They have India Gate, but we have the Gateway of India (and Marine Drive, and the beaches). They have a real winter, but we have the more romantic monsoon. They run the country, but it is our taxes that subsidize the Claxon-fitted cars and government houses with garden patches in the front and servant quarters at the back. And so on.
Capital romance: Films such as Delhi-6 explore the city’s geography.
Until a few years ago, it was rather easy for Mumbaikars to stick their tongues out at Dilliwallahs. When it came to Hindi cinema, the question of rivalry didn’t even arise. Mumbai was where the movies were made—and often what the movies were about. If you wanted to work in the movies, you uprooted yourself, went to Mumbai and adopted the city’s creation myths and realities as your own. You set your stories on the city’s grimy streets, wrote dialogue that amplified its unique lingo, and embraced its farrago of characters as though you’d known them all your life.
Like so much else in the Hindi movie business, this too is changing. Whatever else Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6, which opened on Friday, achieves, it will prove that the Capital isn’t lacking in unique cinema-worthy characters and quirks to put on the big screen.
Mumbai isn’t in any danger of losing its importance as a hunting ground of cinematic imagination—we can’t imagine Slumdog Millionaire being made about any other city—but New Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar and Paharganj neighbourhoods are now matching Mumbai’s Dharavi in colour and character. Movies by directors and writers such as Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Jaideep Sahni and Mehra are pushing the idea that Delhi can provide muse material like Mumbai. Through the likes of Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Dev D, film-makers want to share their Delhi experiences and encounters with the rest of us.
Barring a few notable exceptions, Delhi has mostly served as a pretty backdrop or the setting for a story about large-scale corruption. Occasionally, a movie shifted the nation’s gaze away from Mumbai’s waterfronts and chawls. Among them was Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), an Oedipal drama set amid Delhi’s construction industry. Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times explored high-level political graft. The better-remembered films were the sunnier ones, among them Sai Paranjpye’s comedy Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983). Both films dived into Delhi’s middle-class neighbourhoods and came up with delicious details of life in the Capital, whether it was the capacious residences the characters lived in, the ethnic chic they sported or the light classical music and ghazals they swayed their heads to.
The new Delhi movies, too, focus on specifics rather than generalities. After sitting through Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, we can update our slang dictionaries. After watching Dev D, we can affect an acquaintance with Paharganj’s hip seediness.
Some credit for this phenomenon goes to Delhi’s Metro rail network, built ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which will take place in the Capital in 2010. Ranjani Mazumdar, associate professor of cinema studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that Mumbai’s extensive public transport system has traditionally driven the city’s imagination of itself as a thriving metropolis on the move. This is now happening in Delhi with the Metro.
“Delhi never embodied the flashiness, sense of adventure or pleasure associated with modern cities like Bombay or Calcutta,” Mazumdar says. She says that after economic reforms transformed the character of Delhi from a city of babus to a megapolis of white-collared professionals, “there has been a marking of the imagination of the city”.
This newfound imagination is spreading in many directions. Delhi has always been a city of painters, sculptors, poets and writers, but of late, it is equally known for its rock musicians and comic-book artists. Delhi is finally, dare we say it, cool.
Delhi’s gain has also been a result of Mumbai’s decline. Globalization arrived in the noughties and transformed Indian cities, especially Mumbai. The city’s mills all but disappeared, malls and multiplexes replaced open spaces, and towers replaced Mangalore-tiled chawls and pastel-coloured, four-storeyed buildings. Don’t point fingers at film-makers who don’t want to shoot in Mumbai any more: Sameness and ugliness are rapidly replacing uniqueness and quirkiness. With its dug-up roads and half-built flyovers and bridges, Mumbai looks like a work in progress whose chief architect has run away on a long vacation.
Delhi, by contrast, looks more and more interesting with every passing week. Traces of colonial India, Nehruvian India, Indira’s India and Manmohan Singh’s India overlap and throw up fascinating combinations and contrasts. If you want to be in the movie business, you won’t ever stop packing your bags for Mumbai. This time, though, you may leave something behind, and eventually return to reclaim it.
Nandini Ramnath is film editor, TimeOut Mumbai.
Delhi-6 released on Friday.
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org