The first in our series of Cities in Cinema, we focus on New Delhi and how only a handful of films/shows have managed to capture its identity.
The inner conflict that tears every Delhiite apart isn’t easy to explain. Regardless of where you live in this city, it is likely that you have spent just as much time in awe of it as you have in utter disgust. It’s almost like a Stockholm syndrome situation. You feel like you’ve been held hostage by Delhi, but you can’t possibly imagine living anywhere else.
Because behind every pile of trash, underneath every defaced medieval ruin, there is a story. It is a story of resilience, of culture, of co-existence. It is a story of violence, of jealousy, of betrayal. There is drama in every square inch of this city.
Which makes you wonder: why is it that Delhi remains relatively underrepresented in cinema? There could be any number of reasons. Perhaps it is because not enough people from Delhi make movies. We certainly don’t have a resident Ray. Cities like Kolkata and Mumbai have been immortalised on the big screen, but the most cinematic city of them all has been ignored.
In this, the first of a new series about films and shows that accurately capture our cities on screen, we’re going to list the best titles set in Delhi. Stay tuned for the next entry in the series, which will focus on films and shows set in Mumbai.
Were it not for streaming—particularly the initial wave of creative freedom that the landscape afforded—we wouldn’t have got one of the most stunningly accurate depictions of Delhi in the Prime Video series Paatal Lok. Jaideep Ahlawat’s noir-inspired narration perfectly captures not just the social hierarchy of this city, but gives it an air of mythic majesty. This is the sort of city that can kill you, but it’s also the sort of city that can compel someone to compose a poem on the horrid circumstances of your death.
Eeb Allay Ooo!
A stinging satire of Lutyens’ Delhi lawmakers shot in and around the sacred avenues of the Capital’s policy-making but dream-destroying centre, Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo! doubles as an important piece of representation for the city’s significant migrant population. It tells the story of a man caught between two Delhis — he walks along tree-lined avenues during the day, but at night, he trudges back home across the river, ‘Jamnapaar’. This is the reality of the thousands who come to this city daily, looking for better lives, only to be slotted into arbitrary societal boxes by those who’ve appointed themselves as superior.
From its earliest frames, it is clear that Netflix’s Delhi Crime has an eye for authenticity. Inspired by the harrowing 2012 gang rape of a medical student, which was, in many ways, our own 9/11-level moment of reckoning, Delhi Crime is a distressing (yet uplifting) recreation of the case. I remember being impressed with its keen attention for detail, particularly with regard to real-life locations. But I also remember being slightly put off by its reverence for the Delhi Police. And that, in an abstract way, is what this city is all about.
A relic of perhaps the strangest era in modern YRF history, director Kanu Behl’s Titli, like Delhi Crime, makes the wise decision to portray the city like the dystopia of injustice and cruelty that it is. It tells the story of those on the fringes of society, desperate to break in. Titli also captures the vast socio-economic divide that this city is torn apart by, but is always empathetic towards those who’ve been trapped—either by this city, or by their own tribe.
Khosla Ka Ghosla
Perhaps the most skilled chronicler of contemporary Delhi working in mainstream Hindi cinema, director Dibakar Banerjee would go on to honour the city in several films. But his laugh-out-loud satire of middle class drudgery, Khosla Ka Ghosla, remains his finest. A keen observer of colourful characters, Banerjee adds some authentic local flavour to the film, glimpsed in blink-and-miss asides about Rajma Chawal-fuelled indigestion, and overheard discussions on porn. Khosla Ka Ghosla also makes a strong case for how, contrary to popular belief, Delhiites can turn to culture when brute force fails.
Even the nice people who actually live in Gurugram are wary of venturing beyond certain imaginary borders. Just like how in Delhi, food delivery apps and e-commerce giants forbid their delivery personnel from entering a handful of neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. And for good reason. Director Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon is a stark reminder of just how sinister the peripheries of this city can be; all you have to do is take a wrong turn—metaphorically and literally. It has no patience for weakness, it preys on the superstitious, and thrives on revenge.
Since we’re on the subject of seediness, is there a more luridly attractive corner of Delhi than Paharganj? A hub for hippie tourists and local addicts, Paharganj occupies prime real estate in the heart of the city. Peer out from the terrace of one of its many cafes (or, indeed, one of its shady hotels), and you’ll be able to spot Connaught Place in the distance. The neon-lit nastiness of Paharganj was also prominently showcased in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, but BA Pass is a more focused noir fable, a film that captures both the fantastic allure and the unforgiving reality of this city.
While most other titles on this list represent the spirit of the city, few films have been able to capture the endearing obnoxiousness of a very particular creature—the Delhi uncle—better than Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor. Played by Annu Kapoor, Dr Baldev Chaddha is the kind of person who addresses Ayushmann Khurrana’s Vicky as ‘my dear’, makes a hilarious hand gesture every time he says the word ‘sperm (pronounced spuh-rum)’, and is prone to casual discrimination against ‘Bongs’. We all know at least one Chaddha uncle.
Watch out for our piece on how Mumbai has been represented in cinema next week.