Capital Shot: On Screen Delhi

Abstract

The two events are concomitant – the entry of Delhi as a physical cinematic space and the retreat of Mumbai into plush interiors, mythical utopias that integrate foreign locations easily within the imagination of the city; or, more potently the dark city of paranoia in the gangster film, and later the terrorism film. If Bombay Cinema has accommodated within its narrative the events of 1992-1993 riots, following over the next decade and a half with the events of the 2002 Best bus bomb blast, 2003 explosions at Vile Parle, Mulund and Gateway of India, the 2006 train blasts and finally the 2008 Mumbai attacks; it has done so by severing the city’s relationship with its image on screen. Mumbai, for Bombay cinema today resides in the dark alleyways of gangster ghettoes, plotting terrorists that scrounge the dilapidated cityscape for safe hideouts and the brutal underside of the cosmopolitan city. The image of Mumbai is marked with the image of terror; of the Taj on fire, of Kasab, armed and ready for his kill at the VT station, of images of dead bodies and grey fumes; and another homegrown heavyweight and the everyday violence of the brutal pushback against migrant communities led by the Shiv Sena. Cut off from this world is the world of the uber-cosmpolitanism of Mumbai, the Mumbai that competes with the fanciest clubs in New York and Paris haute couture. This world is inaccessible for the most part because it is invisible to the non-elites. As Mumbai manages its cinematic imagination straddling these two worlds alternative narratives are being framed in New Delhi, a city that has almost completely been missing from Hindi Cinema. This paper explores the desire for a new cinematic city within the histories of the two mega-cities of the Indian state.

I
Introduction

One of the distinct changes in Bombay Cinema in the last decade or so has been the emergence of new spaces. In some ways, Bombay Cinema has moved out of Bombay or Mumbai ((Bombay was renamed as Mumbai after the goddess Mumbadevi in 1995 under the Shiv Sena)), as it is now known, or at the least for conservatives, accommodated hitherto alien spaces. Like its’ many local versions, Bollywood or Bombay Cinema is recognized as such both because the industry is based in the city of Mumbai as much as for the reason that most films are shot in the city. Over the years, cinematic Bombay has fortified its image through countless films. The relationship between the city and its cinematic image is strong in the case of Bombay – Its cinematic imagination spills out of celluloid onto everyday imaginations of life in Bombay; of the mist rising against the Bombay skyline; of cars and taxis racing along an unusually empty Marine Drive; tourists, lovers and devotees at Haji Ali; and the barrage of people, taxis and Best buses after every few minutes emerging out of Victoria Terminal; immortalizing Bombay as a space in popular memory. At some point in the previous decade, Bombay refuses to fit snugly into that imagination. The city rejects the cinematic imagination that it has carried with it since the very foundation of cinema in India. Bombay retreated increasingly into an interior space as the exteriors were populated with foreign locales or the rare village-town amalgam, and in an almost fateful concomitance, the city of Delhi appeared in Bombay Cinema after a mostly unexplained absence.

Delhi has always been the other city. An illiterate cousin to the more educated Calcutta or the commercial hub of Bombay where ‘dreams came true ((One sees this imaginary work in films through decades of Bombay Cinema, from Shree 420 (1955, Raj Kapoor) to Rangeela (1995, Ram Gopal Verma) where people from all over the country go to Bombay to make their dreams come true. This imaginary is paralleled in reality with the biggest businesses of India are made from scratch and thrive in Bombay.))’; Delhi remained in the popular imagination as a sleepy bureaucratic power center with nothing to offer but red ruins of history. It needs to be said here that the Indian city is largely a colonial construction. And while the cities of Calcutta and Bombay, now Kolkata and Mumbai, forged strong post-independent identities as living, breathing cities loved on their own terms, the city of Delhi remained tied to its role of administrative capital left to it by the British. The new imagination of the city was almost always necessarily informed by political events and power decisions that shaped the country’s post independent future, set anachronistically as an image against history’s leftovers – of British architecture and Mughal ruins. This is the Delhi of films of the 70s and 80s that form the backdrop of films like Trishul (1978, Yash Chopra) and New Delhi Times (1986, Romesh Sharma). Both films concern themselves with the power politics synonymous with the city. Trishul is an Oedipal melodrama set against the backdrop of the construction business in Delhi, while Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times tells the story of a journalist caught up in the dirty world of politics, greed, murder and deceit. Both films take up the issue of power and politics head on. Two other films of this period are better remembered. Sai Paranjpaye’s comedy Chashme Baddoor (1981) and Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983) were both in their own right off-beat and not your regular 80’s Bombay Cinema fare. Yet, Delhi in both these films too came with its dose of seriousness – a serious city with serious problems and serious ambitions. The ‘seriousness’ of the city in these films may be understood as the lack of a lived intimacy with the city itself. Delhi appears as a background justified by symbolic references to power and politics. The living, lived space of the city never materializes in these films.

Instead, what we see are articulations of a Delhi known through history books and news channels. It takes 53 years for mainstream Bombay cinema to embrace Delhi as jaan (a Hindi word for both one’s heart and one’s beloved), a tribute conferred to Bombay in the year 1956 with the famous song “Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan” (“Living in this city(Bombay) is tough indeed”). The song descriptively takes one through the highs and lows of life in the city of Bombay, embracing it with a bittersweet affection with the refrain “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan” ((The word “jaan” is used very frequently in Bollywood songs and there are multiple instances where the many meanings of the word have been deployed to convey more than one understanding. For instance, in the famous song from the film Umrao Jaan (1981, Muzaffar Ali) “Dil cheez kya hai, aap meri jaan lijiye”, one might understand jaan as “heart” or “to know”, both fittingly appropriate in the song. Similarly, in “Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan”, Bombay is being referred to as “jaan” (one’s heart or beloved) while it simultaneously works as an affectionate name for the person the song is being sung to.)) (“This is Bombay, my love/life”) It is not until 2009 that Delhi receives the same attention with the film Delhi-6 (2009, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra). In a song reminiscent of “Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan” that lyrically maps out the city as a living space, Delhi is described in the following words.

Yeh Dilli Hai Meri Yaar/ Jaan, Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar
Basti Hai Mastano Ki Dilli Dilli, Gali Hai Deewano Ki Dilli 6
Bolo Bolo Milo Se Dilli Dilli, Bolo Bolo Milo Se Dilli 6
Basti Hai Mastano Ki Dilli Dilli, Gali Hai Deewano Ki Dilli 6

Bada Kas Ke Gale Lagata Hai, Dhadkan Ki Dhoom Sunata Hai
Iske Baye Taraf Bhi Dil Hai, Iske Daye Taraf Bhi Dil Hai
Yeh Sehar Nahi Mehfil Hai, Yeh Sehar Nahi Mehfil Hai
Yeh Dilli Hai Mere Yaar, Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar
Delhi 6 Delhi, Delhi 6 Delhi

This is Delhi, my friend. Its all about love, life and romance
It’s the city of lovers, a city for romantics

It hugs you tight, so you can hear its heartbeat
With a heart on its left and one on its right
Its not a city, it’s a gathering of friends and lovers.
This is Delhi, my friend. Its all about love, life and romance.
Delhi Delhi Delhi.

This is Delhi known, lived and felt intimately. This is also perhaps the most obvious reason for the emergence of Delhi as a cinematic city. As more and more industry outsiders join the highly elite group of Bollywood directors, they bring with them their own experiences. If explored as a category, most directors who have made films in the past decade where Delhi has appeared as more than a backdrop would be part of this classification. Directors like Dibakar Banerjee with a filmography packed with “Delhi films” like Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! (2008) and Love, Sex aur Dhoka (2010); Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra with his two films Rang de Basanti (2006) and Delhi-6 (2009); Manish Tiwary with Dil Dosti etc (2007); and Anurag Kashyap with Dev D (2009) have all spent significant periods of their lives in Delhi. In many ways, their work reflects a lived relationship with the city and as Dibakar Banerjee ((See http://trishagupta.blogspot.com/2010/02/quiet-riot.html for a profile of Dibakar Banerjee.)), Manish Tiwary ((Pant, Nikhila. Delhi’s a miniature India: Manish Tiwary. TNN, Dec 19, 2010, 12.00am IST )) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra ((Patel, Devansh. Interview with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Bollywood Hungama. Thursday, February 19, 2009, 18:37 )) have all said in interviews, the films are in some ways biographical. Dibakar Banerjee for instance astutely recounts memories of growing up in West Delhi and the ‘everyday’ that influences his work. Similarly, for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Manish Tiwary, Delhi and Delhi University were experiences that shaped them as individuals and in turn their craft of moviemaking.

That said, the greater project of this paper is to unpack the seemingly innocuous concomitance of the emergence of Delhi as a cinematic space as Bombay retreats into an interiorized space. I will argue that this occurs at the critical junction where Bombay can no longer sustain the imagination it has produced, where Bombay needs to be re-imagined not simply for the sake of the new but to accommodate an alternative imagination that is fed by real events. Some answers are to be found in the history of the two cities in the last decade. While Bombay has been repeatedly struck by internal politics, terrorism and natural calamities, Delhi has seen a sharp growth curve. I do not suggest a simple reflection of these ‘real events’ into ‘reel events.’ Instead, my effort is to locate the imaginary that informs these developments and emergences from within the overspill of news, television fare, fashion, advertising and urban lifestyles. Bombay has changed. And quite independently, so too has Delhi. The convergence of the two realities occurs on screen, simultaneously. There is of course another way in which the two intersect. The global-local, or the glocal city is the definitive city in the global world order. The events in Delhi and Bombay meet not just at central government meetings but also through various conduits of economics, sociology and migration. Debates of globalization, the multiplex phenomenon and an alternative film audience complicate the understanding of what has been called a ‘trend’ in the popular press: the emergence of the “Delhi film.” Together, these events shape trends and mark a shift in the history of Bombay cinema as an entity.

If we see Delhi on screen with greater intensity and frequency, it is not only within the category of biographical or semi-biographical films like the ones discussed above but it is an imagination that infiltrates the idea of the cinematic city in a way previously unknown in Bombay Cinema. Delhi appears significantly as backdrops to songs in films that are not set in Delhi or, in other words, where the city does not play its own part, like in Love Aaj Kal (2009, Imtiaz Ali). It is referred to as the other city, stereotyped and laughed at in Pyar ke Side Effects (2006, Saket Chaudhary) and provides a “real”, “Indian” connect for middle class life in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001, Karan Johar).

A look at the films in the past decade are a clear indication that Delhi is a presence across all kinds of Bollywood fare – from low budget to high budget production – and a huge range of thematics. Concomitantly, Delhi and a certain “Delhi-ness” appears to have entered the way in which this northern capital may be imagined. And together with this, there is a way in which Bombay is being re-imagined. It will be the purpose of this paper to locate the convergence of these two events in shaping of the cinematic city of Bombay cinema.

II
Delhi and Bombay(Mumbai) – A short biography of two cities

The city occupies an ambivalent place in the Indian nationalist imagination. Most nationalist leaders hailed from towns and cities, and Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were chief centers of nationalist activity. Yet the urban experience seldom received any concentrated attention. Gyan Prakash writes in his essay on ‘The Urban Turn’that the nationalist discourse divided the village from the city while cross-hatching them in projecting the ideal of the modern nation. It is also in this manoeuvre that we can locate a discourse of the city. In the West, the problem of representing the city has been closely linked with questions concerning modernism and its relationship to capitalism. The challenge of traditionally preoccupied European writers was how to map the experience of the modern city – what representational strategies were adequate for capturing the opacity, the fragmentation, and the transitory nature of urban modernity. More recent analysts have turned to the city in order to understand it in relation to late capitalism, globalization, migration, and postmodern culture, and the challenges these pose to classic modernity.

In India, on the other hand, the surge in the attention paid to the city, in my view, is the product of two interlinked processes – the erosion in the authority of the historicist narrative of Indian modernity and the emergence of a new politics of urban space. Thomas Blom Hansen’s recent study of Bombay provides ample evidence for these two processes ((Blansen, Thomas Blom. Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.)). Analyzing the historical transformations and conflicts that brought about a crisis in the vision of Bombay as a symbol of secular, capitalist modernity, Hansen provides a fascinating account of the rise of the Shiv Sena as an expression of “vernacular modernity”. He shows that the Shiv Sena’s emergence was made possible by the erosion of the older elitist political culture that underwrote ‘classical Bombay.’ Democracy undermined this elitist political culture and opened the space for the assertion of plebeian identities and politics. The Shiv Sena utilized this space to press its claims aggressively and violently. Combining nativism with anti-Muslim propaganda, its ideal fashioned a new mode of urban politics that drove nails into the coffin of the Bombay elite as the symbol of a modernized India. Hansen focuses primarily on the Shiv Sena, but one could include the emergence of Dalit politics, the movement of slum dwellers, and the growth of the NGOs – all strikingly different in their aims and methods from the Shiv Sena – to complete the picture of the transformed landscape of urban politics. To locate the urban turn in the contemporary refiguration of the landscape of politics, however, is not to suggest that the city poses a challenge to the historicist discourse in the present alone. To be sure, the politics of urbanism has greatly changed between Gandhi and Nehru’s idealization of the village as the nation’s authentic space and the Shiv Sena’s transformation of Bombay, says Gyan Prakash, but there were always discourses of the city that sat oddly with its nationalist representation either as an emblem of evil and injustice (Gandhi) or as a symbol of modernization (Nehru) ((Gyan Prakash. The Urban Turn. From The Cities of Everyday Life-Sarai Reader 2002)).

Many authors have recently taken up the project of writing on Delhi. A telling case is the Harper Collins Noir series. The series is a collection of noir stories; each collection is set in different cities of the world. Previous Noir series have been set in New York, Beijing, London, Paris, Trinidad, Toronto, Rome and San Francisco. In 2009, Harper Collins came to India with its noir series and chose the city of Delhi over the more obvious choice, Bombay. Hirsh Sawhney, editor of the book and contributor of a story called Gautam Under a Tree in the book, explains the choice:

“ Delhi, a city that’s been reborn in various locations and forms throughout its thousands of years of history, was in the midst of yet another colossal transition when I arrived here four years ago (2005). This latest metamorphosis was being fueled by legislation that opened up India to private and foreign investors. International brands like the Wall Street Journal and Chanel were setting up shop. The city’s cruddy public transportation system was being revolutionized by an ultra-modern metro. My mother’s massive Punjabi family- Partition refugees who’d happily lived in a one bedroom Connaught Place flat during the 1950s- were driving Hondas and Hyundais and comparing plasma television prices.”

The excerpt from Sawhney’s piece above maps out the changes in the capital that have made it endearing in a bittersweet sort of way. Delhi is at once a cosmopolitan capital city – segregated spaces of living balancing sporadic villages on the one hand and idyllic townships on the other. Delhi is huge. And the past decade has seen it grow exponentially, spilling out of its borders into Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and creating what is known as the National Capital Region or NCR. As NCR spreads beyond Bhiwani in Haryana and beyond Ghaziabad on the other side in Uttar Pradesh, the main heart of the city becomes extremely prized. The identity of Delhi accommodates the cosmopolitanism of a modern city while still reserving its place for the other India, the more traditional India, to survive within its tenements. Tellingly, in an interview with Manish Tiwary, director of Dil Dosti etc, Delhi is imagined as “miniature India.” ((Pant. Ibid.)) The film is set in Delhi University and is a glimpse into the life of University students. The modern face of India, says Tiwary, was represented by Apurv (Imaad Shah), Prerna (Nikita Anand) while the traditional was played by Sanjay (Shreyas Talpade) and Vaishali (Smriti Mishra) who brought old world charm to the film. Tiwary goes on to say,

“I had come to Delhi as an outsider. That’s my primary perspective even in the film. All the men in the film are outsiders to the city. Delhi is a city that promises many dreams to us. And all of us are trying to realize them. Delhi, in reality, is also a miniature India. In the film, everyone is claiming India as being their own, since it has become an extremely promising land.”

For Tiwary and many others, Mumbai has become increasingly hostile towards outsiders. With the rise of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and the segregation and exclusion of non-Marathi speaking citizens, Mumbai is quickly going back on its promise as a city where dreams come true.

Tiwary goes on to say:

“Everyone is trying to claim their share of Delhi. These students have come to Delhi from various parts of India – Jats from their villages in Haryana and Punjab, Sanjay has come from Bihar, Apoorv has come from some big city. With the characterization, I was trying to show something new in terms of what people have already seen in films. Films set in Delhi, these are usually about Punjabis or extremely rich yuppie crowd. And these films are correct in their own way. But I think hostel life gives one the opportunity to talk about these outsiders, who are also there to claim their share of the city and trying to prove themselves as the new collectors (referring to a song from the film) of the city. They have all been thrown into this big melting pot that Delhi is.”

As Mumbai turns hostile towards outsiders, Delhi becomes, more and more, the viable option for immigrants to pursue their dreams. The term ‘miniature India’ is not so much a testament to Delhi’s cosmopolitanism but to the fact that it still retains an Indian-ness even within the upper echelons of society, while Mumbai’s elite classes belong to a truly global city. Delhi’s rich are the nouveau rich, or as many commentators note are ‘a class without culture.’ Money is visible in Delhi; Mumbai hides it behind carefully elite capitalism. A popular SMS joke/anecdote that circulated some time in the mid 2000s sums up the attitudes of Delhi and Mumbai. It goes like this:

A man drives up in his swank black BMW to a busy street corner in Delhi. The front window rolls down and the man, a famous celebrity asks out for directions. Recognizing the celebrity and his wealth and power, a middle class man offers to change his route and guide the car to his destination on his raggedy motorbike.

The same incident happens in Mumbai. Only this time, the man is offended when a Mumbaikar refuses to be impressed by his luxury car. The celebrity says, “Don’t you know who I am?” The Mumbaikar replies, “ Sir, irrespective of who you are, you still need to take the first left to get to your destination.”

Delhi worships power and money. Mumbai’s relationship with money is different. Mumbai’s wealthy are the city’s celebrities who made their fortune in cinema, and businessmen who made the city their home when Mumbai still held the promise of fulfilling middle class aspirations of wealth, power and status. The money in Delhi seems to have appeared without the struggles of Bombay. It has appeared through a series of laws, migrations, public corruption and a public-private partnership in the real estate sector that has led to the creation of wealth almost overnight.

Delhi is divided in terms of wealth, most of which, like contemporary capitalist society would have it, is a statement to how people must be ‘at the right place at the right time’ to succeed. Those who were left behind must work their way to manage a living in the outskirts of the city in the ever-expanding NCR. Like most cities, land becomes a grave problem as migrants flock to the city each year for education and jobs. Unlike the cities of Bombay, Kolkata and Chennai however, Delhi’s land problem has been complicated by layers of corruption scams, land grabs in broad daylight, reservations and schemes for refugees and public sector employees.

In 1957, Prime Minister’s Jawaharlal Nehru’s government consolidated the capital’s planning and development agencies into the new Delhi Development Authority. The DDA had sole responsibility for planning and executing the city’s expansion and development and, in order to fulfill this, it had the right to acquire land forcibly and at greatly reduced prices. It was a development monopoly whose exclusivity was guaranteed by laws making it impossible for private individuals or companies to own more than a few acres of land within the Delhi borders. By the 1980s, a new crop of businessmen started buying land outside of the cities and systematically combined political opportunism and business growth into the missing urban link to progress – the national capital region – that would house both skyscrapers and cattle farms, supermarkets and traditional open-air markets, and milkmen and executives from multinational companies. Billionaires were made in this process and entire villages were erased from the map. Delhi’s rich and powerful emerged overnight as business grew. The capital of “shining India” was being systematically handed over from its middle classes to a new black money elite, and it was this group who was increasingly setting the tone – aesthetic, commercial and ethical – for everyone else. The Delhi that has emerged is the Delhi of Sanjeev Nanda and Manu Sharma, where money and power trump just about everything else.

Mumbai’s history, in about the same time, has taken a different turn. Like New York, real estate is unaffordable for most sections of society; property can no longer be bought in Mumbai by the reasonably well-off among the working class. International terrorism has targeted the more ‘global’ city of Mumbai (Delhi has, of course, had its own share of terrorist violence, but the past decade has left an indelible stamp on the city of Mumbai). The Shiv Sena’s ascension to power with Bhartiya Janta Party in 1995 can be seen as the turning point in the Shiv Sena’s fierce propaganda against outsiders and the claim for a Marathi state capital. It was 6 months after their victory that Bombay was renamed Mumbai. During its early years, the Sena occasionally resorted to violence and threats against people belonging to other Indian communities as part of its ‘sons of the soil’ ideology. In the early years of the Sena, the party’s widely circulated Marathi language-weekly Marmik was instrumental in inflaming the anti-migrant sentiment in Mumbai’s Maharashtrians. Thackeray, then a cartoonist for the Free Press journal, initially targeted the growing number of South Indians by inflammatory slogans like “lungi hatao pungi bajao” (referring to the lungi, a Marathi word for the traditional men’s dress in South India), and “yendu gundu” (a derogatory description of the Dravidian languages spoken by the people from South India). During this period, Shiv Sainiks launched a string of attacks on the South-Indian owned Udupi restaurants that were becoming popular in Mumbai. In a similar manner, Thackeray later targeted Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, and other Muslims from North Indian states like Uttar Pradesh (‘UPites’) through his speeches. Moreover, Thackeray threatened a number of local industrialists and businessmen with action unless they offered preferential employment to Maharashtrian people.

In addition to its campaign against non-Maharashtrians in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena protests have been known to break down into violence and force in public in the name of protecting Hindutva from what it deems as corrupting western influences. The party has been involved in organized protests, pickets, market shutdowns and strikes that have been known to degenerate into violent clashes and, in some instances, riots. For instance, Shiv Sena activists have attacked shops in Mumbai selling gifts for Valentine’s Day as part of the party’s campaign against ‘vulgar’ western influences on youth. Likewise, in 1998, Shiv Sainiks attacked movie theatres in Mumbai screening director Deepa Mehta’s Fire, a highly controversial film based on a lesbian theme, on the grounds that such films violated Hindu ethos and were immoral for Hindus to watch. As a result, the screening of the movie was withdrawn. Fire was never released in India despite a publicly outraged film community. Later, members of the Sena’s Varanasi branch launched aggressive protests against the filming of Mehta’s Water, on the grounds that such films were made with the designs of intentionally defaming Hinduism by portraying Varanasi and other holy cities in an inaccurate and negative light. As a result of the protests, the location for shooting the film was shifted to the neighboring Sri Lanka.

Since early February 2010, the party has held ransom the release of a much-awaited Bollywood film, My Name Is Khan, directed by Karan Johar (2010), starring Shahrukh Khan as the lead actor. Menacing dictates came from the Sena chiefs to stop the release of the film following comments by the actor in support of inclusion of Pakistani players in the 2010 Indian Premier League, as well as his comments where he had stated that he was an “Indian first” as opposed to being a person of the state first. He being a north Indian and belonging to the Muslim community added to his plight in the city that is “controlled” by the Sena, though not ruled by it. The matter seemed resolved for a while, but in spite of making a public statement that they would not disrupt the screening, Shiv Sena cadres burnt posters in protest of the release.

There is of course another way in which the image of Mumbai, quite literally, takes the dystopic turn. On 6 December 2002, a blast in a BEST bus near Ghatkopar station killed two people and injured 28. The bombing occurred on the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, an event already marked by the thirteen coordinated bomb explosions, which killed two hundred and fifty seven people and injured seven hundred on 12 March 1993. A bicycle bomb exploded near the Vile Parle station in Mumbai, killing one person and injuring twenty-five on 27 January 2003, a day before the visit of the Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the city. On 13 March 2003, a day after the tenth anniversary of the 1993 Bombay bombings, a bomb exploded in a train compartment near the Mulund station, killing 10 people and injuring 70. On 28 July 2003, a blast in a BEST bus in Ghatkopar killed 4 people and injured 32. On 25 August 2003, two bombs exploded in South Mumbai, one near the Gateway of India and the other at Zaveri Bazaar in Kalbadevi. At least 44 were killed and 150 injured. On 11 July 2006, seven bombs exploded within 11 minutes on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai. Around 200 people were killed, including 22 foreigners and over 700 injured. According to the Mumbai Police, the bombings were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Gradually, these events made their way from television sets and newspaper headlines into the gangster films of Bombay.

More recently in 2008, India witnessed its own 9/11 equivalent, when there were more than 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across Mumbai, India’s largest city, killing 164 people and wounding at least 300.

Eight of the attacks occurred in South Mumbai: at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital (a women and children’s hospital), Nariman House, the Metro Cinema, and a lane behind the “Times of India” building and St. Xavier’s College. There was also an explosion at Mazagaon, in Mumbai’s port area, and in a taxi at Vile Parle. By the early morning of 28 November, all sites except for the Taj hotel had been secured by Mumbai Police and security forces. An action by India’s National Security Guards (NSG) on 29 November (the action is officially named Operation Black Tornado) resulted in the death of the last remaining attackers at the Taj hotel, ending all fighting in the attacks.

The event was a TV event. Journalists camped outside the Taj as Indian forces struggled to hunt down the terrorists. A live telecast accompanied by debates, discussions and analysis continued for over three days until all the terrorists were either killed or captured. Mobile phone videos and conversations quickly made an appearance on mainstream news. Mumbai had changed forever. The images of all these events, broadcast far and wide, would inform the way in which the city was seen and experienced, and it would inform the narratives of a significant chunk of films shot in Mumbai.

Radhika Subramanium discusses paranoia, fear and the palpable anxiety in a post-1993 Bombay in her essay ‘Urban Physiognomies.’ ((From The Cities of Everyday Life-Sarai Reader 2002)) She writes,
“The perceptions that arise at the crossroads of habitual interactions and everyday understandings were made most visible for me as I returned to Bombay some years after the riots to listen to people talk about their experience of the city. To many, that violence of December and January appeared as a betrayal, mainly of Bombay’s crass, commercial optimism and cosmopolitan character. A Muslim writer, with whom I spoke in November 1995 of what he had lost in the riots during which his house had been burnt down and his family forced to flee up north, told me that he grieved most for the demise of his trust in the city. With it, he felt he had lost his right to the place. No longer, so it seemed, could one ask a question of the city in the same way. Its history, its people, its streets, all became signposts in a sequence leading up to this moment and leading away from it. Bombay has changed, I was repeatedly told, it is no longer the Bombay we have known. Nor the Bombay you knew. And this, as any know who have lived and imagined belonging somewhere, strikes at the supports of memory and, in fact, of identity. It was clear that identity was at the core of any understanding of these events.”

In the past decade, Subramanium’s observations have only gained more currency. The indelibility of the effect produced in the wake of such events may be understood in terms of Paul Virilio’s term, ‘overexposed city’. According to Virilio, these technologies have altered the perception of time by human beings. Chronological and historical time has given way to the real time of the computer screen and the television set, where everything appears instantaneously. Real time annuls the notion of physical distance, as the faster we move around the world the less we appreciate its vastness. Moreover, it is foreign to the identity and the collective memory of places, which always have existed in local times. With real time the former become interchangeable, which generates a dystopia from which geographical cities and places have been eradicated. In other words, in the Overexposed City, the disappearance of real space runs parallel to the disappearance of local or historical time, or rather the “urbanisation of real space” gives way to “urbanisation in real time,” a new form of creating a city based on computing and television logic, marking a city indelibly by its televisual image.

III
Cinematic Cities

In this section, I will explore the multiple images of Delhi that one comes across in Bombay Cinema today. Certain sections of society, certain landmarks and places have emerged more significantly than others. Some themes that had lost popularity have reappeared in the context of another city in Delhi. Delhi has also appeared as the city of choice for many films that fit the ‘multiplex film’ category.

Industrially, cinema has long played an important role in the cultural economies of cities all over the world in the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures, and in the cultural geographies of certain cities particularly marked by cinema; from Los Angeles to Paris to Bombay, whose built environment and civic identities are both significantly constituted by the film industry and films. ((Shiel, Mark. Cinema and the City in History and Theory. ))

The history of Bombay Cinema is, in the ways elucidated above, closely tied to the history of the city of Bombay itself, the city of Bombay qua India’s first modern, industrial city. Posed as a diametrically opposite binary to the Indian village ((Ashis Nandy looks at India’s ambivalent affair with the modern city in ‘An ambiguous journey to the city: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in the Indian Imagination’ where the poisoned village and self-annihilating city are posed as binaries.)), the city of Bombay has been explored, presented and critiqued for its uneven modernity in the 1950s, as the site of love, desire and urban dreams in the 1960s and 70s, its exteriors marred as gangland ((Mazumdar, Ranjani. Bombay Cinema: An archive of the City.)) in the 90s, while a string of lighter films marked an urbane Bombayscape indoors- within posh modern apartments overlooking the sea, reflective of what Deleuze has called espace quelconque ((Borrowing a term from the anthropologist Marc Auge, Deleuze uses the term espace quelconque of ‘any space whatever’ to define ‘ a perfectly singular space, which has simply lost its homogeneity, that is the principle of its metric relations of the connection of its proper parts, so that the linkages may be made in an infinite number of ways. It is a space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure site of the possible. Space itself has departed from its proper coordinates and its metric relations. It is a tactile space. Quoted from Deleuze on Cinema, Ronald Bogue. Routledge, 2003.)) or ‘any space whatever’. Bombay Cinema then, in some ways, has been a living, breathing history of the city itself. To locate Dilli films (films shot in/on Delhi where the city plays a significant role are referred to as Dilli films in popular mainstream media) within such a history then is to look at structural shifts within Bollywood and its relationship to Bombay.

Three spaces emerge strongly in the ‘Delhi’ films. First, is the space of tradition and old values, embodied by the great Indian family, joint families and customary pomp and show. A space like Chandni Chowk gives to these value systems long discarded by mainstream Bollywood fare for things more modern. Second, is the space of young Delhi. Embodied by genres such as the college flick- of youth and their aspirations; song and dance romance held against scenic backgrounds of historic monuments and parks; and the space of a youth with reinvigorated political awareness. Third, and finally, it appears as a fresh canvas for an alternative cinema, not necessarily materialized in a movement, but one that taps into the multiplex audiences and presents an alternative, more global form.

Ever since the 1990s, Bollywood has worked with a predictable box office trick. Every year there are X number of family films, romances, action and comedy films. It is this logic that takes a hit when the city of Mumbai is simply unable to recuperate from the image of terror and paranoia. It is impossible in contemporary times to separate the image of the overly familiar Bombay-scape from the still fresh images of terror. And so it is that in a film like Dhobighat (Kiran Rao, 2010) that pitches itself as an ‘ode to the city’, the city of Mumbai is practically unseen. It is the impenetrable ghettoes of old Bombay and rail bastis, previously unseen as an image onscreen that Rao films. Her fairly mainstream imagination of Bombay is one without Marine drive, the Taj hotel, VT, Colaba and Haji Ali. Delhi, however, is at peace with its landscape and the image thereof. The city operates within a very comfortable flux of an identity that easily incorporates multiple identities of a cosmopolitan city, a small town, village and township across its huge areas that cover the two cities of Old and New Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida and Faridabad.

For both Khosla ka Ghosla (Dibakar Banerjee, 2006) and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (Dibakar Banerjee, 2008), it is the fight for space between the new elite and the educated middle class man, and alternately the lower middle class man in the flashy world of the new elite. Delhi-6 (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2009) looks at contemporary India through events in the lives of people in Chandni Chowk; the global/local and Hindu/Muslim fights for space work themselves out in this film. Dil Dosti etc (Manish Tiwary,2007) finds within the University campus of Delhi a utopia for migrant students. Aisha (Rajshree Ojha,2010) and Band Baaja Baraat (Manish Tiwary,2010) celebrate the distinct space and cultures of South Delhi and West Delhi respectively. Cinematic Delhi provides an exciting place, ripe with the possibilities of new architectures within the familiar footing of the family film; it provides multiple ‘localities’ that integrate itself well within the mainstream Bollywood cinema and simultaneously, its novelty is mobilized by a growing crowd of industry outsiders keen on making different films.

For Appadurai (in The Production of Locality from Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization), the ‘local’ is a contested site; he asks, “what is the place of locality in schemes about global cultural flow?” His view of locality is primarily relational and contextual rather than scalar or spatial. He opens up the production of space/locality to human intervention, conscious and unconscious. The local subject of history eventually becomes the historical subject. The entry to the problematics of locality, then, may be sought in the idea of ethnoscape, a term that disabuses one of beliefs that imply that cultures need to be seen as spatially bounded, historically un-selfconscious, or ethnically homogenous forms. In the case of Delhi, in increasingly post-liberalization, the city has been taken over by Punjabis. Ashis Nandy in his essay ‘Death of an empire’ writes about the need of the Punjabi community to create a new, vibrant identity for themselves to overcome the trauma of partition that affected them so deeply. Psychiatrist Dr. Anurag Mishra writes in an article ‘Capital Gains’ by Rana Dasgupta, ‘Delhi is a city of traumas. You can’t understand anything if you don’t realize that everyone here is trying to forget the horrifying things that have happened in their families. Delhi was destroyed by the British in 1857. It was destroyed again by Partition in 1947. It was torn apart by the anti-Sikh rampages of 1984. Each of these moments destroyed the culture of the city, and that is the greatest trauma of all. Your entire web of meanings is tied up in culture, and if that is lost, your self is lost.”

Money, power, abuse and nostalgia are key in films like Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, Dev D and Love Sex aur Dhoka or LSD. The characters of Lucky, Dev and Atul are all struggling to find a balance between wealth and happiness. If Lucky and Atul work from bottom up, it is Dev’s ambition to hit rock bottom. Lucky, Dev and Atul are characters that are part of Delhi’s story. Lucky is a West Delhi boy for whom money is the only way to gain respect and become a member of Delhi’s elite. Atul is a middle class boy whose degrees have gotten him nowhere and he must employ a quicker route to a lifestyle that is the only object of desire in Delhi.

On the other hand, films like Band Baja Baraat rely on the pure ‘Delhi-ness’ of their location (Delhi University) and characters. Delhi-6 takes on the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when the only films being shot in Mumbai are to do with terror, paranoia and fear. Delhi-6 as a film could not have been made in Mumbai, or elsewhere, not for fear of political reaction, but for the fact that Delhi offers the hope that Mumbai once did.

The ‘local’ seen as an image and a concept ties up with Kevin Lynch’s (from The Image of the City, 1960) concept of ‘Imageability’, that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement that facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. Lynch talks about markers of a city and their mobilization for image creation. His work has been taken up by writers of the city; Jameson, for instance, uses the term ‘cognitive mapping’ to understand the intersection of the personal and the social, which enables people to function in the urban space through which they move. It is a model for how we might begin to articulate the local and the global. It provides a way of linking the most intimately local – our particular path through the world – and the most global: the crucial features of our political planet. These two theoretical outlines allow thinking of Delhi as an image and a concept, as shifting and materialized in the contemporary moment through the forces of globalization and current world economics, Delhi is evoked as much as an image as a concept. At least two directors, Rakeysh Mehra (Delhi 6) and Manish Tiwary (Dil Dosti etc) have spoken of the Delhi concept as a miniature India, a definitive set of multiple ideas of Indian-ness. Mumbai, on the other hand, appears more cosmopolitan everyday. Dibakar Banerjee’s films are of course premised on this very aspect of Delhi.

Locality for the modern nation state is either a site of nationally appropriated nostalgias, celebrations and commemorations, or a necessary condition of the production of nationals.

The battle between nation-state, of unsettled communities and of global electronic media is in full progress. Locality is constructed as a structure of feeling, often in the face of erosion, dispersal and implosion of neighborhoods as coherent social formations; the ethnoscapes that are its building blocks are the displaced, deterritorialized and transient populations. Delhi appears at the cinematic frontier where new landscapes must be sought to nurture these localities and states of flux between the local and the global.

  • http://twitter.com/inkcollector Arindita Gogoi

    When I started reading the article, I kept on hoping that Ananya’s analysis touches ‘this…and that…and those'; and the paper has indeed analysed almost every aspect that influences both these cities’ current cinematic presence – from the traumas, new found wealth, political control, space and its people. The change of human behaviour alongside with shift of land(cit)scape and an insight into Delhi and Mumbai’s biographical journey is captivating and in a way, nostalgic. I am, personally associated with a job where I try to re-associate people in Delhi (especially children) to their city in ways that are different from their daily existence. In the process I personally get a chance to interact with facets of this city which have perhaps made it to the history books, but not yet our hearts; sometimes newspapers but not our psyche. The behavioral differences of people belonging to different areas and social classes of this city though, interestingly, are paving their way through some of these films as you mentioned, Ananya. It was a great read. Thanks.