Chalo Dilli is the latest Hindi release to adapt an established Hollywood genre—the road movie in this case—to an Indian context. The film is about an urbane woman who has to undertake a journey with a small-town hick. She drags on Virginia Slims, he chomps Gopal zarda. You get the picture. Without having seen Chalo Dilli, we can safely predict that the mismatched couple will spend 50% of the film bickering, 30% overcoming a common hurdle, and 20% dealing with the beating of their hearts.
The road movie is a quintessentially American genre that came up in the 1960s as a response to the popularity of automobiles and the growing disenchantment with suburban living. By that logic, the Indian road movie should have kickstarted when the Golden Quadrilateral project took shape in the 2000s. The newly built highways resulted in several road trips by city slickers, but they haven’t inspired too many films. The redoubtable Ram Gopal Varma, who used to have the knack of picking up on Hollywood genres faster than the rest, did make a road movie or two (Daud, Go), but he threw in far too many extraneous elements (gangsters, comedy, romance) for the genre to stick. Dev Benegal tried last year to put his own stamp on the journey film (and on the English language) with Road, Movie, but it was a non-starter. Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara will revisit the genre that has taken several turns since the days of Easy Rider.
Hot wheels: A poster of Chalo Dilli
Also read | Nandini Ramnath’s earlier column
Quite a few Hollywood genres simply don’t work in India, but that doesn’t stop Bollywood from trying. We love watching heist films, especially when they star George Clooney. But most Hindi directors equate suaveness with the ability to wear a suit. Then there is the larger issue of credibility. A heist movie is about a bunch of clever folks breaking into an impregnable fortress (a government vault, a well-guarded casino). Why go through all that trouble in India, where a few well-placed bribes can get you what you want?
Horror films have a better chance, given our rich literary heritage of ghosts and shape-shifting creatures. The Ramsay Brothers single-handedly kept the horror film alive through the 1970s and the 1980s, but their films are unfortunately remembered mostly for tacky production values. Once again, Varma showed with Bhoot that a horror movie didn’t have to be set in a cobweb-infested mansion to succeed. Bhoot is a chilling suburban tale that plays on the fears of anybody who lives in Mumbai’s faceless high-rises. The romcom has had greater success, especially among young audiences who’ve been fattened on a diet of Hollywood films and satellite television. The husbands-in-peril movie has also found resonance in India. Beleaguered married men who can’t wait to cheat in such films as No Entry and Masti have tapped reservoirs of audience sympathy.
The gangster genre found renewed relevance in the 1990s, when clashes between Mumbai’s underworld and the police force made news. But the most interesting genre that’s developing in Mumbai is the globalization film. Although most film-makers seem too dazzled by India Shining to react to massive economic changes with nuance, a handful of film-makers such as Dibakar Banerjee, Anusha Rizvi and Habib Faisal are questioning its hollowness. Another genre that can work perfectly in India is the conspiracy thriller, in which a lone man or woman takes on the might of an array of crooked politicians and business interests. In an age of Commonwealth Games scams and the spectrum scandal, Indians will believe anything about their rulers. Most notably, until a few years ago, most Hindi films were mashed beyond recognition in the masala film grinder. But now the masala film has become a genre, beloved only to specialized practitioners such as Rajkumar Hirani and Farah Khan.
Chalo Dilli releases in theatres on 29 April.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org