[Didn’t have to do an official review of this film but it was one of my 2008 favourites and I wanted to write something about it – so I’ve managed to spin a column out of this post!]
Delhi loyalists who follow contemporary Indian writing often complain about the absence of a Great Delhi Novel – a book to rank alongside the many epics that have been written about Bombay (Shantaram, Sacred Games and Maximum City being only a few recent examples). But the Great Delhi Film has been even more elusive. Mumbaikars have access to hundreds of movies that have recorded the development of their city's best-known vistas over the decades – adding up to a historical document in the form of moving pictures – but we Delhiites must make do with blink-and-miss glimpses of our past. Watching Sai Paranjpe's Sparsh recently, I caught myself rewinding and re-rewinding a scene to try and figure out if the Shabana Azmi character lived somewhere near Golf Links. And that shaded lane in the background, on which a solitary Fiat was zipping along like a race-car...could that possibly be the 1980 avatar of Lodi Road?
Dibakar Banerjee's delightful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is a Delhi movie that doesn’t much linger on the city’s physical landmarks but captures many vital aspects of its mood and character. At a basic level, this film is about the (improbably) charmed life of Lucky Singh, a Sikh lad from a middle-class West Delhi household, who grows up to become a master thief and gets away with one audacious theft after another – often doing nothing more strenuous than sauntering into a house and sauntering out again with a TV set tucked under his arm. This makes for a lightheartedly amoral story, anchored by a superb Punjabi-rap soundtrack and by that earsplitting old song “Chahiye Thoda Pyaar”, but Oye Lucky! is also a film that understands the spiraling nature of class aspiration and upward mobility. It knows a thing or two about surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where the kindly, “God-fearing family man" who befriends you and encourages his little son to call you “maama” might well have a dagger ready to plunge into your back.
Consequently, even the most flip scenes have undercurrents that are threatening, or poignant, or both; this tone is set by an early sequence where the young Lucky and his pals gape at the body of a friend who was killed by local hoodlums, and offhandedly remark that they too could end up with cotton in their nostrils. At times this movie feels like a more cheerful cinematic cousin of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which was about a lower-class man deciding to become a “social entrepreneur”; the scene where Lucky and his friend Bangali buy “classy” (or gaudy, take your pick) clothes to gain access to a hotel discotheque mirrors the passage in The White Tiger where Balram Halvai gets to see the inside of a Gurgaon mall. And the line “Yeh Gentry log angrezi bolte hain par karte hain desi” sums up the showy behaviour of the nouveau riche whom Lucky simultaneously mocks and aspires to be like.
A notable thing about Abhay Deol’s performance as Lucky is that he manages the charismatic Hindi-movie hero act (he's a dead ringer for the young Dharmendra in a couple of scenes) while also allowing us to see that Lucky isn’t to the manor born, so to speak; that a certain effort goes into his facade of coolness, that he isn't always as cocksure as he appears to be. Despite the considerable physical differences between Deol and the equally good Manjot Singh, who plays the younger Lucky in the film's first 20 minutes, it's possible to reconcile the strapping adult with the gawky, reedy-voiced adolescent, and this adds credibility to the film. This definitely isn't a case of the little kid from a 1970s movie turning into an adult Dharmendra or Amitabh mid-leap, and also transitioning into a completely different person in the process.
Then there’s Paresh Rawal, brilliantly cast as three separate father figures/Big Daddies to Lucky (one of them is literally his father), placed at various points in his life to stunt his personal growth, each posing a new challenge for him to overcome. Rawal’s third character, the ingratiating Dr Handa, is very familiar, as is the manner in which his wife (a smooth little performance by Archana Puran Singh) mentions that Lucky closely resembles her US-based brother – “Main to inhe dekh ke emotional ho gayi, bilkul same-to-same Monty hain.” This line doesn’t exist in isolation (which it could well have done, being both funny and authentic in its own right) but paves the way for something else that’s common in certain sections of Indian society: the forced creation of “family” relationships of convenience, which can become a prelude to something more manipulative.
The screenplay is full of gems, too many to mention here, but I liked the sardonic waiter suggesting to the young Lucky that since he won't have the money for an elaborate butter-chicken meal, he should order a plate of five paneer pakoras for himself and his girlfriend: “Give her two and have three yourself.” (Of course, paneer pakoras are never going to be enough to satiate Lucky; hence the film.) And the scene where Lucky asks Dr Handa about how to get into a house that has a “danger dog” guarding it, and the "honest" doctor baulks at the idea that something illegal might be afoot. Also the little sight gags, such as a local crime boss waving a hand to halt the ululating of a ghazal-singer – whom he condescendingly calls “Surdas” – in a restaurant. (Fittingly, for a film that’s about social hypocrisies and contrasts, the song being sung in this garish setting is about Meera’s spiritual devotion to Krishna; and it must be interrupted in order that a money-making scheme can be discussed.)
I’m not sure whether Oye Lucky! is, properly speaking, a Delhi film or a West Delhi film or even a Punjabi Bagh film (“Tilak Nagar se Rajouri ka chakkar lagaa doonga,” yells Lucky's irate father at one point, and those colonies are the movie’s frames of reference), but it almost doesn't matter. With its fine pen portraits of different character types and its pitch-perfect dialogue – spoken with just the right inflexions – it depicts Delhi's Punjabi sub-culture and the status-hankering of the middle-class like no other film I’ve seen. Anyone who’s lived here for any length of time will find something to relate to – though on a personal note, maybe it helps that I have an uncle named Lucky in west Delhi, as well as distant cousins nicknamed Quiety and Sherry, whose real names have been long forgotten through disuse!