There’s a wonderful scene early in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where the bad guys force Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) to imbibe large quantities of Bourbon so they can make it look like he accidentally drove himself off a cliff. Grant somehow escapes their clutches and then, barely in command of his faculties, tries to manouevre the car down a long, winding, dimly lit road. What follows is a Hitchcock setpiece that feels like a rollercoaster ride – an effect that’s heightened by Grant’s brilliantly goggle-eyed expression and by Bernard Herrmann’s rousing, carnivalesque music score. There are sharp turns to be negotiated every now and again, each tree on the roadside is a potential threat, the lights of oncoming cars blind Grant (and us, since much of what we see is from his blurred, near-hallucinatory point of view), another car down the road seems like it’s a comfortable distance away, but then he has to swerve to avoid it at the last possible minute.
I was around 14 when I first saw North by Northwest but even back then, despite the appeal this scene held for my thrill-seeking adolescent senses, I knew that it was escapist cinema; that it existed purely as diversion, to entertain, and that it bore little resemblance to real life.
Fifteen years later, I’m no longer so sure. Driving in Delhi during rush hour (or almost any hour), I now know how Roger Thornhill must have felt on that snaky mountain road; if a camera were to be trained on my face during a drive, some of my expressions would probably be similar to his. This city is like a giant obstacle course. Cyclists dart about blithely, completely unmindful of their safety (or your blood pressure). Buses change lanes in a manner that will best equip them to elbow you off the road. There are detours everywhere, and in some cases the signs indicating their existence are wilfully located after you’ve passed the diversion. There are millions of unmarked speed-breakers.
At any given point, there are pedestrians who don’t yet know about basic road rules (many of them having recently immigrated to the city for the first time) – so it’s common to see people successfully crossing the half of a road where traffic moves from right to left, reaching the divider and then carrying on with their heads still turned towards the right while drivers coming from the opposite direction screech to a halt.
Make the mistake of accelerating from 40 kmph to 50 kmph when you see an empty stretch of road up ahead, and a large car will suddenly charge out of some obscure lane to your left, like a Shane Warne leg-break attacking a batsman’s blind side. Take every precaution you can, there’s still every chance that one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a pile-up. Life has become a paisa vasool scene out of a thriller, and one doesn’t even have to be drunk to participate in it (in fact, I’d argue that being high makes you feel more assured and at home on Delhi’s roads).
“Hitchcock digs into our deepest fears,” wrote Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders. “He dramatizes the conflicts and compulsions we all share in our daily lives.” This is probably not what he was talking about.