‘Conservative’ is the last thing you can call Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Despite the fact that the audiences largely failed to understand his debut effort Aks, Mehra has never been one to dumb his products down; a quality that few possess in Bollywood today. What is also noteworthy about the man is that he, with each subsequent film, tries to raise not only his standards as a filmmaker but also the collective standard of film-making in India. In a land where the masses swear by No Entry and Masti, his Rang De Basanti was one of the rare instances where intelligent cinema received an almost cult following. The pressure to deliver was immense when it came to Delhi-6; but Mehra in all fairness meets and even exceeds expectations, at least for more than three-quarters of the movie.
Having already struck a chord with the young masses last time around, Mehra could so easily have repeated the hit formula like a certain multiple National Award-winning director. Instead he chose to experiment with a cryptic narrative structure the success of which required the audiences to keep track of multiple parallel story-lines and decipher not-so-obvious metaphors. In this regard at least, Mehra pulls off what most may consider a recipe for disaster without breaking a sweat.
From start to finish, each second of screen-time has been used purposefully, right from the opening credits where Raghubir Yadav (in top form as a Ram-Leela narrator) announces the forthcoming arrival of Lord Rama to battle the evil on earth. The next instant, the scene cuts to a car in New York where Roshan (Abhishek Bacchan) announces to his parents that he will take his grandmother (Waheeda Rahman) to India, where she wishes to spend her final days. To a discerning viewer this subtle hint predicts the rest of the film while for those who fail to negotiate this curve-ball, the analogy becomes more than apparent as the story progresses. Once again the credit goes to Mehra and his team of writers.
When Roshan and his Grandmother arrive in India, Mehra introduces the audiences to the Kala Bandar or Monkey Man, who we at the surface can laughingly consider an absurd figment of an irrational India’s overactive imagination. Metaphorically though, there’s much more to the Kala Bandar; which some may find too much to swallow. One can however excuse this because the script more than justifies the use of this unconventional metaphor.
The genius of Delhi-6 however lies in the manner in which Mehra tackles the cliches such as forced arranged marriages, family feuds, and discrimination on the basis of caste and religion. He treats each of the above mentioned with a fresh approach by fully exploiting an ensemble of Bollywood’s finest. One can’t help but marvel at his casting choices particularly Divya Dutta as the untouchable kooday-wali, Jalebi and Vijay Raaz as the bent policeman. The veterans such as Prem Chopra and Rishi Kapoor too have parts that tailor-made for them.
With the help of his unconventional narrative and fine performances by almost everyone, Mehra delivers a breezy, light- hearted first half which sets up a grimmer second. When the film resumes after the intermission, the friendly banter between the religiously and culturally diverse characters soon begins to border on racism and superstition and irrationality take on ugly proportions. Roshan the inquisitive, do-gooder, NRI is now perceived as an unwelcome intruder, a popular sentiment towards Americans in this part of the world. In terms of scene-lengths as well, the second half is a distinct departure from the first. The blink and you miss it, tongue-in-cheek satirical sequences from the first half are now replaced by slower and lengthier scenes which turn preachy more often than required. And that’s when the movie begins to grate.
Previously unnoticed flaws – such as Roshan’s fake accent and his tendency to make one too many smart alec comments, now stick out like sore-thumbs. In a disappointing usage of Rahman’s ‘Masakalli’, the ambitious and effervescent Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) too allows her dreams to be crushed by patriarchy and is soon tied down by tradition. Screen time which could have been used to further develop any of the promising storylines is instead disproportionately directed to the leitmotif – the Kala Bandar.
As the chaos reaches a climax towards the end, the wheels literally start to come off. Amitabh Bacchan’s inexplicable cameo hammers the final nail in the coffin for Delhi-6. To be fair however, the ending would not have appeared as disappointing as it did, had Mehra not delivered a spectacular show for nearly two hours before it.
Mehra alone knows why he went ahead with the ending that he did, or why some of the most beautiful compositions from the soundtrack such as ‘Arziyan’ and ‘Rehna Tu’ receive such little screen time. But all said and done, one has to credit the man for undertaking an almost impossible challenge and nearly pulling it off. To quote Abhishek Bacchan in his strange accent: “Delhi-6 works. The people make it work!” Well almost!
Rating: 3 out of 5
What the Ratings Mean:
0 – Terrible Beyond Imagination
1 – Mostly Pathetic
2 – Strictly OK
3 – Good
4 – Very Good
5 – Bow Down and Worship!