The Delhi (Under)Belly of Indian cinema

The Delhi (Under)Belly of Indian cinema

Delhi finds a new cinematic expression in a resurgent and confident India.

Nadim Asrar
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Remember Marine Drive where a little boy kicking a tin can metamorphoses into a brooding Amitabh Bachchan in Ramesh Sippy's Shakti? Or Juhu or Chowpatty on whose beaches numerous screen lovers swore by their love by serenading to their leading ladies? Remember Mud Island where the cache of gold and drugs would land for Bollywood's immortal bad guys from Ajit to Amrish Puri? Or the dingy and dark bylanes of the city that formed the backdrop in numerous gangster films together constituting a genre called Bombay Noir? In fact, it could easily be argued that the city, with its climate, crime and capital was the perfect site for what came to be known as Bollywood.

However, I don't know if you have noted this, but I find something curious happening with the Indian cinema – the slow but definite disappearance of Mumbai (or Bombay, to be more precise cinematically) from the Indian films and the simultaneous filling of that space by the national capital, Delhi (both New and Old). Actually, the phenomenon is not so recent. It started a few years ago with films like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti which he soon followed with Delhi 6. But the trend has recently acquired a force that may give birth to a whole new genre in Bollywood: the Delhi cinema. Think about the volume: Delhii Heights, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Dev.D, Love Aaj Kal, Do Dooni Chaar, No One Killed Jessica, Aisha, Band Baaja Baraat, and of course, Delhi Belly (I am sure I missed a few).

Three disclaimers before we move on. To be anxious about the replacement of a metropolis by another in films is to assume that cinematic texts are essentially 'real'. Of course, I don't mean that. What I mean is that Bombay provided the flexibility the cinematic texts needed to present themselves both as 'real' as well as 'imagined. The chawls and slums – and even the police stations of Mumbai – would be known by all kinds of imaginative names in Bollywood films. Fiction was superimposed on facts, creating a nebulous reality – the hallmark of cinematic pleasure.

Second, it's not that Delhi was never represented earlier. It always was. But the positioning of the national capital was done in a recognizable way. In other words, while Mumbai had the flexibility to blend into both the realist as well as the fantasy genre, Delhi, with its power, politics and Parliament, was patronized more by the realist school. In New Delhi Times, Shashi Kapoor as the Editor is shown dealing with the machinations of state power.

Delhi-based filmmakers like Sai Paranjpe and Shekhar Kapoor did tell their stories with the national capital as a backdrop. But Bombay remained the city where the action was.

Third, before Mumbai and Delhi, there was Kolkata (or Calcutta). Do you know how Bombay cinema came to be known as Bollywood when, logically, it should have been Bommywood, or something like that? The story goes like this. In the early years of the 20th century, Tollygunge near Calcutta used to be a major site of film production. An American engineer, working on a Hollywood production, wrote to his friends that he is working in Tollywood! Later when Bombay became the center, it became Bollywood after Tollywood and not Bommywood!

Almost two decades ago, the government did make an effort to start a parallel film industry in Delhi. The satellite town of Noida was chosen as the site with large tracts of land given to various Bombay studios to start productions in Delhi. The productions never started and for the longest time, the sites given to studios were used to host lavish weddings! The area, still called Film City, is now the hub of various TV channels.

So why did the Indian cinema move north? I can think of two reasons. Along with 8 per cent growth rate and an expanding list of indigenous Forbes billionaires came a sense of national pride. As the nation became more confident and consolidated, the national capital found a new expression. It became the site for the imagined and the real, the smart and the surreal. Delhi became the template on which a nation would toy with the idea of its future. A film like Delhi Belly doesn't even have to foreground its Delhiness (if you will). No tracking shots across Red Fort or India Gate, no chase on Rajpath, not even a shot at the Dilli Haat. We have reached a stage where the filmmakers do not have to wear Delhi on their sleeves. Delhi's position is, finally, consolidated as the new site of Indian cinema.

Second, the emergence of Delhi coincides with the rise of a new sensibility in Indian cinema. If Mumbai as a culture of production is hackneyed and old-school now, Delhi comes across as new and vibrant. That also explains why the Delhi repertory is also one of the most exciting and experimental in recent times. Delhi cinema, to conclude, is a reflection of the rise of the new India.

Postscript: In celebrating Delhi as a new sensibility, one can't help lamenting on the way Indian cinema has become urbanized with English names and dialogues and a predominantly middle-class audience. Whatever happened to our villages? Doesn't India, as they say, live there?

(The writer is Editor, News Features, at ibnlive.com)

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