Matchstick men and monkeys

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Love ties Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor

THERE IS a simple yogic discipline with which director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra begins each day. He visualises himself dead, his body burning on a funeral pyre. The inevitable vanishing. It is a daily cleansing of vanity, a profoundly liberating routine Mehra could probably not have done without these past three years. It has given him perspective. Life breath. Set him free.

Laying a golden egg can be a kind of paralytic entrapment. Mehra certainly was a candidate for that. Three years ago, he had quietly released a film devoid of the extravagant announcements Bollywood films love. It wasn’t expected to go anywhere. His first, Aks, spoke of stylish sensibility but had lacked narrative coherence. The new one starred Aamir Khan but otherwise had an ensemble cast of newcomers and relative unknowns. It was also the fifth film on Bhagat Singh that season.

No one could have expected it, but within hours of its release, Rang de Basanti began to snowball through electric word of mouth into a major Indian phenomenon. It was a scorcher of a film — high octane, infectious, inspired. Mehra had started out simply to tell the story of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah and Ramprasad Bismil — the keen-hearted nationalists that had moved his youth. But when he found their heroic stories had lost resonance for the contemporary young — a material generation unconcerned with ideas of country, justice and the lives of others — he wisely went back to the drawing board.

RDB became a story of intense contemporary self-discovery and as its young protagonists journeyed from silly gags and irreverent exuberance to a deepening engagement with the operations of power, Mehra seemed to unlock the sleeping idealism of an entire generation. In an age where image dominates reality, RDB became a kind of cinematic manifesto for the concerned citizen. People began to talk about corruption, joining politics, “doing something for the country”. When the courts acquitted Manu Sharma that year, key accused in the high-profile murder of Jessica Lall, the urban elite poured into India Gate in both an exhilarating and eerie replay of scenes from the film. Candle lit vigils. Impromptu speeches. Fervour. These were just some of the many cascading effects of the film. Caught in its tailwind, Mehra rode a heady journey. It changed his world. It changed him.

Three years later comes the challenge of the second act. The potentially crippling scrutiny: What after Rang de Basanti? This week, Rakeysh Mehra’s third film Dilli 6 will release worldwide. The mental yoga — the daily stripping of vanity and fear — has obviously paid off. Mehra has dared to make a film radically different from RDB. Far from its bloodpounding pace and high voltage action, Dilli 6 is a small canvas, highly personal film, a sort of love song to an idea of home and place. A snatch of a love song.

Set in the claustrophobic arteries of Chandni Chowk — the landscape of Mehra’s childhood — Dilli 6 is more about people, less about plot. It unfurls slowly — almost dangerously slowly — setting up an intricate tapestry of characters and relationships. Annapurnaji (played by Waheeda Rehman) is an ailing, graceful old lady brought back from America by her grandson to die where her heart is: in her crumbling old home in old Delhi. Around her, around this home, bustles a tight molecular whirl of neighbourly relationships: warring brothers who have driven a wall through their house, a 75- year old moneylender with a 25-year-old bride, a Muslim corner storeowner, a feisty low caste sweeperess, the galli idiot, the galli cop. And then there is the neighbourhood itself — the most looming character in the film. The warren of houses and crisscrossing terraces. The claustrophobic proximities, the intertwined lives, the easy slip-sliding between love and hate.

“This was a very difficult film for me to make,” says Mehra, “I had the script under my pillow for years, but I thought I wasn’t mature enough to make it because the film is not plot driven, it is a fabric. Each character is a different thread woven into various patterns. And that is really how a society is. After RDB, I had three options. I had a script for a tragic love story, a mythical caper called Panch Kauravs and Dilli 6. I thought why not make this now — it is a world I know inside out.”

The intimacy is the film’s strength: Mehra’s father grew up in a house with a wall driven through it; Annapurnaji is modeled on his own mother, and Mehra himself lived in mohallas that had a gate at the end of every galli. The textures of the film are drawn from this gut. “There was a kind of paranoia in these places,” says he. “People were really closely knit, but there was always this underlying tension. At the tiniest provocation, people would lose their sanity and show their true colours.”

PARANOIA, LOSS of sanity, India’s capacity for anarchic violence — these are the powerful themes Dilli 6 captures in its second movement. Its triumph is that it captures not just the anger but the comic bathos. A mysterious black monkey has been terrorising the city. As the media leaps on the story with voracious zeal, the idea of the monkey grows in the imagination. From monkey to poltergeist. Soon, in typical Indian fashion, as anything can become the match that lights a communal keg, a fight over the monkey leads to a Hindu-Muslim riot. Neighbours who had been shouldering life together, suddenly turn on each other in murderous hate. Caught in its eddy are Roshan and Bittu — Annapurnaji’s American grandson, played by Abhishek Bachchan and the vivacious girl-next-door played by Sonam Kapoor.

Set to haunting music by AR Rahman and Prasoon Joshi, Dilli 6 has a curious fable-like quality. Its story could stand in for other places and other people across the country. The black monkey then is no more than a metaphor for the rage within. On hindsight, the slow unfurling of the first half is almost necessary for one to feel the shock of how quickly it can all implode. Peace in India is often no more than a fairy tale.

Dilli 6 may not have the blistering impact of RDB, but it will leave its imprint. After Aks, Mehra says he made himself one promise: Never tell a story unless you are dying to tell it. Dilli 6 is certainly a story he has wanted to tell. This is what sets Mehra apart. •

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.

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