Delhi-6: Articulating Utopian Desires

Sandip Bajeli

Zare zare main uska noor hain
Zaankh khood main von na tujhse door hain
Iskh hain usise to sabse iskh kar
Is ibadat ka yahi dastoor hain

(Every particle of dust has His presence
Look within He is not far away
If you love Him, love all
This is the only norm of the worship)

These opening lines in the film Delhi-6, directed by Rakeysh Mehra, emanates the idea that the path of spiritual bliss and peace can only be attained through loving God’s each and every creation. Spiritual love is a key link that can unite the adherents of different faiths into a common thread of humanity. The universal truth of all religion, it says, is love for humanity. In essence, this is the central idea that the film conveys.

spins an entirely unique, fresh and original idea to tell us how a ‘small’ issue can get blown out of proportion leading to serious implications in the society. It constructs a moral parable deploying one of the most inventive story-telling devices that Hindi cinema has ever seen to express its thematic concerns. As a mode of address it utilises the metaphor of Kala Bandar (Black Monkey) to examine our own human conditions and roots of conflict in contemporary society. It holds the mirror and tells us to look inward and confront our own demons (as symbolised by Kala Bandar). It is within us that good and evil vie with each other for supremacy and when human beings succumb to its appeal the evil side completely dominates us. In its triumph lay the failure of humanity to rise above greed, anger and hatred that has poisoned our soul. The attainment of the highest social ideal, which is the love for humanity, therefore necessitates an absolute triumph over our dark and evil impulses. The film tells us that the power to create a society of perfect human beings in a state of perfect balance lies within us.

The film is inspired out of a real life incident that took place a few years ago in Delhi when the city was plagued by the monkey menace. With the incident serving as the backdrop of the story the director weaves together multiple sub-plots into a single structure of narrative to showcase a wide range of human emotions of love, suffering, anguish and defiance. The film is a journey (both in an emotional and spatial sense) of a Non Resident Indian, (NRI) Roshan (Abhishek Bhachchan) the main protagonist, who visits India along with his grandmother Annapurna (Waheeda Rehman) to fulfill her last wish. She wants to reconnect with her roots before she takes her last breath. ‘Jahan Ki Mitti wahin mil jaye to accha hain’, she tells her grandson. It’s also her cherished desire to bring her family back home that immigrated long time back to US. And it gets partially fulfilled, ‘the ‘native’ (since the roots of Roshan is Indian) ‘returns back’. In Delhi-6, also known as Old Delhi, where Roshan’s ancestral house lies, the traditional character of the city comes out alive as the story unfolds. Mehraweaves such an authentic visual tapestry in all its infinite richness and diversities that it gives the film a realistic look. The city landscapes as defined by old historic monuments, open terrace houses, crowded narrow by-lanes, congested roads, vagabonds and stray animals all co-exist amidst the maddening chaos in this city-within-a-city. It’s truly the melting pot of diverse communities that characterises Chandni Chowk mélange. The film not only highlights the historic beauty of Chandni Chowk but it also, for a moment, fleetingly captures the homeless who are forced to spend their nights sleeping on the pavements. The appalling poverty coexisting with the island of prosperity is one of the real paradoxes of our society that baffle many. The dysfunctional democracy has many fault lines and there are visible signs of the caste oppression, gender division and communal prejudices all over but despite every thing the people are tied together in a unique matrix of social relations that makes them interdependent on each other. Interestingly, Roshan’s visits coincide with the appearance of ‘mysterious’ monkey, Kala Bandar (KB) that is creating havoc in the area. The whole idea amuses him as much as it disturbs him. The more he sees the more he becomes critically aware of the ills that plague society and the harsh realities that lie behind the appearances of the harmonious social whole.

On their arrival at the Delhi airport Ali Baig (Rishi Kapoor) an old acquaintance of the family welcomes them. As they enter the bustling streets Roshan is captivated by the sheer magnitude of the size of the crowd milling around, jostling for space. ‘Awesome’, is all he could say. If it is Mamdu (Deepak Dobriyal), the Muslim sweet-seller who offers him sweets as they enter Chandni Chowk it is the turn of local women who welcome them in a truly traditional style on their homecoming. The whole area seems to be electrified with the news of the Dadi and Roshan visit. Gobar (Atul Kulkarni) is ever ready to give his helping hand to Roshan and Dadismilingly. He acts as buffoon to make people laugh. Even though he displays rank casteist attitude towards ‘low’ caste, his social conservatism doesn’t come in conflict with his friendship with Mamduwho is a Muslim. Both Mamdu and Gobarstrike an instant chord with Roshan with their moral integrity and innocence. Interestingly Mamdu is shown to be a worshipper of Hindu God Hanuman and working also as a volunteer in Ramlilas. The construction of such a typical Muslim is a way Hindi cinema idealises a ‘good’ Muslim to be. As a representative of the unique Indian secularism he has to be an epitome of forbearance and tolerance and accommodative of Hindu cultural traditions and norms. It’s only towards the end that the stereotypical construction of a good Muslim gets disrupted and redefined. The film takes the audience to Chandni Chowk through Roshan’s eyes and maps out its unique social, cultural, history, and politics in all its myriad forms. Roshan is drawn to the diverse characters that live in the area. He comes across as a deeply sensitive soul who has an insatiable curiosity to learn about the people and their culture. The people live in their own moral universe with the remnants of feudalism which are still clinging to their social consciousness in a vice-like grip. The wind of modernity seems to have by-passed the area. The joint-family system still persists. Roshan's closest neighbours in the area are like the big extended family of two brothers Madangopal (Om Puri) and Jaigopal (Pawan Malhotra) who can’t see eye to eye with each other. A wall in the middle of their house marks the physical separation between the two families but the daily interaction between their wives and their sons goes on as usual. The representation of women in the film is in contrast with most of the mainstream films. Here they occupy a prominent place playing out diverse characters. The division of labour is starkly clear; while the women's place is fixed at the kitchen, the men play out their social role outside the home. They are the sole breadwinners. One of the most endearing characters in the film is Jalebi (Divya Dutta), the smart, gutsy dalit woman, who is a sweeper by profession and collects the garbage from homes. Since an outcaste is outside the pale of society it gives in a certain sense a licence to men to take liberty with her as they please but she is unafraid to deal with them. She freely uses coarse language and other invectives to deter their advances. She is also taken to be sexually more permissive and open due to her low caste status. But the irony is that as much as she is desired she is also repulsed as far as the social customs in dealing with low caste women goes. Bittu (Sonam Kapoor), the beautiful daughter of Madangopal, on the other hand is an expert in deftly negotiating through the various obstacles set by patriarchy to curtail women’s freedom. She has learnt the fine art of manoeuverability by which she can be both traditional and modern at the same time in her appearances. If Shashi (Geeta Bisht), the unmarried self-effacing aunty of Bittu, has spent her life meekly following the rules set by patriarchy, Bittu is just not content with living according to its dictates. She seeks to create her own identity even if it means clashing with the traditional mores. Growing up in a restrictive social milieu Bittu knows very well that there are few choices available to her and to pursue her big dreams there is no other option but to break free from the chains that tie her to the social customs and norms. As a personification of cosmopolitan and progressive values Roshan is quite fascinated with the woman who often crosses swords with the traditional values system and remains unrepentant. For Roshan, Bittu represents a modern woman who wants to live a life in her own terms and not as someone’s appendage. Eventually, he falls for her but does not make it obvious to her. He is willing to confront the patriarchal authority for her sake and earn their ire but still could not muster enough courage to tell her about his feelings. Bittu also has a soft corner for Roshan but waits for him to express his truest feelings towards her first. Does the fear of breaking the traditional social-codes weigh on the minds of the characters so much that they have to hide their feelings till the last? The declaration of love by Roshan has to wait till the climax when Bittu decides to run away with Suresh (Cyrus Sahukar), the photographer, to Mumbai to pursue her dream of becoming an Indian Idol.

In the first half of the film the economy and rhythm loses a certain sense of balance with the succession of songs strung together combined with the long drawn spectacle of Ramlila utilised to create an emotion of identification with the characters and to establish them in their social-cultural context in the minds of the audiences. After the spectacular beginning the change of pace makes it a little tedious and takes it away from the main plot line. The film does succeed in transferring the menace of KB into the minds of audiences but does not maintain its tempo as far as the first half is concerned. The search for the elusive KB reaches a decisive stage in the second half. The electronic media hungry for news finds ample ways to keep the myth of KB alive with the stories about it travelling far and wide taking on a fantastic form. Soon KB is turned into a commodity by the market to sell their wide range of products named after it. The role of the police also comes into question during the whole affair. Due to its utter failure in preventing the ‘attacks’ it has already lost its legitimacy and the confidence among the people. They display neither the will nor the inclination to tackle the KB menace and in fact contribute in its myth-making exercise. Ranvijay (Vijay Raj), the area inspector, is a typical caricature of what the repressive face of the Police is all about. He is nothing less than a goonda in Khaki uniform targeting innocents and the upright people according to his whims and fancies. As the KB ‘attacks’ remain unabated the people of the area turn towards a Hindu Baba to find solution to the problem. With his entry the atmosphere gets vitiated in such a manner that people starts looking at the Kala Bandar’s menace through the prism of religion. It’s a shot in the arm for the religious fundamentalists of both the communities. The film is also about how communal stereotypes about the Other get manufactured and enter into the pores of our social fabric in all its subtleties to become part of the everyday discourse. The Baba aggravates it further by exhorting its followers to demolish the old mosque in the area as a solution to ward-off the problem posed by KB. This leads to further tensions in the area as it antagonises the Muslims. The turn of events in the film parallels the BJP/RSS agitation for the construction of Ram Mandir at Ayodhya that led to the demolishment of Babri Masjid. In that the film rightfully delineates how communal tensions erupt with the arrival of Hindutva forces in the scene. The ease with which Baba and their cohorts are able to utilize the religious contradiction among the people in pursuance of their vested interest is quite glaring. It points out to the fact that divisive forces can easily fill the political vacuum in the absence of a real political alternative and divert the attention from the real pressing problems to arouse the gullible Hindu masses. Roshan soon comes to a realisation that his identity of being born to a Muslim mother and Hindu father has become bigger than himself. The society he felt so proud of is being increasingly divided on the basis of religion. The geographic boundaries that divide both the communities turn into a mental barrier etching out a complete separation between the two thereby foreclosing any possibility of mutual dialogue and exchange. The society slowly slides down into regression. The cracks in the surface appear. Roshan, who has already implicated himself in the affairs of the people, cannot just remain a silent spectator to what’s happening all around him. The threat from those who want to alter its very character is real. Roshan makes a desperate last-ditch attempt to stop the society from tearing itself apart even if it means embracing death and it is through the churning process that Roshan finally rediscovers himself and finds his true calling.

It goes to the credit of Rakeysh Mehra that he does not taken the oft-beaten path (and the most convenient recourse) taken by Hindi cinema that seeks to valorise the ‘unique’ and eternally ‘tolerant’ Hindu value system in the narrative of communities. Even if it celebrates the strong kinships and loyalty that surrounds such communities governed by primordial feelings, it doesn’t do so uncritically. The film interrogates the oppression of patriarchy, caste and exposes the fragility of the communitarian ties. In that, it at least attempts to engage with the issues that the mainstream Hindi cinema has relegated to the margins. Even the enactment of Ramlila apart from resonating with rich symbolism serves as a device to explore the caste and gender issues and raise some uncomfortable questions along with it. But the most interesting aspect of the film is that it takes the resources from the reformist and progressive content of religion i.e.Bhakti-Sufi tradition as an antidote for the disease of religious fanaticism in all its guises. This inscription comes close to the Gandhian notion of secularism. For Delhi-6 the civil society, constituting people of diverse faith, itself becomes a site where the ideas about pluralistic cultural ethos are shaped and disseminated and the misappropriation of religion by a handful of others are countered. This articulation becomes both the strength and weakness of the film. The film though exposes the apathy of the state and its failure to protect the secular identity and values as obligated under constitution but unlike his earlier film, Rang De Basanti, Rakeysh Mehra in Delhi-6 chooses not to deploy the rhetoric of secular nationalism as against the exclusionary notion of nationalism of Hindu Right. It’s because the film draws an implicit faith in the ‘pluralistic’ strain in religion that can bring together all the communities for resolving their differences in an overarching cultural framework. While there is always a possibility for a inter-cultural dialogue and exchange among the communities who can utilise their own resources to maintain peace in the society but it could also act as a seriously limiting exercise if it is used as a sole homogenising principle to unite the people. The space cannot always be left open for the ‘communities to work out their problems in their own ways’ they could be strongly resistant to internal reforms and change betraying anti-democratic impulses, as the film clearly shows. Rustom Bharucha, in his The Politics of Cultural Practice, points out the dangers of valorising the innate strength of the indigenous people in their overall commitment towards preserving peace and harmony in society. He argues, ‘…one cannot fall back on the narrative of community to compensate for the failure of the state’. A problem like communalism doesn’t exist in a vacuum it has its own history and has a definite political purpose. It has to be confronted both at the cultural and political level. The film ultimately limits itself in its task since it views the problems like communal flare up in the society from the prism of a deeply individuated experience and reduces it to a psychological level i.e. when the demon of communalism resurrects in one’s mind society goes up in flames. The battle, therefore, has to be fought at ideational level only. This one-sided emphasis on the individual consciousness underplays the fact of how the plant of communalism, historically, has been nurtured, shaped and protected by the political and civic institutions, in particularly, the state. The fight for secular ideals will remain severely limited in its task if it fails to take into account the unfinished task of the democratic transformation of the Indian state.

Earlier, the open pronouncement by Bittu, about her said intentions to go to Mumbai, causes a minor upheaval in her family. It is simply unthinkable to them that women can pursue an independent career. Ultimately, the authority of patriarchy asserts itself to check Bittu’s growing belligerence. And it is decided to get Bittu married off. This is the only ‘punishment’ for Bittu for her attempted transgression. In traditional society marrying off his daughter is understood to be the biggest responsibility of the father. The film also deal with the vulnerability of a father, who otherwise wields so much authority at home, that comes into play when he has to organise dowry for his daughter. If it’s a distressing time for the family it’s literally a windfall for those who profit by it. In the film the unscrupulous moneylender, Lalaji (Prem Chopra) also fishes in the trouble waters to extract his pound of flesh. The film shows the persistence of pre-capitalist relations that still continue to shape and decide the content and direction of our socio-economic life. But nobody can choose Bittu’s fate other than her. The only way out left for her is to make an escape from patriarchy’s stranglehold.

While confronting the frenzied mob, towards the end, Roshan exhorts them to look inwards and find the god within. He points out the true essence of religion, which is the love for humanity after he is abused and pushed away from the temple due to his dual identity. This perhaps surmises the thematic concerns of the film. Roshanemerges as conscience keeper in a society that has become communalized to the core. He espouses a liberal humanistic religion rooted in Bhakti-Sufi tradition to resists the fundamentalist creed on both sides but fails to impact the prejudiced minds.  Hindu Right succeeds in their systematic demonisation of Muslims. The echo of ‘Kala Bandar is a Muslim terrorist’ in the film turns into a war cry to eliminate them. The stage is set for the final confrontation. In this way the film exposes the irrationality of the whole project of communalism. The incident in which Roshan is humiliated and pushed aside becomes a turning point in the film. He pledges to stay back much to the amusement of Ali Baig, who has now become his friend and guide. On being asked the reason why, ‘India works, the people works’, he says resolutely. But for the audience to identify with the character’s transformation there has to be a compelling motivation without which it will appear to them unconvincing and uninspiring. What are the reasons for his renewed conviction that has made him exude such a deep faith about the people and their future? The horrors of casteism, patriarchy and religious fundamentalism make him cringe yet he is brimming with undying optimism about the same people who practice it. It isgoing to work, since people are good. Why, because they are ‘our own people’. Isn’t it a bit of a romantic idea driven plainly by over sentimentalism? If it is Bittu factor that weighs in his mind than their chemistry in the narrative sub-plot has not been developed to the point of arriving at some logical conclusion about the reasons why he wants to stay back in India. India works despite everything seems to be the idea. Period!

In Chandni Chowk things reach to such a state that a communal riot breaks out. Neighbours attack neighbours. Muslim shops are looted and vandalised including that of Mamdu. The bond of trust and faith that existed over the years finally gets broken. Now it’s the time for fight back. The Muslim anger translates into burning down the tree that is worshipped by the Hindus to avenge the attacks. Baying for each other blood both sides emerge from their respective areas marked by huge imposing gates. But before even a single shot is fired the mob of Hindus and Muslims gets distracted by the sight of Kala Bandar jumping from terrace to terrace. Forgetting their immediate animosity they rush together to capture and kill their bigger enemy, Kala Bandar. When they finally get hold of it, it’s turned out to be Roshan. They beat him mercilessly. The accumulated anger finds its release. In the final act of defiance, when Roshan is being beaten and dragged, Bittuenvelops him and cover his body with hers to thwart the blows. Even though her piercing cry and wail of protest doesn’t make any impact on the crowd but the avowed and open display of love, in itself, becomes an act of subversion. This way Bittu’scharacter emerges even stronger than that of Roshan. Finally, Mamdu, who holds KB responsible for all his misfortunes, completes the task by shooting Roshan. The anger and hatred that gripped the crowd earlier gives way to shock and then to disbelief over the grim realisation of what their actions have led to. It is left to Gobar to enunciate why Roshan took such an extreme step of masquerading himself as Kala Bandar. Roshan took the plunge to save the society and for the love of Bittu, he tells everyone present. Gobar already had a realisation how his caste fellows are trying to make him a scapegoat at the altar of politics by forcing him to bring KB’s hair to be used in a ritual. The banality of the whole affair was clear to him. But he is powerless to resist them. It is only when Roshan gets shot that it gives him the courage to open his mouth. ‘There is no Kala Bandar, it’s only a state of mind’, he illuminates the truth about KB and what it connotes in real terms. Gobar elaborates further that these demons, at times, become so powerful that they take complete control of our minds and we are powerless to resists them. This invariably leads us on the path of self-destruction and we not only harm ourselves but society at large. It is finally Gobar, the simpleton, who has delivered the truth. For the people of the area this is a moment of serious soul-searching and self-introspection. There occurs a change of heart. As Roshan lies grievously injured they all rush forward to bring him back to life so as to cleanse themselves of any communal stains and prejudices. The vendor’s of violence, the main culprits, are left isolated and bewildered at the sudden turn of events. Roshan emerges from the brink of death and goes back to the parental embrace of the caste and class oriented society. He gets Bittu and reclaims his connection with the motherland. The rupture in the society disappears and it achieves inner peace.

As in Rang De Basanti (RDB), Rakeysh Mehra's preoccupation with an outside agency, trying to shake-off the social-conscience of a stagnant and apathetic society, finds a similar reverberation in Delhi-6 too. In both films, the British Sue (in Rang De Basanti) and the US born Roshan become directly and indirectly the catalysts of change. Even as the films run the risk of privileging the more scientific, rational and modern West over the traditional bounded, backward, fatalistic East, it nonetheless, constructs narrative strategies that betray neither a blind adherence to cosmopolitanism nor fall back upon the ‘ancient’ indigenous knowledge system as an alternative. It takes up the resources from our own history and culture to open up a debate about the direction in which the society is moving. Though both films share somewhat similar thematic concerns both spin an entirely different narrative ploy and its subsequent resolution. If RDB politicised a section of society provoking and forcing them to take a stand with its searing indictment of the corrupt, communal and criminal political class Delhi-6 serves to depoliticise the issues it highlights and offers a tamed and diffused ending quite along the lines of established genre conventions. Even as it achieves complete narrative closure in all sub-plots (considering the fact it has multiple characters and themes) it becomes overloaded and punctuated with an oft-repeated discourse on pluralism and diversities towards the end. It falls back on a slippery road and then slides down into an idealist swamp by invoking an apolitical liberal humanist prescription. In order to gain a ‘popular’ acceptance that neither disturbs nor offends anyone, it absorbs and accommodates all the simmering dissension within its patriarchal fold. Initially the film broadened its agenda when it incorporated the caste and gender dimensions in its body but towards the end these issues get subsumed in the larger quest to restore the imbalances created by the communal frenzy. Without interrogating the interconnection and linkages between various social problems the film highlights, it conflates all the issues as one, espousing a naïve hope that it could be resolved through dialogue and consensus alone in the narrative of community. The entrenched social problems in the film are ultimately resolved, ‘…by presenting (a) mythical solution(s) to restore an utopian world’ (Jyotika Virdi, The Cinematic Imagination). Even as it identifies and isolates the social forces that feed on the violence for its sustenance it shows that they (the communal forces) are not really the problem but rather the ‘flawed’ individuals who in their inability to fight their own demons succumb to its appeal, leading to such problems. It is perhaps due to this reason there appears no real villain in the film. The characters act the way they act not because of their villainy but because they are simply the victims of the circumstances too powerless to resist their own demons. Thus towards the magical solution to all the problems Roshan proffers a sound advice, ‘keep your dark impulses in check lest it manifest itself and creates problems for yourself and the society at large’. But if human beings are conditioned by their historical and structural environment isn’t it necessary to consider the dialectical interactions that constantly take place between both the internal and external dimensions of life? How do the multiple contradictions that exist in the society get resolved and in what direction? What are the social conditions that breed problems like communalism? The film does not take these questions into account because of its own naturalised assumptions that if individuals overpower the evil within, then there will be all round harmony in the society and eternal goodness will prevail. For Delhi-6, it is not the underlying material reality but some unconscious force that controls human beings whose decision making capacities is severely limited by this fact. What the film says ultimately is that only with internal (individual) change societal change could take place. It’s a reflective of a subjective-idealist position, which its tagline ‘the journey within’ seems to amplify. The journey of life cannot be just reduced mechanically to a journey within. It negotiates, in the ultimate sense, through the external world of constraints and possibilities in order to derive its rich and true meaning. In the ultimate analysis, Delhi-6 fails to develop qualitatively its call for serious introspection into a wider critique of structural deformities.

The film however cannot be just read from its narrative closure. In the context of the mind numbing masala offerings churned out by the Hindi film industry that are completely divorced from the lives of the masses Delhi-6 makes a brave attempt to address some of the urgent challenges that lie in front of us as a nation. It succeeds in igniting our belief in the need for the preservation of our pluralistic values and secular ethos that make us a vibrant multicultural society. Delhi-6 shows us how the practice of secular culture is itself riddled with constant tensions that betray its own vulnerabilities and limitations within a specific socio-cultural context. And how it acquires a new meaning when ordinary people absorb its essence utilising their own resources. The fundamental question is how the secularising principles can be incorporated in our everyday lives and practices. In that the film makes a sincere attempt to redefine the very notion of what is meant by secularism and how it could be maintained and strengthened through inter-faith dialogue and exchange.

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