Francis Ford Coppola once said that art depended on luck and talent. It was on this day eight years ago that Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) released to a concoction of ill luck and bad timing. The film was the director’s much-awaited follow-up to his critically acclaimed and commercially successful debut, Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and would have become one of Hindi cinema’s best had it not been for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks that had entered its bloodiest phase.
Released just two days after the 26/11 attacks on 28 November 2008, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! suffered as the mood of the nation, and more importantly Mumbai, the one city where the response to a film makes or breaks it, was not one to go to a cinema hall. If Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla was a film that many in Delhi-NCR would have instantly lapped up, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! was a film that was pitch perfect for Mumbai even though it was set in a territory familiar to the former. Said to be based upon the real-life antics of a master crook Bunty, who wrecked havoc in Delhi suburbs, the crime caper was reminiscent of Mr Natwarlal (1979) or the Brij Sadanah directed gems like Victoria 203 (1972) and Bombay 405 Miles (1980) and these were films that performed very well in the Mumbai territory.
Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! was touted as an important release for more reasons than just being a Dibakar Banerjee film. The presence of Abhay Deol, too, was a very big factor. In a few years since his debut, Socha Na Tha (2005), Deol had featured in mix of commercial projects like Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) as well as a few that were truly indie-spirited like Ahista Ahista (2006), Ek Chalis Ki Last Local (2007) and Manorama Six Feet Under (2007). The manner in which the actor went about picking his projects made him into a cultural phenomenon of sorts where his mere presence was not only good enough to attract audiences but was soon metamorphosing into an ISI mark of sorts. It was Deol’s presence that in a few years would green light Dev D (2009).
The combination of a director who, with Khosla Ka Ghosla, showed that even within the realm of hardcore commercial Hindi films that was far too dependent on entertaining the patron, it was possible to create cinema that would transcend such trappings, and an actor who showed the potential of becoming a commercially feasible actor who would use his stardom to fuel projects that otherwise would have wallowed in development hell made Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye an intriguing prospect. Like Khosla Ka Ghosla, this one too was inspired by real life events but even after taking cinematic liberties Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! promised to be, and in hindsight more than delivered in being one of the few films based on true life where reality was not a victim. But more significantly what made the film a standout was that its realism was pitch perfect.
Lovinder ‘Lucky’ Singh (Deol and also a brilliant Manjot Singh, who played the young Lucky) is a west Delhi boy who has grown up in a community where the physical proximity to your neighbours translates into a character trait that takes poking one’s nose into someone else’s business as a given. He can’t see eye-to-eye with his father (Paresh Rawal), and along with his bum chum Bangali (Manu Rishi Chadda, who also wrote the film’s dialogues) breaks away from that cosmos by partaking in petty crimes. His charm and the ease with which he robs people brings Lucky in contact with Gogi Bhai (Rawal, again) who uses him as a pawn to further his game. Perennially in search of a father figure and moreover, approval from that source, Lucky endears himself to Mr Handa (Paresh Rawal, yet again) and his wife (Archana Puran Singh), who would con the conman. Lucky falls in love with Sonal (Neetu Chandra) much to the chagrin of her more ‘with it’ sister, Dolly (Richa Chadda) and experiences continuous heartbreak when his father remarries, Bangali deceives him, Gogi orders his execution and the Handas sell him out.
Released at a time when social media, especially Twitter was yet to gain the kind of gravitas that it enjoys today and 24x7 news channels had not come into their own, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, like many of us didn’t fully comprehend the scale of the 26/11 till the 72-hour nightmare got over. Had it come out today, the producers would have surely deferred the film's release. Back then no one thought that the terror attacks would play out the way they did and perhaps people were too shocked in the immediate few weeks to go enjoy a film.
Besides the unflinching look at the urban landscape, the film’s seminal take on men and women who are often ignored by mainstream cinema when it comes to creating characters is one of the major reasons why it is still peerless. The film has worked like a slow release medicine that has opened many facets when it comes to mainstream Hindi films. The manner in which Lucky repeatedly meets the same elderly character, Paresh Rawal, through the narrative of is also somewhat magical. Years ago when Sholay (1975) was not getting a positive response from the patrons in the initial days of its release, Ramesh Sippy was almost convinced to re-edit and make the ending ‘positive’. It was a cinema-hall projectionist who nonchalantly told the young director to give people a while before they could understand what hit them. Consider the other films that released the same year, 2008 — Ghajini, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Jodhaa Akbar, A Wednesday, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Drona, Rock On!! — and suddenly you notice how, had fate been kinder, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! would have been in a league of its own — had it not been so unlucky with the timing of its release.