How Dibakar Banerjee's Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital city's jarring disparities

Dibakar Banerjee’s films only used Delhi and its culture to critique the Indian middle-class at large. It’s not like shameless affection for materialistic possessions isn’t a problem with the middle-class in the rest of the country. The Dilliwallahs are just not very good at hiding it, and there’s something pure and unpretentious about it.

Tatsam Mukherjee July 06, 2021 08:14:39 IST
How Dibakar Banerjee's Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital city's jarring disparities

Still from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!

Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.

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It was in early 2015 when I got my life’s first offer for a full-time job. After almost a year of desperate searches for an entry-level position, I was overjoyed to see an email with a glorious-looking PDF attached, essentially an employment contract and a breakdown of my salary. Apart from the meagre CTC, there was just one more catch to it. I would have to move to Delhi.

Born, bred and strongly conditioned by the Mumbai-is-not-a-city-it’s-an-emotion sentiment for over 15 years, my gut reaction was (nearly) par for anyone in their early 20s, spending too much time on the Internet: “eww!” And then something strange happened — the character of Archana Puran Singh from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! flashed before my eyes.

How Dibakar Banerjees Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital citys jarring disparities

Abhay Deol in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!

Having grown up on a steady diet of Hindi movies, a lot of my worldview is shaped by the movies that I’ve watched. My point of reference for Delhi during my pre-teens was Kajol’s motormouth character from Chandni Chowk (recreated by Dharma Productions in Film City of course!) in Karan Johar's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2002). Then came Dibakar Banerjee’s caper, Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), out of nowhere. Described somewhere by its director as "a film about the people of Delhi, minus a single shot of the India Gate," Khosla Ka Ghosla chucked the generalist ‘Aaoji Khaoji’ approach mainstream Hindi films had taken with Delhi characters till then.

It revelled in the specific details of its Mukherjee Nagar setting, given the way the characters spoke and behaved, giving us a fuller picture of Dilliwallahs. All said and done, Khosla Ka Ghosla was a feel-good portrait of India’s middle class. It was only in Banerjee’s next film, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, that the director’s gloves came off while holding a mirror in front of India’s middle-class… in other words, us.

How Dibakar Banerjees Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital citys jarring disparities

Anupam Kher and Ranvir Shorey in Khosla Ka Ghosla

With a considerable amount of Mumbai’s condescension for Delhi, I packed my bags. I even remember sharing a social media post, where I said something to the effect of ‘Once a Mumbaikar, always a Mumbaikar.' I braced myself for the hustle, and so immersed was I in Dibakar Banerjee’s version of Delhi, that when I met a broker in Vasant Kunj, I imagined the face of Rajendra Sethi (from Khosla Ka Ghosla) counting bundles of cash by tossing each of them on his table. There was a slipperiness to him, something that told me not to believe a single word that came out of his mouth. Even though I remained on the edge for most part of the transaction, it ended with me not getting screwed. Unlike Anupam Kher’s Kamal Kishore Khosla. Phew!

Feeling like a bombil out of water during those early days in a land-locked Delhi, there were times when I felt like the label of an ‘outsider’ was visible to everyone but me. I’d seen those Mumbai vs Delhi stand-up routines, but nothing prepared me for having to bargain with an auto driver during my weekly visits to PVR Priya. There would be times when I would feel like I’d already been sized up, like the waiter in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, who delivers that stinging dialogue - “Apni apni capacity hoti hai."

Having begun working in Delhi a whole two years before I learned the term ‘urban poor,' the city surely expedited the process of bringing me face-to-face with my (relative) poverty. In Mumbai, there’s at least a mirage of egalitarianism, where it doesn’t matter if your CTC is Rs 2 lakh or Rs 20 lakh, most people take the train for a commute to 'town.' The inequality is a little more jarring in Delhi, something Banerjee captured exquisitely in both his films, especially Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, where time slows down when the protagonist (Manjot Singh/Abhay Deol) looks on with naked aspiration, when he sees the upper classes getting down from their 'imported cars.'

There’s a lovely touch in Khosla Ka Ghosla, where Khurrana (Boman Irani) is so smitten with the way Sethi (an absolutely brilliant Navin Nischol) is dressed up in golf attire during the first plot visit, that he dresses himself like Sethi during the second plot visit. It tells us so much about why the desperation in ‘Delhi films’ is as stark as it is, because the class division is less subtle compared to other metropolitans.

How Dibakar Banerjees Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital citys jarring disparities

Navin Nischol and Boman Irani in Khosla Ka Ghosla

The infamous road rage that one usually associates with cities in the National Capital Region (NCR), even though a stereotype, is one that I’ve seen before my eyes too. However, when one does live here long enough, it’s also possible to spot the roots for such stereotypes, and note where they emerge from. I’ve discovered sectors of (definitely) made-in-Mumbai elitism in South Delhi, in artist/writer gatherings. I’ve heard stories at the workplace about scheming landladies who ‘disapprove’ of someone carrying their breakfast parantha to work, and insist on charging extra money for it. It’s reminiscent of the character of Neetu Chandra’s mother (played by Nutan Surya), who goes from her Canada-returned son-in-law’s side of the table to Lucky’s, after hearing about his hi-fi restaurant and ‘four-bedroom apartment’.

How Dibakar Banerjees Delhi helped a Mumbaikar come to terms with the capital citys jarring disparities

Still from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!

However, having lived in Delhi NCR since 2016, I’ve also begun to see how Banerjee’s films only used the city and its culture to critique the Indian middle-class at large. It’s not like Delhi’s shameless affection for materialistic possessions isn’t a problem with the middle-class in the rest of the country. The Dilliwallahs are just not very good at hiding it, and there’s something pure and unpretentious about it. 

Moving into my seventh house in five years, I went through an experience similar to Khosla’s, where the broker helped us move into a beautiful ground floor apartment, only to find out that it was being sold a month later. For a moment, I was tempted to hire samosa and jalebi-chomping akhadawalas to get my revenge on the broker and the landlord. Thankfully, better sense prevailed. 

Living in my eighth house, I think I’m a little more forgiving towards NCR. There are things to dislike about the city (like most cities), but it’s also not such a terrible place after all. While I’m grateful that Banerjee’s films prepared me for the city. It’s also about reaching a place where one can be objective about a city, rather than nostalgic about it. As the last five years have taught me, it’s always the people and the spots in the city where we spent time with them, rather than the city itself that we miss. And for any Mumbaikar reading this, it’s possible to make good memories in Delhi.

Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.

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