Woody Allen recently refused to lend himself to an ‘I love New York’ ad campaign. Observers say there is no love lost between the man and the city, which has been rather ‘unkind’ to him since the covers were blown off his scandalous relationship with an ex-partner’s daughter. That does not take away from the significance of the stand-off though, since the city is now faced with a disenchanted artist-merchant who does not feel any moral obligation to pay it everlasting obeisance, especially when it does not hesitate to drub him for his all-too-human lapses. This is a watershed moment in the traditional symbiotic equation between the city and art. A simplistic take on Allen’s latest uncharitable act would be to say that he refused to honour his end of the deal after using the city and its many lives as the amphitheatre in so many of his films. A more nuanced take would however suggest the arrival of a new utilitarian voice. The artist does not unconditionally belong to the city any more – rather, the city, its spaces, its wealth and its depravity, are for the artist to own and use. Humility is not a part of the deal, not a part that can be taken for granted anyway.
In a way, Woody Allen will find his ideological match in Dibakar Banerjee. Remembered for Ghosla Ka Ghosla (KKG; 2006) till the release of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (OLLO; 2008), Banerjee has created a narrative pattern around Delhi that allows his characters to turn unapologetic owners of the spaces they inhabit, uprooting the notional ‘greater than’ sign that separates the city from its people.
Let’s briefly consider how the city brings this upon itself. In both KKG and OLLO, the city is an unforgiving, even dehumanising machina, overturning the very rules of civility that are meant to make it a liveable space. In both films, the city toys with the sanctimonious visible and invisible orders that are meant to preserve personal investments. Take KKG for instance. The usurpation of Khosla’s (Anupam Kher) plot and the land broker’s subsequent offer to him to repurchase his own plot is symptomatic of a city perversely fattening its inventory by feeding on those who think of themselves as its own. In OLLO’s very different universe, Lucky the thief’s (Abhay Deol) contribution to the city’s physical stock in the form of the restaurant he funds only deepens his isolation from the city, as his white-collared co-partner dramatically disowns him taking advantage of his disenfranchised existence. Thus, in both cases, the city first establishes rules of ownership and then allows a certain set of people to abuse them – by intimidating the middle-class sensibilities of Khosla in the first case and by applying the tenets of apartheid against Lucky in the second. It is a primitive world order where all wealth is up for grabs and must be subsumed within a hierarchical social order, not necessarily determined on the basis of class but might.
What is of interest to the cineaste is that the popularity of both the films is directly proportional to their adherence to a perceived ‘true’ Delhi dynamic. The cheer around KKG and OLLO is a celebration of their honest portrayal of a corrupt social matrix, proving that the audiences of the day are far more comfortable looking at a city as it really is – ruthless, with its own self-interested logic – rather than as an object of veneration. One can only imagine that the city justifies its behaviour by invoking Darwin. Little wonder then that the characters in such a world also quickly evolve to become deserving players in the Darwinian circus, and in both films they come up trumps by dismantling the same structures of ownership that the city erects and pulls down at its own whim. And they have the crowds behind them.
What is curious about physical ownership of wealth in cities is the role played by fences and boundaries in the process of wealth creation. As pointed out by the impressive directorial trinity of the documentary Corporation (www.thecorporation.com), as long as natural resources – like land or water, no matter how expansive – lie about unfenced, they are community property and therefore ‘worthless’. The moment someone puts up a wall or a fence around them, slicing out a piece and in effect delimiting their value, private wealth is born. The wall is, strictly speaking, inorganic – not a part of the wealth itself – but the bigger the wall, the more imposing the owner’s stature. Who can forget the dwarfing effect of Khurana’s (Boman Irani) massive wall on Khosla and co and Bunty’s (Ranvir Shorey) subsequent plan to have the wall pulverised by pehelwans?! Similarly, an obsessive Lucky constantly jumping walls and fences to breach the fragile myth of security that the city weaves around its centres of wealth presents an enduring image. In such vignettes, the wall becomes the symbol of all that the city wants to preserve in its refulgent bowels, and challenging it betokens the underdog’s rebellion.
Both Khosla and Lucky are classic underdogs, but while Khosla’s is a battle that stops with reclaiming his property, Lucky’s marauds into the city’s coffers outgrow their initial motivation. The product of a depraved childhood (recollect the violent ‘let’s buy another scooter’ scene with an incensed Paresh Rawal as the young Lucky’s father) in a place notorious for show-offs (call to mind the schoolkids passing Lucky’s neighbourhood in a swanky car), Lucky’s initial foray into thievery is the result of ambition and the urge to make a statement. At this stage, he is busy stealing objects of moderate-to-high commercial value, a television here, a Merc there. However, after being spectacularly rebuffed by Handa (Paresh Rawal again, this time as the nefarious restaurant partner), stealing assumes a self-driven logic of its own that does not brook any care for sanity. He steals teddy bears, mannequins, greeting cards and even someone’s pet dog. Though this could be viewed as the sign of a commodity fetish – another of urban life’s flagship identities – Lucky is now propelled by an impish desire to confound the city’s conventional wisdom on the question of wealth. The thoroughly harassed cops give away how the outcast has in fact managed to confute all of the city’s pet theories on covetousness. As for the city itself, it is perhaps left to ponder upon this new anarchic intruder who revels in bullying its arrogant institutions and desecrating its chambers of riches and ho-hum alike, just to have some fun.
What about respect? Well it has to be mutual, doesn’t it?
Published review here: http://dearcinema.com/the-delhi-of-dibakar-banerjee/