Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Masks and mirrors

(Quick thoughts on two Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra films)

When a director helms a film that grows into a phenomenon, he can become so closely associated with it – especially if it came relatively early in his career – that his other movies might get downgraded or overlooked as a result. But in the long run, enthusiastic movie buffs might revisit those less popular works and find unexpected points of interest in them. This sometimes leads to critical reassessment; there are numerous examples through film history of a lower-profile work by a director eventually rising to supplant his acknowledged “masterpiece”.

I was thinking about this during a short phone conversation with director-screenwriter Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra – a prelude to our panel discussion at the Hindu Lit for Life festival on Sunday. Mehra is best known for Rang de Basanti, one of the most influential Hindi movies of the past decade. Combining the vitality of fast-paced, youthful, mass-audience cinema (and the presence of superstar Aamir Khan) with respectable subject matter (carefree youngsters become emotionally invested in their country’s problems and turn for inspiration to freedom fighters of the past), RDB was a big commercial and critical success – a rare combination in our cinema. Yet I think Mehra’s two other feature films are more interesting in terms of what they reveal of his artistic sensibilities and personal compulsions.

Those two films are his 2001 debut Aks and his 2009 production Delhi 6. On the surface these are quite disparate works. The first is a slick if overlong psychological thriller about a cop (Amitabh Bachchan in one of his best latter-day roles) who finds that his personality is being usurped by the maniacal killer he has apprehended. The second is an intimate “basti” story set in a Chandni Chowk community that becomes a microcosm of life in a chaotic country (as seen mainly through the eyes of a young visiting NRI).

“In a way, Delhi 6 was my attempt to remake Aks,” Mehra said during our phone chat. It was a casual remark, we had to quickly move on to other topics and he never got a chance to elaborate, but for me it tied in with some striking similarities between the two films. Both use masks and reflections as ways of concealing or revealing things about their protagonists – and by extension, about people in general. Both also contain extensive Ramayana imagery, with Rama and Ravana presented as mirror images. Aks (which means “reflection”) is very obviously a story about good and evil defining and complementing each other, but this theme recurs in Delhi 6 too. An idiot savant literally holds a mirror up to society, but everyone ignores or makes fun of him – until the end, when communal discord brings unpleasant things to the surface. An elaborate Ram Leela performance spread over days runs parallel to the film’s main narrative, a rampaging monkey man is used as a symbol for fear and paranoia in a divided community, and at the end the hero dons a monkey mask to try to make people see reason.

In both films, Mehra fuses elements of Western pop culture with elements from Indian mythology. Thus Aks centres on a psychopath who seems drawn from the dark Hollywood serial killer movie (there are references to The Devil’s Advocate too) but quotes the Bhagwad Gita (I love the irreverence of a back-story where a disturbed, Michael Myers-like child kills his parents after they teach him that death means nothing because the soul never dies). And Delhi 6 contains a song sequence where Times Square comes to Chandni Chowk, and Hanuman and King Kong occupy the same space (while the primal “kala bandar”, of course, resides inside all the characters).

There's no question that both films have their flaws: Aks is messy and uneven with poorly drawn supporting characters (and Nandita Das appears to have walked in from another, very different type of movie); and Delhi 6, though a brilliantly crafted ensemble film for its first hour and a half, has an annoyingly heavy-handed climax. But as examples of personal cinema, I think both are more provocative in some ways than Rang de Basanti, with its more conventional message-mongering.

[A sketchy session report is here. The bit about Mehra wanting to "adapt the story of Karan from Mahabharata - the episode in which his mother says she is not his mother" should be taken with a bit of salt]


  1. Loved Delhi 6. Yeah, you are right about the seemingly forced and upright climax. Also loved the talked about song sequence - ethereal and enchanting. :-)

  2. Delighted to read this and I look forward to your interview. I wrote when I saw Delhi 6 that I thought it was a better, more interesting film than RDB, agreed about the ending, and was also amazed by that sequence that conflated New York with Delhi - for me it was a brilliant evocation of the inner state of culture shock.

  3. Delighted to read this and I look forward to your interview.

    Chrism929: thanks, but which interview? I don't have a transcript of the Lit for Life discussion if that's what you mean; in any case that was one of those typical 35-40-minute public panels where a lot of random things get said in a scattered sort of way - not like an intensive one-on-one interview.

    ...that sequence that conflated New York with Delhi - for me it was a brilliant evocation of the inner state of culture shock

    Agree, and glad you felt that way. I know people who reflexively dismiss that sequence as "music-video gimmickry, style for style's sake" - but it's thematically very appropriate to Roshan's state of mind at that point in the story.

  4. Delhi 6 was actually a decent film...when ramlila is juxtaposed with other scenes of the film, i think it worked really well...i just couldn't understand what was Amitabh Bachchan doing at the end.

  5. i just couldn't understand what was Amitabh Bachchan doing at the end.

    Yes, that was awful - nearly as bad as the Bachchan family-album moment in RGV ki Aag, when Abhishek showed up for that cameo as the gun-supplier.

  6. Haven't seen Aks but Delhi 6 was a huge disappointment. I though the characters were half-baked and the story co-opted to push the agenda/narrative of the Kala Bandar. In spite of enjoying a hugely talented cast (Atul Kulkarni, Sheeba Chadda, Divya Dutta, Om Puri, Deepak Dobriyal, Aditi Rao) I never really felt the film achieved the intimacy it was capable of.

  7. इरशाद कामिल ने इम्तियाज़ के लिए लिखा है एक गीत में, "जो भी मैं कहना चाहूँ, बरबाद करें अलफ़ाज़ मेरे". दिल्ली 6 इसी का शिकार हुई. वो बेहतरीन बिम्ब जिसका तुमने ज़िक्र किया (आईना दिखाता फ़कीर) उसे अंतिम प्रसंग में अभिषेक बच्चन ’समझाने’ के चक्कर में कैसे समूल नष्ट कर देते हैं. एक तरह से यह दर्शकों पर भरोसे का अभाव भी है. और यही उस क्लाइमैक्स में दिखता है जो एक plot less, character based कहानी को (हिन्दी सिनेमा के लिए आज भी नई चीज़) फिर उसी फ़ार्मूले के अंधे कुएं में धकेलता है.

    मुझे आज भी लगता है कि अगर दिल्ली 6 अपनी कहानी के, और उसके ट्रीटमेंट का जो रास्ता उसने चुना था उसके प्रति ईमानदार रहती तो ज़्यादा फ़ायदे में रहती. इस क्लाईमैक्स को लाकर वे दोनों तरह के दर्शकों से महरूम हुए.

  8. Mihir: I know what you mean - I had a serious face-palm moment when Roshan started spelling out the significance of the man with the mirror.

    It's really annoying that so many good Hindi films continue to go so badly wrong in their final 20 minutes. I suppose it's to be expected when one considers the push-pull involving two different forces: solid, pure cinema that takes the route of Termite Art (rather than Elephant Art) on the one hand, and on the other hand the need of a developing country to place clearly spelled-out messages in its films, just in case there's someone in the middle row who didn't "get" it.

  9. Lovely read, thanks for the post. I personally found Aks to be Rakesh Mehra's most interesting film (mainly as you say driven by Bachchan senior's performance) though it was spoilt a bit by Manoj Bajpai. Thematically, I felt it bore some similarity to the Denzel Washington starrer 'Fallen'.

    I also felt that these two movies are a good reflection of the differences in the two Bachchans. AB sr is the best thing in a movie with otherwise middling performances in Aks whereas jr is the one that drags down what is otherwise a good cast in Delhi 6 (Deepak Dobriyal was outstanding as usual).

  10. From a purely financial perspective, both Aks and D6 didnt do well. A producer who hired the likes of Amitabh Bachhan and his son, would have expected the films to do better-and herein lies the crux of the disconnect-a director often wants to create "arty" films-which appeal to a few, whereas the producer wants the film to have a mass appeal. This makes me wonder if Aks or D6 would have been better made, if they were not burdened with the star's off screen person.

    For example, wont a film like Amu, be ill suited to Priyanka Chopra? Some films (seem to) falter merely because of the casting.

  11. Have not seen Aks but have definitely seen and enjoyed Rang de Basanti and Delhi 6.For Bollywood offerings they were both well directed and sustainably entertaining.The cast was good in both,the stories were well structured,the songs were strong. For Bollywood you really relish those elements when they are done well.I never expect a Bollywood film to be an art house-I expect lots of drama and excitable emotion.I agree that in Delhi 6 the ending was pretty feeble but disregarding that bit the rest of the the film was worth it.

  12. I never expect a Bollywood film to be an art house-I expect lots of drama and excitable emotion.

    Lucienne: not sure what the above sentence means. I'm not a big believer in airtight distinctions between "art" and "entertainment" myself - I think a Bollywood film, even one with lots of drama and excitable emotion, can be a great work of art if it's done well. And likewise, a lot of very serious-faced, extremely well-intentioned movies can be complete artistic failures.

  13. I think Delhi 6 is a pretty honest attempt. All the metaphors, did strike correctly and the support cast was excellent. Over explanation might have ruined the subtlety, but goes in to show the willingness of the director to reach out to the masses, which non-conformist film-makers do not adhere to. I still remember AB SnR thanking Rakeysh Mehra, while receiving some award from Aks, and asked him to keep drinking whatever he did while making/writing Aks. Yes, Aks was trivial for a lot of people, and was dismissed thus.

    I'll also drop in a note for the music of Delhi 6. Rarely have we seen such a music album, with all kinds of music wrapped into it beautifully - rap, bhajan, love song etc. Kudos to ARR.

  14. I loved your inference on both AKS and Delhi 6, Jai. I thought that Rang the Basanti became two preachy and was not good cinema, although it classified as a fair documentary in my opinion. The other such movie i thought was the Shahrukh starrer 'Swades'.

    AKS and Delhi 6 suffered the most due to Mehra's lack of storytelling talent. I think that his ideas were brilliant, however his ability to translate those into a nuanced script was his biggest drawback. As a concept he has the ability to think about new concepts but lacks the vision and finesse of a fine storyteller.

  15. @Jai - Very relieved to see that some people (in the comments here) liked Aks and Delhi 6 over RDB. I still haven't found anyone who was not dissatisfied with Delhi 6. I mean, I agree that RDB looks more concise package, but Aks and Delhi 6 is where he has dared to explore concepts and you can clearly see the indulgence on the directors part. In the same song sequence, I particularly like the part in the beginning, where the statue of Liberty peeks menacingly behind the Delhi buildings when he stares back. It almost feels like a threatening monster chasing and closing down.

  16. Have not see Aks, liked Delhi 6 a fair bit, (loved the music plus characterization, esp those of Atul Kulkarni, Deepak Dobriyal, Divya Dutta, Aditi Rao and Om Puri). Abhishek and Sonam were all right, but it is the others who impressed me. But RDB was a complete package, more satisfying. Loved one song sequence in particular--at night the guys and the girl on motorbikes, roaring through the countryside, as darkness, shadow and light are put into effect -- and they finally pull into light, the home of Kirron Kher. Good songs, filmed well.Terrific cinematography, good direction, good casting...but unsatisfactory end.