Saturday, February 21, 2009

Capital Interest

The last few years have seen Delhi turning into a veritable hot-spot for Hindi filmmakers. Sandhya Iyer explores the reasons

What is it about our capital that drives more and more present-day filmmakers to use it as setting for their films?Delhi, with its wondrous forts, lush gardens, not to forget cultural oddities, blatant materialism and class divide, makes a rather cinematic and colourful location no doubt. But beyond the obvious, there seem to be more reasons why Delhi is featuring so constantly in our movies these days. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the feeling of nostalgia that the place evokes in our new breed of young directors. But clearly, the city - viewed both as the political capital and major commercial and cultural metropolis—assumes greater significance in terms of offering an archetype for India itself.

Let’s start by looking at the rather long list of films that have used Delhi as its setting in recent times. It kickstarted in a big way with Rang De Basanti and Fanaa in 2006, where the city was captured in all its architectural splendour. Then came Dikaber Banerjee and Jaideep Sahni’s dark comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla, a superb take on Delhi middle-class and the builder mafia. Dibaker revisited the capital again for his next, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, capturing Old Delhi, peppering it with colloquial lingo and lampooning its inhabitants. In between there was the college caper Dil Dosti Etc and Jimmy Shergill starrer Delhi Heights, which didn’t make much of an impact.This year, we’ve already had Chandni Chowk To China Manoj Bajpai’s Jugaad (note the ‘Delhiness’ of the title itself) and Dev D. And this week we have Rakeysh Mehra’s Delhi 6, a film that the director refuses to catagorise as a Delhi-centric film. According to Mehra, the theme would find a resonance anywhere in India, Delhi being the epicenter. And it doesn’t look like our filmmakers are going to tire of the capital city any time soon. Later this year, there will be Aamir Khan’s raunchy comedy, Delhi Belly (the title sits perfectly for a place that boasts of some of the most scrumptious street fares).So what exactly does this city offer that has prompted so many films to use it as a setting and even name their films after Old Delhi’s famous bylanes?

Even as one delves into why Delhi delights Bollywood, there is another valid debate that needs to be included here. Is the shift towards Delhi a shift away from Mumbai – the very heart and soul of India and Bollywood itself? For all this while, Mumbai has been the ultimate symbol of aspirational India – the Maximum City that never sleeps. But now the city’s backdrop post the riots in 1993 and the terror attacks appears to be vastly altered and thereby the kind of films we’ve seen based on the city have also been mostly angst-ridden. There’s been Mumbai Meri Jaan, Aamir, A Wednesday, Black Friday – all about a city that is struggling to keep itself alive.

Hence, is Delhi emerging as the cinematic alternative to Mumbai in some ways?“Capitals are somewhat chauvinistic places! As is Washington to New York so is Delhi to Mumbai. The latter after the glorious 70s period started fading. Eventually it returned in the 90s as gangland and really the representation of the ‘ugly’ metropolis. With Delhi, I think of it as capital and hence the site of the ’state’ in a very literal sense has been surging in cinema as the country itself makes headway in a global sense,” observes film buff and writer, Kaleem Hasan.Which is also precisely one of reasons why films tackling broader issues like socio-political conflict (Rang De Basanti, Delhi 6) would be looking at a figure head state and Delhi offers that representation.

However, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who saw an unlikely success in Dev D last month, believes there is no Delhi ‘fixation’ and filmmakers are only choosing the capital because it’s a trip down memory lane for many of them. “Everyone is seeing a lot of Delhi suddenly because there has been an influx of filmmakers who are from outside Mumbai and have a connection with Delhi. So rather than setting their film in some fantasy land, they’d rather go back to their roots. I mean I did my college from Delhi, so I’d like to revisit that in my film some day,” he views.
Also Kashyap does not really see a connection between the city and the subject, which means he is not willing to necessarily view Mumbai as a changed city in terms of what it represents. “My subject could turn any place into an angst-ridden one, it doesn’t have to be Mumbai. If Debakar (Banerjee) is making the kind of films he does, it’s because he has a funny, cynical bone in him, and that applies to most others,” he says.

Delhi’s cinematic significance also stems from the fact that the place abounds in rich expressions of Hindi and Punjabi that lends it a unique flavor. Hindi in many ways is the ‘decider’ when it comes to choice of setting. Rarely are films set in states that do not have a Hindi-speaking tradition, which essentially means that only the Hindi heartland and to some extent Mumbai are even considered for a setting. And this is where, Delhi with its eminence and ethos offers the perfect North Indian template. And with the new lot of directors all having a strong connection to Delhi, it’s unlikely that Bollywood will be able to shrug off its utterly ‘Punjabified’ avatar any time soon.

Jaideep Sahni, who has written films like Khosla Ka Ghosla and Aaja Nachle, believes it is natural for storytellers to express the most universal things when they find them in their mother cultures, because that’s where their connection to human emotions and circumstances is the strongest. “I think it’s a good thing for whatever culture you may be from to show up in your work. Where else will it show if not in your work?” he asks.
“If you see dialects of Hindi sub-cultures in Hindi films over last forty years, they have been from Urdu to Mumbai-cosmo to UP-Bihar belt to Punjabi, and now a broad-based metro Hindi. There’s no grand conspiracy theory behind the rise or fall of any one of these I think, at least I haven’t seen any. It’s just that Hindi films will have various dialects of Hindi because they are Hindi films.”

But wouldn’t too much of Delhi or the North start to feel repetitive after a while? “Yes, if all films start being about the same kind of people or cultures or even genres, it’s no fun, but I don’t think that’ll happen, because I don’t really see any intention anywhere around me to push a culture or sub-culture, especially in the mainstream. It’s just a lot of folks doing what they like, whether this or that,” he views.

So is language at the core of Hindi cinema and will most other states remain untapped? This only time will tell but Kaleem Hasan certainly thinks more places can be looked into. “I would love to see new sites explored. Why not have a film set in Ahmedabad? This has been one of the great industrial cities of India…. Bangalore would again be a good city to explore the Dil Chahta Hai kind of universe given the tech boom began here. Hyderabad is another old city/new city paradigm and this city is a kind of bridge between ‘north’ and ’south’. Really there are lots of cities to explore. It’s just the paucity of imagination on the part of Mumbai filmmakers that prevents this from happening.”

But for now, it is Delhi that is the toast of Bollywood and from the looks of it the capital city has far from exhausted its stock.


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