Kya Dilli Kya Lahore review: An unpolished gem, definitely worth a watch

Suprateek Chatterjee

May 03, 2014 16:18:27 IST

One of my biggest, long-running pet peeves against contemporary Indian cinema is our apparent love for bombastic, wall-to-wall background music. Our filmmakers encourage composers to accentuate every crest and trough in the story-graph with overpowering music that takes care to identify itself distinctively as happy, sad, ecstatic, devastating, sly or exciting, amongst other such moods. This practice has set up an eco-system that ensures that often expository writing and loud acting aren't nearly enough to convey the message to audiences; one needs the score to tell its own parallel story.

Composer Sandesh Shandilya, known for his 2001 album Piya Basanti and songs from films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2003), follows the above template and almost singlehandedly ruins Vijay Raaz’s directorial debut Kya Dilli Kya Lahore. Set at an isolated stretch of the Indo-Pak border in 1948, Kya Dilli… is a well-acted and sufficiently nuanced dramedy. In the way it is acted, written and edited, it aspires to be a socio-political satire with the soul of an Arthur Miller play.

Kya Dilli Kya Lahore review: An unpolished gem, definitely worth a watch

Vijay Raaz in his directorial venture. Image courtesy: Facebook

However, Shandilya’s background score seems to be following a brief that says ‘Treat this like a sweeping, award-bait epic’. What this results in is an uneasy, partially indigestible goulash of a film – one that provides sufficient meat in the acting and storytelling departments, sometimes rendered ineffective by an over-spiced stew.

This is a pity because the meat is so, so good – Manu Rishi and Raaz himself, two fine actors (the latter possibly one of the best character actors in the history of Hindi cinema) play an Indian and a Pakistani soldier respectively, duelling for hours at a tiny border outpost over a file of strategic importance. The year is 1948, not long after the Partition, and memories of independent India’s worst bloodbath are still fresh. The Indian soldier, Samarth Pratap (Rishi) is a baawarchi who is inexperienced with actual warfare; his Pakistani counterpart, Rehmat Ali (Raaz) is a reluctant soldier following vague orders from his injured captain (Vishwajeet Pradhan).

This is all one really needs to be told about this film, which also happens to be perfect material for an absorbing play. In a rare and nuanced manner, Kya Dilli… relies on nothing but acting and dialogue to establish its plot and characterisation. The bulk of the storyline, written by Aseem Arora, is a classic cat-and-mouse game, with the camera never leaving Rehmat and Pratap. Their conversation flows naturally and logically, driven by both their implanted beliefs as well as their memories of a life before Partition, where they stayed in a seemingly pluralistic society. It’s an evergreen story that works on every basic level and the performances keep us hooked.

Rishi, who has previously delivered stellar turns in Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye! (2008) and Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010), shines as Pratap, a bumbling, nerdy and inexperienced soldier harbouring a dislikeable superiority complex on account of being Indian. Raaz uses his natural world-weary expression to great effect , and plays Rehmat as an intelligent and conscientious character. Do we remember the last time a Hindi film portrayed a Pakistani character – a soldier, no less – with sensitivity and respect? Has there ever been one?

Take away Shandilya’s background score and you have a perfectly respectable and always-relevant film that coasts along with ease, with the sharply-written dialogue throwing up guffaws every few minutes, particularly in the first half. Watch the film with the score, however, and the film appears needlessly melodramatic and manipulative, thus destroying the natural essence of the characters somewhat. For instance, Raj Zutshi makes an appearance later on as Barfi Singh, a somewhat unhinged Army postal worker with dreams of being a decorated officer. There is nothing wrong with Zutshi’s performance per se, but the self-serious background music turns him into a caricature. Don’t believe this is possible? Watch Tom and Jerry on mute and tell me it doesn’t look like a sadistic and pointlessly violent exercise.

Barring this near-fatal misstep, Raaz does well in his first outing as director. He resists the urge to add flashbacks and cut-aways to this film and does a great job in ensuring that all his characters – even the Pakistani captain – come across as human beings. Gulzar lends his support and poetry to this film. It isn't entirely necessary, but it does add an acceptable touch of gravitas.

Kya Dilli… deserves to be watched, but the filmed version is still a gem that needed a little more polish. The producer, Karan Arora, would do well to think about backing a stage adaptation of the same story and touring the country with the same cast. All he needs to do is fire Shandilya.

Updated Date: May 03, 2014 16:34:30 IST