It is said that art mirrors society. Cinema, theatre and books can tell us a lot about a society, its people, their aspirations, beliefs and culture. Quarantined due to lockdown with a lot of free time at hand, I came across a rather intriguing headline “Jaipur Police threatens to put lockdown violators in a room and make them listen to the latest remix of the song Massakali from the movie Delhi 6 as a punishment.” With my personal distaste for remixes of old songs validated with a countrywide meme fest on social media expressing contempt for the same, I decided it was time to revisit the much-acclaimed movie Delhi 6 which I last watched in 2009 as a 16-year-old, too young to grasp or appreciate the complex layers of this movie.
Coincidently, I read the City of Djinns by William Dalrymple next. The book, in one of its chapters, refers to a Persian couplet often seen as a prophecy, reminded me about another news headline about the new Central Vista planned by the government in the national capital. According to the prophecy, “whoever builds a new city in Delhi will lose it....the Pandava brethren, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, Feroz Shah Tughlaq, Shah Jahan and later the British”, they all lost it.
As I completed reading it I found so many instances from Delhi’s history that can still be related to or found existing in newer forms.
These two brilliant narratives on how Delhi as a society keeps moving forward, made me ponder on the similarities among individuals that inhabited it in the past, the ones in present and the ones to come in future and the relevance of what they will leave behind as communities and as individuals.
The quintessential Delhi society has changed on the surface yet remains the same at the core. As the boundaries of the city expand and infrastructure evolves with newer architectural niches and clichés, its inhabitants follow more or less the similar patterns, with countless aspirations rooting from similar motivation, struggles and conflicts.
As the cinematography and narration of Delhi 6 proceeds from a clueless NRI Roshan’s (played by Abhishek Bachhan) gaze, I was yet again forced to think how far we have really come from the black monkey menace to COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
In a mere three-hour span, the film captures the quintessential modern Indian who is living in phases that are transitional yet in continuum with each other. There is no particular order to these phases, neither is one better than the other, one individual might think he is evolving from one phase to another. But in reality, these phases are like several circles of Venn diagrams, simultaneously overlapping, and interacting with each other as they evolve.
To quote Dalrymple, “different millennia coexisted side by side. Minds set in different ages, walked the same pavements, drank the same water and returned to the same dust”. He wrote this in a book published in 1993. People, cultures, and society have changed a lot since then, but these lines remain as a perfect description for Delhi.
The movie begins with three types of NRIs one is the clueless protagonist Roshan played by Abhishek Bachhan, second is Roshan’s father, an NRI who is completely disillusioned with India after he eloped from Delhi to marry a woman from a different religion. He never wants to return. The grandmother, played by Waheeda Rehman, is the third category of NRI’s who are living in a foreign land but wants to die in their own country. When she is certain that her time is near, she decides to leave for her home in Delhi 6, and starts to prepare for her last rites as she waits for death.
However, the Delhi 6 of her memories is not exactly the one she is greeted by. The people, though familiar, are also transitioning. In a scene, she goes to shop for a clay pot in which her ashes must be kept once she leaves this world. The shopkeeper tries his best to sell the fancy pots made of metal but all she wants is a clay pot made of mud from the banks of the river Ganges.
Towards the end of the movie she is so disillusioned that she says, “I don’t even feel like dying here.”
The grandmother’s character reminds me of Dalrymple’s account of author Ahmed Ali who wrote Twilight in Delhi. Ali was forced to leave his beloved city due to partition. When asked why he didn’t return, the author replied “Delhi is dead”. Ahmed’s friend Shanulhaq adds, “I went back 13 years after partition, already everything was different....I stayed in the Ambassador hotel, which I only later realised had been built on top of a graveyard where several of my friends were buried.”
Dalrymple has given plenty of such accounts in his marvellous work, where people from various walks of life talk about their idea of Delhi, each at contrast with another, each in love with their own idea of the city and carrying deep contempt for any other. The Delhi of 2020 is no different from its previous versions in that case. The varieties of delhiites that our favourite influencers mimic in their YouTube and Instagram videos are exaggerated for fun but do exist. As we travel from south Delhi to west to north to east, and NCR, people, their lifestyles, social status and aspirations vary drastically.
Another interesting similarity between the book and the movie is about the conflicts of a society that thrives on secrecy. Interestingly, Dalrymple in his book talks about how often cases of infidelity or secret romances thrived on blaming a paranormal djinn for it.
The movie Delhi 6 also shows how the rumour regarding the black monkey thrived on theft, accident due to negligence, infidelity and extramarital affairs.
Whenever someone wanted to escape from a crime or any activity unacceptable to the society, they claimed they saw the black monkey do it.
However, in 2020, Delhi has become relatively more “empirical” and “progressive”. We no longer look for paranormal figures like djinns and black monkey to blame. Because today we have WhatsApp. Social media puts the blame where we want to see it and presents us with an explanation. There is a Whatsapp theory available for every eye.
Until we have found a video that tranquilises our minds with a comfortable narrative, we don’t settle. And if in case what we forwarded and defended for at least 10 days amongst our peers turns out to be fake news, we always have WhatsApp to blame.
I remember when the black monkey menace hit Delhi, the TV news channels tried their best to decode how the unseen black monkey looked like. The theory that the black monkey has an electrical motherboard and a metal hand was discussed widely across channels. Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra’s depiction of it is refreshingly real.
Looking at the current coverage of Coronavirus by news channels one can say not much has changed over all these years.
Since the time Covid-19 entered India, the channels have been working overtime to make the most informative stories. After all the conspiracy theories on the origin of Covid-19 were exhausted, they resumed doing shows on how to build immunity through Yoga, golden milk, tulsi, ginger tea and so on. From doing Yoga asanas to playing Antakshari, the news anchor is doing everything and anything to keep the viewers engaged.
The more I looked the more I found similarities with Delhi 6 that are hard to ignore.
Mamdu is a sweet shop owner who follows Islam but also worships Bajrang Bali (a Hindu god). His character is symbolic of the syncretism that a multi-cultural, accommodative and secular state is capable of cultivating.
So when communal tussles begin, he is at the centre of the conflict. When a Baba is called to ward off the black monkey after a theft at his shop, he is forced to choose between his two gods. The baba suggests the mosque and his shop are the cause of the trouble and must be demolished to drive out the black monkey.
The same Jai Gopal who sat on Mamdu’s shop and savoured jalebis with him, took offerings from local Maulavi in normal times, is in front line to destroy the shop when riots break out.
Roshan who came as an amused tourist in a city his parents and grandparents grew up in, risks his life to restore peace in the place he has now fallen in love with over his short stay.
Narrating his experience he calls Delhi “chaotic yet balanced”. Ironically, it just took a rumour to disbalance the city. So he decides to counter the rumour with another to restore it.
Coming out from the Bollywood narrative where everything is okay in the end and a hero emerges to solve the conflict in just a few minutes, the reality is much more challenging. Interestingly, when Covid-19 came to Delhi, the city was facing the aftermath of the communal clashes that played out in northeastern parts of it. This common threat from the pandemic causing virus came in as a distraction and forced everyone to fight in unity. But only for some time.
Just like the mysterious black monkey, Covid-19 also united a communally disturbed capital city and country. The communal hatred took a backseat for a while as fear of contracting coronavirus took over the nation. Delhi that saw massive protests with not only anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act and anti-NRC rallies but also pro-CAA rallies (protesting against the protest), election rallies and then elections, and riots in just a span of four months, was suddenly paranoid over an invisible virus.
For a few days, all WhatsApp groups didn’t discuss how the other community was a threat to one’s own. Fake news was spread regarding the virus and not people for a change. How to build immunity against Covid-19 was discussed more. And the possibility of the return of a Mughal rule or a new Hindu Rashtra took a back seat for a time while tips on sanitizers, masks, tulsi, neem, turmeric, became a hit on WhatsApp.
Covid-19 did, for a few days what, Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) does in the movie’s climax.
In the three-hour movie, Roshan is successful in the end to restore peace to his beloved city. He dresses up as the black monkey himself and gets almost killed while distracting the communally charged crowd from killing each another.
But Delhi 6 was on the reel. The novel Coronavirus did take away the attention from all other issues for a moment, but it’s not the Bollywood hero who is here to restore peace in few minutes.
As the virus exploded in India and cases from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation broke out, we were back to where we started. This time, Covid-19 was added to the communal divide that took over the country.
It is worth mentioning that this is a rather rare time we are living in where people are divided on the lines of either fiercely defending the government or criticising it.
Both the movie and the book are marvellous in the way they decode Delhi. Despite being from different decades these are still relevant to those who truly are interested in what Dalrymple calls the city of djinns.
Both Dalrymple and Roshan saw the city for what it was and fell in love with its imperfections. So much so, that they decide to settle down here for life.
(Views expressed are personal)