I did it! I figured out the message of Delhi 6! It was right there in front of me all the time! Also, I figured out the main problem (Sonam and Abhishek have terrible chemistry).
You ready for the answer? For the big solution to the mystery of the meaning of Delhi 6? It’s about humanism. That’s all. Society and religion are the poison, the real value and power is in the people. That’s also why the filming style changes so much. When it’s about the people, everything is handheld and free and easy and flying. When it’s about the rules, religion, family, all the rest of it, then it is stable and firm.
Abhishek is the outsider coming in to India for the first time. In most films he would be about the food, the clothes, the history, the architecture. That’s what is supposed to win over the NRI coming home. But in this film, he finds something special and wonderful in India, and it is the people. The crowds all around are a blessing to him, the kindness and caring and even the little scrabbles, it’s all wonderful because it is all human.
The Ram-Leela that weaves through the film, it is the weak flawed distant religion that does not matter. It’s place is not to speak to the actions that are happening, but instead to fail to speak to them. For instance, Divya Dutta plays the untouchable sweeper woman, sexualized and desired by all the men. But she loses herself watching Ram eat a berry given to him by an untouchable woman during the play. It doesn’t solve any of her problems, it just distracts her for a while. And the only people watching this scene are the untouchables, the point is to keep them peaceful and faithful by giving them what they want, not to teach the higher castes to treat them with respect as Ram treats them. It’s a very “opiate of the masses” take on things.
There’s another way the Ram-Leela weaves through, it’s in the structure of the story. Ram-Leela is filled with small disconnected moments, like Ram eating berries. They all come together in order tell a story that gives us an overall message about Ram. This film has the same structure, the little stories weaving in and out, to create an overall tapestry of humanity, of the sacredness of every person, not just the sacredness of Ram.
All of that is good. And the cast is truly amazing, Divya Dutta to Waheeda Rahman and a little surprise Amitabh. Abhishek gives a pitch perfect performance as someone who starts out good and stays good, but changes in how he understands goodness. He is not a flawed character who shows growth, he’s something much harder to portray than that, a character without flaws who learns without needing to grow. It’s all internal and silent and solid, and yet still has to fit with his late breaking sudden bursts of emotion and monologuing. Sonam is good too, as the other semi-lead, playing the average girl with aplumb, spunky and sweet and also scared and angry at her fate.
The problem is, Abhishek and Sonam just don’t have the kind of chemistry they need. This has to be the big triumphal center of all the human stories, the most human of all emotions, falling in love. And, bleh. It’s just not there between them. They both try, and the dialogue is good, and the characters make sense, but I’m just not feeling it. He feels more like her caring big brother than passionately in love, and she feels more like she is putting up with him than enjoying him.
Other problem, the Macguffin of the film, the Black Monkey, doesn’t quite fit. They needed something to cause conflict, and the point was that it had to be completely made up, to show how the mob mentality works, how stories spread, and how any conflict can be leaped upon and used by those who are looking for an advantage, a way to thrust a lever between groups.
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Like I said, it’s not so much a story as a collection of stories. Abhishek is an American, his father is Hindu and his mother Muslim and so they fled the hatred of India for America. Abhishek’s grandfather Amitabh objected to the marriage until he died, but his grandmother Waheeda eventually came around and now loves her daughter-in-law. Now, in America, Waheeda is dying and wants to go back to India to die. Her son refuses to ever go back, but Abhishek (the grandson) volunteers to take her. Waheeda returns to her home in Delhi, where she and Abhishek are immediately greeted and pulled into the love of the people. Next door is a divided house, Om Puri and his brother Pavan Malhotra are feuding and have built a wall across their courtyard. But their little sons are friends, and so are their wives Sheebha Chabbha and Supriya Pathak. Also in the household is the unmarried sister Aditi Rao Hydari whose marriage was never arranged because of her brother’s feud. And Om’s daughter Sonam Kapoor. Other characters in the neighborhood are the local corrupt cop Vijay Raaz, the local untouchable sweeper woman Divya Dutta. The innocent and devoutly religious Atul Agnihotri. Deepak Dobriyal as the friendly Muslim sweetshop owner. And outside of the neighborhood, Rishi Kapoor, cosmopolitan Muslim club owner and old friend of Abhishek’s father. The local camera shop owner Cyrus Sahukar. The local rich man Prem Chopra and his young bride Geeta Bisht They are all indeliable and they all have their own stories.
As Abhishek is arriving, the first rumors appear of a large black monkey seen by a man while urinating in the early morning. And soon enough, the legend grows and every accident is blamed on the monkey. Abhishek adds to the story himself when he covers for the little boys who stole a car by saying it was stolen by the monkey who also made himself invisible. The monkey is forgotten, a joke in the background, until the old Hindu men of the neighborhood bring a priest by to find out why their neighborhood suffers from the monkey curse. And, of course, the Muslims are blamed. Suddenly the Monkey becomes an excuse for humanity to be erased, people are told that their human instincts are wrong, evil, lead to bad things. In this case the human instinct is simple compassion for each other, appreciating that humanity that makes each of us sacred.
The Black Monkey is kind of a messy symbol, it blurs between being a representation of all our worst instincts, and a neutral thing that brings out the worst instincts in others, and just kind of a joke that doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose for the whole first 2/3rds. I feel like a little more effort would have brought out something that makes more sense as a conflict. Like, say, a high profile murder case that brings out issues of religion and gender and so on. Just talked about in the background but always with that hint of danger, and then finally brought forward. Of course, if you used something like that, it would be too similar to one of the many real life stories that resulted in exactly this pattern of lots of talking that slowly builds into anger and violence. But still, there’s got to be something better than a Black Monkey!!!!
The Black Monkey day noo ma (no idea how to spell that, stupid French) is supposed to pull together all the stories, but doesn’t quite work there either. Which is too bad because the way the stories all built up together until that point, dropping unexpectedly into the narrative at random moments, was kind of perfect. We see Sonam snapping at Abhishek at the Ram-Leela and him being intrigued, then she secretly changes clothes in a restroom before going for a photo shoot. We don’t find out until later that she dreams of winning Indian Idol, that the semi-sleazy photographer is helping her in return for her flirting. That all of this is an effort to escape a marriage her family is forcing her into. It’s Sonam’s story that takes up the most time, but we learn other things too. That the photographer is having an affair with the young wife of the moneylender. That Rishi Kapoor used to be in love with Abhishek’s mother and never told her. That Divya Dutta secretly has a little crush on Atul Agnihotri, but he avoids her because she is lower caste. That Vijay Raaz is terribly corrupt and probably raping Divya because she is too powerless to protect. And then in one night, Sonam plans to run away from her wedding with the sleazy photographer, Abhishek dresses as the monkey to scare him off and stop her, her little brother follows and watches and falls off a wall in the excitement, the crowd is called out and chases Abhishek, and in the confusion everything descends into chaos and then peace.
(This is the T-series re-edit of “Rehna Tu” and I am so sad they changed it. I loved the original because it was just Rishi and Abhishek together, one of the many relationships of the film, it’s not just about the love story, it’s about everybody)
The Black Monkey is a kind of weak metaphor, and at the same time the film skates away from the real “Black Monkey” because I think it is afraid of showing everything it needs to show. Deepak Dobriyal is Abhishek’s opposite part, the local whose life is falling apart as Abhishek’s is coming together. Deepak is a friendly sweet shop owner, always around as part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It seems to be a mostly Hindu community, but Deepak is accepted as just himself, someone everyone knows and is friendly with. He gives sweets to newly returned Waheeda and arrived Abhishek. He shows up at the Ram-Leela to sell sweets. He is around, just like everyone else. One of us, not one of “them”.
It’s his very lack of importance that makes it so heartbreaking when he is excluded. This is not a powerful figure or a notable figure, just someone trying to go about his life. And then Om Puri brings in an outside priest to visit the neighborhood and save them from the Black Monkey. And the priest points to Deepak’s framed Koran quote next to a framed picture of a Hindu God and says that is the problem. He doesn’t point to Deepak himself, but the meaning is clear. Gods should not mix together, people should not mix together, there must be order. And so unnoticed Deepak, one of the many small folks who mix together to make up the neighborhood, is singled out as “different”. And the next time we see him, he is sobbing next to his destroyed shop. We don’t actually see the moment that the residents torch his business, the film shies away from that (I assume for fear of censorship). But the scene afterwards is heartbreaking enough. And a tribute to Deepak Dobriyal’s fantastic acting, that he was able to play this friendly unimportant character you hardly noticed and then suddenly turn his performance as his character lost everything, and his deep inner anguish shouted out.
It’s the particular way his betrayal is worded that makes this film come to a different level for me. Yes, much of it was censored and simplified down, but Mehra managed to get this one speech in. It’s not that he lost his shop, it’s not that is afraid or angry, it’s that he is heartbroken because he has been thrown out of a community he thought he belonged in. That he has been made “other” instead of “us”.
(This is only related in that it shows another example of “other” and “us”. Abhishek being welcomed into the female only group and standing apart from the men on the adjoining roof)
Arjun Appadurai wrote an essay called Fear of Small Numbers (link here). I had to read part of it in a graduate seminar, and I didn’t understand all of it, but the main point I grasped was the danger to the minority as they get smaller. Because it becomes ever more tempting to the majority to cleanse the community, to remove that one small blot that stops them from purity. We see this over and over again, places where the difference between the majority and the minority is only 10% or so, there is no fear. But when the majority is vast and the minority is just 2-3%, that is when they become hated. In America, during WWII, there were a massive number of people of Japanese ancestry (and other Asian ancestries) in Hawaii. And Hawaii was the territory that suffered the most during the war, the only place to have a massive deadly attack. And yet, there were no internment camps there. People of Japanese ancestry worked in defense plants and other high security jobs. No one thought anything about it. It was on the mainland, were the Asians were a small minority, that is where they were feared and controlled and abused.
Deepak in this film, he is that small minority. There are other Muslims around, but Deepak is the only one who lives right in the neighborhood with the Hindus. And so he is the target, the one they can easily destroy and cleanse out of their area. Once fear enters, hate follows, and hate looks for the smallest weakest target.
Deepak is the opposite of Abhishek, the outsider who thought of himself as an insider and learns how wrong that is. Abhishek was an insider who thought of himself as an outsider. His journey in the film is from the tourist who refuses the sweets offered him, gets dopily excited about seeing a Ram-Leela play in real life, is constantly taking cell phone photos; to the insider who decides he cannot and will not leave Delhi, who makes an impassioned plea for harmony. Abhishek thought growing up overseas meant he wasn’t connected to India. But he comes to learn that India was always with him, tells Rishi that he now sees his parents were trying to recreate it for him in America. And he know understands the line of poetry about never wanting to leave the streets of Delhi.
Most NRI films are about the NRI “becoming” Indian. But in this case, it is about Abhishek realizing he was already Indian, and he doesn’t have to prove that or do anything to make it true. Again, a humanist perspective, identity is something you carry with you not something that relies on external signs.
Deepak always thought that without thinking about it. That he was part of the Delhi 6 community and neighborhood because that was how he thought of himself, he carried it within himself. And now he is being told that his identity is external, he has to be part of the Muslim community because he is Muslim, even if that is not how he thinks of himself.
That is the conflict, one man becoming larger and deeper in his understanding as the other is driven by adversity to become smaller and smaller. And in the end, they come together. Abhishek dresses as the Black Monkey (again, the symbolism isn’t quite as good as it could be) and is seen and let’s loose all the hatred from inside the people. He is beaten and hit, he is the scapegoat in the old sense of the word, and finally Deepak shoots him.
And then the film goes a bit funny. Abhishek travels to heaven and talks to his “grandfather” played by Amitabh (weird thing, they specify that his grandfather died years ago I think to explain how Amitabh looks too young to be Abhi’s grandfather. But, first, he really doesn’t look that young. And second, Waheeda isn’t that much older and yet she is supposed to be believable as Abhishek’s grandmother?). Meanwhile on earth we go straight from Abhishek being shot and people beating the body while Sonam sobs, to the next morning with them rushing him to the hospital. The one clean good moment in this sequence is when Vijay Raaz, the cop, drops his loose hold on Deepak so that Deepak can go and follow the ambulance. A moment of humanity from the most inhuman of characters, a moment of grace, a miracle.
(If I am remembering correctly, this song is in the background during the scene, giving it a feeling of holiness)
But around it, oddness!!!! Even just the cut from Abhishek being beaten to being carried. An abrupt cut after he is shot, then take him to heaven to talk to Amitabh, then come back to see the neighborhood rallying around, that would make sense. But for some reason the edges are blurred around those transitions. The whole ending sequence feels messy and chopped up. Which is why it made so much sense to me when I learned that Abhishek was intended to die. The whole film builds to him making that sacrifice, going from casual to passionate interest. Plus, the ending sequence makes more sense if they were cutting and chopping together pieces from what was originally filmed as one full smooth death scene.
Maybe that change at the end reverberated back in unexpected ways. There is a voice over that doesn’t quite make sense through out the film, is it Abhishek? Is it Amitabh in heaven? Is it switching between both? There is the abruptness of the romance (although that’s partly because Sonam and Abhishek can’t sell the chemistry) which would have had far more depth if it ended before it could begin. There’s even the connection between Abhishek and Rishi, one of the most lovely parts of the film, a sort of sadness mixed with happiness as Rishi finds his old friend again and his old love through their son. For Rishi to be there with him while he died would give a sort of confirmation to their connection. But no, Abhishek lives. With a kind of lame dialogue as he wakes up in the crowded ambulance. And then the screen cuts to black. And the audience is left going “wait, what just happened?”
(Oh, also, why the pigeons are a constant image, I have no idea. Sonam is a pigeon in a cage who wants to fly away? Abhishek is a pigeon from overseas who goes back and forth between countries? Delhi has a lot of pigeons? I got nothing.)