The pile of films about India’s Capital is unusually small, given the number of film-makers, actors, writers, technicians and lyricists who have migrated from or passed through Delhi to seek employment in the Mumbai dream factory, and also given the number of reputed academics and scholars cogitating on the past, present and future of popular Hindi cinema. The pile is characterized largely by native town cinema that is set in neighbourhoods touched, but not ruffled, by globalization. It’s hardly surprising that Delhi’s older localities, filled with characters and character, provide cinematic inspiration, but the city’s reputation for intrigue, power-brokering, carpet-bagging and political manoeuvring remains maddeningly underexplored.

One of the best films to confirm Delhi’s image in the eyes of the rest of the country is from nearly 30 years ago. Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times is so self-consciously in the Alan J. Pakula conspiracy trilogy mode that you half expect Warren Beatty to emerge from under the Connaught Place arches. But Sharma makes a fine fist of material inspired by 1970s American cinema, and successfully Indianized the pressures faced by a conscientious newspaper editor. Various disreputable men in white kurtas hide behind their shawls and intrigue away for electoral gain, leaving Shashi Kapoor’s Vikas Pande, the handsomest editor in the business, to pay the price for his curiosity and honesty.

Not too many films have managed to recreate New Delhi Times’ suitably paranoid atmospherics, the handiwork of legendary cinematographer Subrata Mitra. But then not too many films have tried to unravel Delhi’s mystique either. Mumbai, or should we say Bombay, has been ripped threadbare on the screen—its streets, slums, high-rises, cooperative residential societies, chawls, gangster dens, ghettos, discothèques, dance bars, film sets, promenades, beaches, trains, buses and taxis have all been poked and prodded for decades.

Kolkata too has been similarly well-served by its film-makers, but Delhi as muse is still in its infancy. Several high-profile film-makers, from Mira Nair to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, have painted loving portraits of the city. Directors and writers have played up its Punjabi heritage, transplanting stories that might have been set a decade ago in New Jersey or London to Karol Bagh. They have wandered through its campuses and sampled student politics. They have romanced the city’s imposing architecture and have also hung around Chandni Chowk and celebrated its narrow lanes and higgledy-piggledy architecture. At least one, the low-budget and highly enjoyable Let’s Enjoy, made in 2004, put the city’s infamous farmhouse party scene on the screen.

Only Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla! and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!—the latter more than the former—have successfully subverted the cutefication of Delhi and presented a more unsavoury and criminal side. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, especially, makes interesting links between aspiration, globalization and crime, and presents an amoral face of the Capital that is more in tune with the headlines. Mumbai has produced its share of movies with inhuman capitalists, crooked politicians and grubby-handed politicians colluding to destroy the city, but why aren’t these films emerging out of Delhi? Perhaps film-makers from or with connections to Delhi who are keen on asserting their roots in an alienating metropolis like Mumbai don’t want to tinker with their memories. Perhaps they’re too busy fondly remembering the lives they (presumably gratefully) left behind to question their nostalgia. Perhaps they want to settle the Delhi versus Mumbai debate once and for all.

Or perhaps this is a function of Delhi, the ultimate insider city which functions on cliques, networks, mutually beneficial relationships and sycophancy, so that the deeper you go, the more difficult it is to comment on or expose your friends—much in the same way that Mumbai film-makers are generally unable to make honest self-reflexive movies about the film industry. It’s like a scene out of Rana Dasgupta’s non-fiction book Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, in which he speaks in circles and generalities, changes the names of characters and implicates everybody and nobody in particular, all along providing the illusion of revelation. The Great Delhi Rope Trick is an old game, and remains the city’s best-kept secret.

This fortnightly column tries to make sense of news, one movie at a time.

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