In one of the earliest scenes in Kanu Behl’s Titli (2015), an altercation takes place in front of a house inside a working-class locality in East Delhi. A birthday party is supposed to begin shortly, but the front-door entrance appears to be too small for a party table to enter. Heated words are exchanged between two men, where one keeps interrupting a couple’s tense conversation, while the other maintains he’d insisted on maroon seat-covers, but was handed red, possibly because nobody expected him to tell the difference. Invariably, the matter comes to blows – with Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial) beating up the decorator and his assistant. Just another day in a Hindi film, investigating the roots of the National Capital Region’s volatile rage.
The National Capital Region (NCR) – comprising Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida and Gurgaon, and Delhi – has become a recurring choice for a setting to point out the glaring disparity between the limitless wants of the 21st century, and those forced to eke out a survival. From Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) to the first season of Made in Heaven (2019), there seems to be a marked shift in NCR becoming a default milieu to depict a nation’s obscene wealth inequality, and how it possibly leaks into their characters’ foundational values, thereby breeding a certain kind of behaviour. Many filmmakers have shown curiosity to examine the grimey bylanes hidden behind NCR’s glossy, posh neighbourhoods, to tell stories that are local in flavour, but where an entire nation’s aspirations are nursed and bludgeoned on a daily basis.
The history of spaces
Director Kanu Behl grew up in East Delhi’s Patparganj area, with many relatives residing nearby in Mandawali. It was only natural that he would base his directorial debut in NCR. The home in Titli is one of the major characters, where at least half of the film unfolds. After scouting various neighbourhoods in Delhi, Behl found the perfect location to his liking in South Delhi’s Sangam Vihar – a colony situated behind the posh Sainik Farms locality. “Their livelihoods were probably dependent on these people, who live behind such obscenely large gates, so much that you can’t even get a peek into the bungalow,” Behl said, pointing out the relationship between the Sangam Vihar residents and those in Sainik Farm bungalows, which informed the desperation and the violence in his film.
Behl and his team — cinematographer Siddharth Diwan and production designer Parul Sondh — spoke about the changes they would have to make to the house, to reflect Titli’s noxious family history. “One of the first things I remember imagining is not a lot of light coming into the house. It’s a space jahaan din mein bhi lightein jal rahi hoti hai (where lights have to be turned on even during the day),” said Behl. The crew made four major changes to the house. They lowered the ceiling of the central courtyard so that less natural light would come in. They built a wall in Daddy’s (Lalit Behl) room and the central courtyard. They hid a room, next to Titli (Shashank Arora) and Neelu’s (Shivani Raghuvanshi) bedroom, to make the house more claustrophobic. Behl and his team also replaced the house’s main entrance with an L-shaped passage. “I wanted Titli to feel like he’s entering a maze each time he’s entering the house,” said Behl, “where he can’t easily escape from.” All decisions were made with the idea to showcase the decay of a space inhabited by four men for years, without a woman.
Similarly, Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019) is largely set in an unorganised colony behind the Tilak Nagar station. The house belongs to a couple (Nutan Sinha and Shashi Bhushan), who is barely able to make ends meet. Vats pointed out that while most of the elements in the house are incorporated as a scene requires it, there’s also a bit of design involved. “There’s a peculiar, symmetrical shelf of cups and plates, right above their bed, properly placed. It’s not something we might see in most houses in the neighbourhood. But I insisted on it because it says a certain thing about the character,” he said. “It’s not another generic house in the colony, it’s been inhabited by these characters for a few years at least.”
In Behl’s 2018 short film, Binnu Ka Sapna, which released briefly on Mubi, he uses the home to communicate his protagonist’s chaotic state of mind. It’s a character, who grows up on the outskirts of NCR (possibly Faridabad, according to Behl) witnessing his parents’ abusive marriage. As a young upstart in his first job, Binnu (Chetan Sharma) moves into a tiny hole of a place, which is littered with discarded bottles of alcohol and faintly lit by the glow of a CRT television. He’s just had his heart broken by the boss’s wife, so his room (somewhere in Saidulajab) reflects the dark place to which he’s descended. It’s only after he puts on a mask of self-improvement and moves to a slightly more upmarket address that Behl starts introducing natural light into the film. “He is hiding in plain sight. According to him, he’s on a path of order and sanity – without addressing the repression within him,” said Behl, “We wanted to contrast the order and the madness in his head.”
Delhi NCR, a mirror for India?
When it comes to depicting the subtle class segregation in a post-liberalised India, few films have done it as deftly as Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). Emerging from the West Delhi neighbourhood of Tilak Nagar – also where the film’s subject, Bunty Chor, grew up – time slows down for our protagonist Lucky (Abhay Deol), as he gapes at the rich people getting down from their “hi-fi, imported” cars. One of writer Urmi Juvekar’s earliest observations during her research was how everyone was visibly impressed with Bunty. “For me, it was the story about a thief, but for them it was the story of a ‘cool’ guy. In people’s descriptions, they were completely enamoured by the money and the things he’d stolen,” she said. “I remember one journalist telling me about what a big car he (Bunty) had, his voice had envy and admiration in it.”
According to Juvekar, Lucky desperately craves the same respect that upper classes get and he thinks money will get him that. So he starts to steal. When his plans to open a restaurant are thwarted and he becomes lonely towards the end, he tries to buy his way out of the situation, like when he buries his elder brother and sister-in-law with gifts. Realising he’ll never be accepted by or as the gentrified, Lucky begins to spiral and his choice of status symbols becomes increasingly bizarre (dogs, show pieces, photo frames). “It’s a portrait of India where if you don’t have it, you steal it, you grab it. Having the “thing” is important,” said Juvekar. “I don’t think anyone can look down upon this desire because do any of us see ourselves above such desires?”
It’s this class difference that also drives the violence in Titli. A number of the scenes are framed with massive infrastructure/construction equipment in them, ranging from empty parking lots to vacant highrise buildings in Noida/Gurgaon and excavators helping lay a new road in the city. “What would these three brothers feel, when they see all this ‘development’ happening around them? It becomes the socio-political context for their flawed actions,” said Behl, “We’re all jostling right? Trying to break out of our space, while society is constantly pushing us back in.”
One of the major characters in Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (2018) is a pickpocket called Patru (Ravindra Sahu), who distributes his daily haul among people he helps support in the Shahjahanabad locality. When Patru is asked what he would do if he found Aladdin’s lamp, with its ability to fulfil wishes? “Main toh phaila dunga… (I’ll share it with everyone)” replies Patru. Haksar said this was not a line she made up on a whim. This question was a part of her questionnaire to her numerous documentary subjects and a significant number gave her this seemingly Utopian response.
Side-stepping poverty porn
The cinematic Delhi, with its grunge and grime, is distinctly removed from the city that is seen regularly in the news. Filmmakers who choose to focus on the sights (relatively) unseen of the national capital also have to ensure they’re not fetishising the urban underbelly. For Behl, the only way to avoid making a film that fixates unduly on poverty is to not make a film on poverty. “We found Titli was a film about circularity – a boy, who slowly discovers that a monster he has been externalising for so long – is within him,” he said. The filmmaker was clear about one thing: He didn’t want Titli’s house to be in a lane next to an open drain. The filmmaker didn’t want to exoticise the squalor of the lower-middle class locality.
In direct contrast, Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilaane Le Jaa Riya Hoon opens with the shot of an open drain in Old Delhi’s Shahjahanabad. A theatre veteran, Haksar made her debut as a film director with this film which asks residents of Shahjahanabad (primarily home to a large chunk of the city’s migrant labour population) about their hopes and dreams. It’s a heady cocktail of documentary and surrealist fantasy. During our conversation, Haksar invoked the famous line from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983): “Kehte the ki agar kisi desh ki unnati ki pehchaan agar kisi cheez se hoti hai to wo hai gutter (The one indicator of progress in a country is the state of its gutters).” Haksar hoped people would enter a space through that open drain. “I always say look at the city from that gutter because a lot of the people are living in it,” said Haksar, “You find that waha gutter ke paas roti bhi ban rahi hai, chulha bhi jal raha hai (next to the gutter, the roti is being made and the stove is running). So many things emerge from there.”
Haksar never doubted her gaze would be in question. “I'm someone who's had a disability in the last few years, I have a very bad knee. I don't like commiseration of the wrong kind,” she said. “My parents were particular about respecting other people, especially if they’re from an underprivileged background. Also, my sister is an activist.” When Haksar wanted to shoot in Old Delhi, the local authorities had closed all the drains, which is why she had to shoot the drain sequences near the new Azad market. It wasn’t something she’d leave out, given how she considered it as a significant element for the five decades she’s been visiting the place.
Vats said the question of why and how poverty is depicted is important. “When you enter a space – what do you see? The open drain or the people? Do you see the school or the place of worship? We were looking at the space from the eyes of the locals. They don’t fixate on poverty, so then why would the film?” Vats and his cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi (who also shot Haksar’s film) used to have discussions with production designer Shubham, about staging the scene as effectively as possible. “We were very clear that we didn’t want to shoot a lot with the telephoto lens, because we didn’t want the film to look voyeuristic,” said Vats.
Haskar’s film has an unforgettable close-up of the popping back muscle of a daily labourer, as he picks up a heavy load in the midst of Delhi’s unforgiving summer heat. “This is something we worked on for a bit – if you’re feeling something, where does it store as a memory in your anatomy? So, I wondered if a person was carrying such heavy loads, where does it register in his body?” Haskar recalled. Sahi and Haskar had established a rapport with locals, which helped to capture exactly what she wanted. “The thought was bringing the viewer as close to the real experience as possible,” said Haskar.
Cities in films have always been spaces where diversity thrives, and where dreams and reality collide. In the NCR we see in Hindi films, the heightened fiction speaks to a reality of inequalities and shifting cultural forces. The heartland that is pushed to the margins in the real world occupies the centre in the fictional one. If Delhi, with its posh enclaves and historic architecture, is the seat of power and order in our non-fiction world, in feature films, the NCR is the site of dichotomies and conflicts that speak to the reality of India.