'I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in': Aanand L Rai

'I miss my Delhi a lot. I try to keep that Delhi alive through my films. I can’t bring it back but I can bring a smile to the many like me who miss it as much,' says filmmaker Aanand L Rai.

Devansh Sharma January 29, 2022 08:41:20 IST
'I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in': Aanand L Rai

Dhanush in Raanjhanaa

In the limited series #DilliDelhi, Devansh Sharma talks to scriptwriters and filmmakers who have explored the city of Delhi, in all its eccentricities, intricacies, and complexities, through their films.

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Aanand L Rai left Delhi after finishing school; he insists, however, that the city has not left him.

One day, he hopes that the small part of Delhi that resides within him will reunite with its real counterpart; Rai admits, however, that the Delhi of today does not seem very familiar. “I miss the chhat [terrace] a lot. We used to sprinkle water on it during summers to keep the house cool. Neither that sense of warmth, nor the cool is there anymore,” says the 50-year-old filmmaker.

Instead, the Delhi Rai grew up in has now taken shelter in the neighbouring tier-2 cities and small towns. He finds himself gravitating towards the people, who, for him, make the city more than its monuments. “That culture of sitting together, eating together… those people, I find them in a Lucknow, in a Kanpur, in an Amritsar now,” he says. In an effort to revisit the capital city of the days gone by, he has traversed the length and breadth of central India, and recreated his Delhi in films like the Tanu Weds Manu franchise [Kanpur], Raanjhanaa [Varanasi], and Zero [Meerut].

The only film he has set majorly in Delhi is the 2013 romantic drama Raanjhanaa. Though parts of the 2015 comedy Tanu Weds Manu Returns feature Delhi University, the second half of Raanjhanaa was completely set in the capital, with a large number of scenes in Jawaharlala Nehru University [JNU].

I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in Aanand L Rai

Sonam Kapoor in Raanjhanaa

The setting is ironic for two reasons: Firstly, Rai had little idea about college life in Delhi since he pursued his BTech from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Secondly, he confesses that he is apolitical. In fact, he learnt a lot about politics while making Raanjhanaa when he researched JNU, its philosophy, and relations with other political parties.

But Rai says directing Raanjhanaa was not that difficult “because the character of Kundan came organically” to him. “I could relate with this Banaras boy who enters into a whole new world but refuses to play by its rules."

Raanjhana revolves around Kundan [Dhanush], a Hindu boy from Varanasi who has a crush on a Muslim girl Zoya [Sonam Kapoor]. When Zoya falls in love with Jasjeet [Abhay Deol], a student leader in JNU, Kundan exposes Jasjeet’s true identity to her family. Once they realise Jasjeet was masquerading as a Muslim, Zoya’s family attacks him; he succumbs to the injuries. In his quest to seek forgiveness, Kundan vows to help Zoya achieve Jasjeet’s dreams of gaining political power in New Delhi and joins her All India Citizens Party [AICP].

The most interesting part about the Delhi portions of Raanjhanaa was Kundan’s interaction with the JNU students. In a telling scene, he tries to sneak into the JNU hostel to have a look at Zoya, but gets caught by the other students. As they debate his motive for sneaking in, he comfortably sips tea, eats a snack, and takes a nap.

I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in Aanand L Rai

“It was a very exciting scene to shoot,” says Rai. “It often happens that our motive is personal but it is analysed by others through a political lens. Kundan here represents the section of society that the students of JNU want to elevate. But maybe he is not interested in being empowered that way. Perhaps he wants to do it himself, at his own pace. But the students — who must’ve seen their seniors debate about these things — go on debating about lack of basic needs, law and order while it actually is not at all about that. Maybe politics means that – to complicate the problem, and then trying to solve it,” explains Rai.

In another interesting scene, when AICP is cleaning a filth-laden Delhi lane, one of the residents dares them to continue with their propaganda He claims the party members help the citizens only when the elections are round the corner. To this, the quick-witted Kundan replies that citizens do not have a choice. “Itne saal vote kia na? Ek baar aur kar ke dekh lo. Ab batao, tumhari madad karein saaf karne mein? Nahi toh pade raho aise hi t*tti mein,” he says.

I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in Aanand L Rai

Rai agrees that the scene is a very accurate depiction of the state of the Indian citizen today. “We don’t have any choice. It is just one over the other. We don’t even know if the one we’re going for will turn out to be the better alternative. This is an unfortunate state to be in. Just like that man in the film, we have no choice but to keep sitting in the filth,” he says.

Interestingly, the shooting of Raanjhanaa was taking place parallel to the Youth India Anti-Corruption Movement, led by Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi, and Arvind Kejriwal. It was the biggest youth movement of the new millennium, and made those turning a blind eye to promising but isolated socialist groups, sit up and take notice of a potential electoral choice. Rai’s film had a similar sub-plot but he insists that the similarities are co-incidental at best. “The script was written much before the movement started. But as it progressed, we were quite surprised that the events were unfolding as they were in our film.”

I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in Aanand L Rai

Rai points out that people often confuse being apolitical with being voiceless: “That’s unfair. I may not be politically inclined but I do have a voice. I may not sound well-read when I talk about things, but I do get my point across.” He adds, “I may miss out on a few things by being apolitical, but I feel I’ll be better off than those who are obsessed with politics. My approach may be simplistic but I can see solutions more clearly than those who don't even want to work towards the solutions.”

With that thought in mind, Rai finds himself on a quest to rediscover the Delhi that was more “home” for him, than the hub of India’s political power. Wherever he finds a part of that Delhi, he introduces it to his audience. “I try to keep that Delhi alive through my films,” he says. “I miss my Delhi a lot. I can’t bring it back but I can bring a smile to the many like me who miss it as much.” 

Read more from the Dilli-Delhi series here.

I keep looking for the Delhi I grew up in every small town I come across and set a story in Aanand L Rai

Dilli-Delhi. Illustration by Poorti Purohit

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