Delhi-6 completed ten years of its release earlier this week. Coming off the barnstorming Rang De Basanti, director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra dropped this meditation on the multi-cultural communalism which permeates even the most tight-knit parts of our society.
Upon release though, the film didn’t do well at all, barely crossing its cost of production. Two VICE staffers decided to revisit the reception, and why the film might be a misunderstood classic.
Naman Saraiya: I've got to start by saying this: I rewatched Delhi-6 last month on Netflix, and still really enjoyed the movie. Then it hit me. It's been 10 years to it, but I recall watching it the first time. Crystal clear. I was in college, first year, second semester, and walked to the theatre with two dudes who weren't even particularly my friends. But I remember having a great discussion as well.
Do you also recall people really not enjoying the movie, it getting panned and well, perhaps missing the whole point? Tell me, what did you think of it when you first watched it?
Parthshri Arora: I have to squint super hard in my cerebral cortex to summon that memory. It was with my conservative parents, at a smol single screen. I remember enjoying the movie though, especially the fantastical elements, the surrealism.
To prepare for this, I researched the “Masakali” video and now was shook by how much Mehra's camera loves Sonam Kapoor. Girl is dynamite.
Can we sidebar? Why were interesting directors into casting a young Sonam?
Saraiya: Well, I guess digging out older memories of watching movies at a younger age are always enjoyable. I'm still confused whether my first movie in the theatre ever was Roja or Lion King—either way, both are a goddamn win.
Coming to your sidebar, honestly, I don't get the hype. I'm not sure anyone is casting Sonam Kapoor for the acting. “Masakali” is perhaps one of her career-best moments, since she appeared on camera first. Tbf, her voice/off-camera persona has put me off so much over the years, I've not watched many movies with her in them. Like Aisha. My god, what a train wreck! I know she blocked me on Twitter for saying something similar when I was in college.
Can we pull back to Delhi-6? Severely underrated overall. Excellent first half. Top rate soundtrack from ARR. And what's not to like about AB Jr? Supporting cast was spot on, the characters were half-fleshed, but not caricaturised—but what happened to ROMP (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra Pictures), man?
Maybe my youthful interest in Bollywood just weaned off, year after year of hoping trashy movies wouldn't be so.
Arora: Yeah I've never really understood the hate for the movie. Maybe it was the lack of exposition till the end speech, maybe it was the fantastical elements, with Amitabh at the end jumping through. Like, I don't remember people going nuts over the post-death scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Sure, that is a series about magic, but chilling with a father figure in a metaphysical form under a lot of white light is still weird. And with the imagery in Delhi-6, which kept hinting throughout at the power of imagination, I don't get the backlash.
It's been 10 years, and we ask for movies which "push the envelope", and here's a film trying to be random as fuck talking about religion in a very practical way, and the culture collectively shat on it. Public opinion is the enemy of interesting, and sometimes I feel we don't credit people enough for trying.
Also, it's a shockingly good Delhi movie. Perhaps one of the best. I sometimes wake up in the night with the Rishi-Kapoor-driving-in-Chandni-Chowk night scene. It makes a normal thing cinematic, which I guess is why we go to the movies in the first place.
Saraiya: Ooooh, now that you've brought it up, can I just say that the fucking end sucked? It ruined the whole experience for me, and I remember feeling so a decade ago, as also when I watched the movie last month. I think the backlash was deserved because you feed your audience all of that metaphysical, intellectual and other shit that they're often not exposed to in the movies post the ’90s, and I reckon they feel cheated.
As for the Delhi bit, I’m with you on it. Rarely have I seen old Delhi being shown this way. Some charm, some charisma, and it isn't only the imagery that makes it so. The dialogue, the characters intertwining with the imagery make it so. Few movies comes close, namely Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Badhaai Ho, Dev D to an extent, Khosla ka fucking Ghosla, Ankhon Dekhi (!!!) and before I forget, one of my all time favs, Monsoon Wedding. You're right—people go to the movies to see a normal thing become cinematic. Wait, is that right? I'm not sure.
Arora: Haha well, if it wasn't so, wouldn't documentaries be making as much money as the Avengers or the Salman-Khan-Beats-People-Up flicks?
Also, I'm very ambivalent about the ending. But I do agree about conditioning audiences, especially in India where the experience of watchers varies so much. Now I'm really thinking what would've happened if it had come out now, in a post-Andhadhun world.
It's weird, but Delhi-6 as a film, is closer to Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Limited than Mehra's other films, and the state of those two films, both interested in fantasy fuelling reality, was oddly similar.
Tell me this though: How does Rahman feature in this? From a scale perspective—especially as Delhi-6 dropped just as he was gaining Slumdog fame—the Delhi-6 soundtrack doesn't sound as large as his more famous works. The arrangements are intimate and delicate. (Yes, I'm typing this while blasting “Rehna Tu"). It's also an unusually stripped down sound choice for Mehra, who likes the largest in his pictures. Why'd you think they made the choice?
Saraiya: I'm not sure those who are making documentaries are doing it to be millionaires, which however seems to be the case for Bollywood more often than. And that is a sad state of affairs from the larger look of it. If Delhi-6 would've released today, first up there'd be a hajjar requested cuts based on our fucking moral and communal sensitivity and the government would perhaps get it banned.
PS—Honeymoon Travels was not a bad film at all! As for Mehra's other films outside of Delhi-6, Aks was taught to us in film school for some weird reason, RDB is a classic, and the ones that came after were in a period of my life that seemed to not dig Bollywood so much. Talking of surreal moments, one of my first Bombay houses is in the same lane as the ROMP office, and he almost ran over me one afternoon.
As for ARR, good god, I love the man and the mysticism that surrounds him. I can't forgive him for this terribad song in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Blue, but does he spin magic otherwise! A few years ago, I had a chance to photograph him live in concert and I knew that the setlist would feature a shit ton of music from Rockstar and Tamasha (and it did), but deep down inside I hope he would play “Rehna Tu”. And he did. I stood in the middle of a ground in Dwarka, surrounded by hardcore fans of both Rahman and Mogwai, judgemental fucks like myself and otherwise, and forgot all about the world. I stood, camera by my side, in the middle of a sea of people with my eyes closed, whispering the words back to myself, and conjuring up an imagery of a loved one who knew how I felt but never acknowledged it.
To me, nothing comes close to feeling better, and with words like those, you'd almost want to forgive Prasoon Joshi for doing what he is now? No, fuck that.
Arora: Hahaha. Man, I'm just glad that we had this film. Mehra took all the social capital he made from Rang De Basanti, and spent four years of his life making a movie where he tried to extrapolate ideas about communalism and class via the chase for a dude dressed as a monkey. It's why auteurs are fascinating, and movies are the absolute best.