing a bhajan, and the second, where the elder brother rubbishes the younger brother’s theory of how to tackle the menace of the kala bandar. It is also such a delight to see that while the brothers can’t seem to see eye to eye, the womenfolk of their family maintain a semblance of togetherness (another way of exemplifying unity in diversity), so while the men are always at loggerheads, the womenfolk go through the daily chores like making pickles on the terrace or singing folk songs together. The missing brick in the wall between them, and the common terrace becomes the metaphor for unity.

Apart from the characters, one very important aspect of this intricately woven tapestry is A. R Rahman’s superlative score. The songs are not used as breaks in the narrative as a relief or an excuse for a bio-break for the audience. All the songs are woven inextricably into the narrative. The picturization of Dir Gira Kahin Par Daf’atan, is a masterstroke from the point of view of conceptualization and execution. So is Rehna Tu Hai Jaisa Tu, which is used in a way one would never expect – as an ode to a city rather than a routine love song.

Like all good things must come to an end, Rakeysh Mehra’s exquisite tapestry comes horribly undone towards the end of the film. Almost as if the writers developed cold feet about going all the way with a plot-less movie, so much so that they quickly introduce an element of a plot and bring it to such a hurried and messy conclusion that I just didn’t know where to look. The layers and subtlety of the film thus far, suddenly starts getting spelled out in a ridiculously literal way. The whole metaphorical significance of the mirror and the kala-bandar suddenly loses all its value once the characters start literalizing it by mouthing dialogues garnished by such heavy doses of corn and cheese that it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Much like a deliciously flavoured biryani that is being cooked slowly on a dum suddenly ends up tasting like instant khichdi. Add to that the unpardonable transformation into a pedantic message movie.

I would just like to erase the last 20 minutes of the film from my memory and retain just that part of the movie I fell hopelessly in love with (which is almost 3/4th of the whole film). And it is that part that has ensured that I will line-up at the nearest store as soon as the DVD of the film is out!