In his book The Stranger in the Mirror, director Rakeysh Ompraksh Mehra described the Delhi of his childhood as a “scintillating cauldron of cultural co-existence”. A bird’s eye view from the old city’s Chandni Chowk showed you the 800-year-old Gauri Shankar Temple, Delite Cinema, the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir and the Methodist Church. “Vastly varied customs, philosophies, values and traditions thrived side by side and dotted my active and eventful childhood,” wrote Mehra, feeling nostalgic for a time that was decisively thrust into the past after simmering communal violence changed the city and erupted into the riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
From this turmoil came the idea for Delhi-6 (2009), a celebration of the city and its multitudes, while revealing the hate that it is, and has been, susceptible to. Much like the titular city, Delhi-6 is a glorious patchwork of contradictions. When Annapurna (Waheeda Rehman) returns to the capital with her grandson, Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan), the first thing she does is accept paan from a beloved Muslim friend. Her eyes water at its taste and it’s enough to tell you that she hasn’t been home in years. Near her house is Mamdu’s sweet shop, adorned with framed pictures of a mosque and Lord Hanuman (Mamdu is Muslim). The gully regularly gathers at his shop to watch the news and among the regulars are two Hindu brothers who spew nothing but hate at each other. Here, just for a while, hate exists but so does love, and neither is a slave to religious or communal sentiments.
The film’s soundtrack reflects this by bringing together an eclectic range of sounds. Composer A.R. Rahman collaborated with some powerhouse performers, including Kailash Kher, Shreya Ghoshal, Mohit Chauhan, Javed Ali, Chinmayee Sripada, Benny Dayal, Tanvi Shah and British-Indian singer Ash King and French artists Viviane Chaix and Claire Ronsin. Delhi-6 is by no means perfect, but its music might just be.
While “Rehna Tu” works terrifically as an ode to the two lovers in the film, its first strains are heard before Roshan and Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) meet, hinting that the real love story is between Roshan and Delhi. Mehra further underscores this idea when “Rehna Tu” shows up properly in the film. Roshan, yet to accept the hold Delhi has over him, insists that he must take his dying grandmother back to the States. There, cruising under the capital’s amber streetlights, his uncle recites Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq’s sher: “Kaun jaaye, Zauq, par Dilli ki galiyaan chhod kar? [Who could bear to leave the streets of Delhi?]” The music kicks in and we hear Rahman croon, “Rehna tu, hai jaisa tu.” If the final bars of the song intrigue you, it might be the use of the continuum fingerboard – the first time the instrument was used in film music.
We hear snatches of “Arziyan” when Roshan first arrives in Delhi-6 – “Mora piya ghar aaya, mora piya ghar aaya [My beloved has come home]” – but the entire song later plays out to a stunning sweep over the Jama Masjid as thousands of Muslims offer namaaz. Complementing the visuals that memorialise Muslim practices – topi-donning men hug three times and settle before the mosque’s qawwali singers – Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics emphasise the humane in divine love: “Jo bhi tere dar aaya, jhukne jo sar aaya … Pyaas leke aaya tha, dariya woh bhar laaya [Whoever reaches your doorstep and bows his head, brings with him a thirst and leaves carrying an ocean].” This humanity is later emphasised when the song, sung by Javed Ali and Kailash Kher, plays as a crowd, engaged in a Hindu-Muslim riot hours ago, collectively carries Roshan’s wounded body to the ambulance.
Seemingly about to an elegant fantail pigeon, “Masakali” is an ode to flight and the freedom the bird symbolises. Mohit Chauhan’s mischief-rich vocals tease the metaphors and melody of the song, letting everyone know that he’s both envious of and bedazzled by the beloved he holds in his gaze. “Tujhe kya gham, tera rishta gagan ki bansoori se hai, pawan ki guftagoo se hai, sooraj ki roshni se hai [What sorrows could hold you down, you witness the flute of the sky, the whispers of the wind and the light of the sun].” Within the context of the film, it’s worth remembering that Masakali is the patriarch’s favourite pigeon, whose wings are tied so that she can’t fly away, and with whom Bittu relates. Who better than Bittu to understand the burden of being too precious, of giving up dreams so that she can be preserved in a corner of Dilli-6, under the watchful eyes of her father?
Upon realising that he’s in love with Bittu, Roshan dreams of two worlds woven together – his America and Bittu’s Dilli. Cycle-gaadis amble past yellow taxis on Times Square, nuns pray next to a gaumata and panipuri stalls bask in the fluorescent light of Sephora and Starbucks. At the centre of this dreamscape is Bittu in a pure white anarkali, flirting with these two worlds. To quote American writer James Baldwin, “Love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.” In love, Roshan, our Baldwinian hero, can’t help but battle space and time. And win. Keep an ear out for the Celtic inspiration that shows up in the middle of the song and, surprisingly, fits right in.
Only Rahman would compose a declaration of love for Old Delhi using electronica, French hip hop and the drone of an electric guitar. Blaaze and Benny Dayal’s riotous intro, Viviane Chaix and Claire Ronsin’s French rap, the electric guitar and rhythm section come together to deliver a charming hat-tip to the city’s hustle. At one point, the song’s video throws up pictures of Old Delhi’s quintessential allure: Hordes of tangled electric wires obscuring a misty sky, a queue of jam-packed cycle-gaadis and a bunch of school kids peering through a jail-like vehicle that reads “Happy School”. Joshi said it best when he wrote,“Yeh sheher nahi mehfil hai (It’s not a city, it’s a gathering).”
Sung by Sujata Majumdar, Shraddha Pandit, Rekha Bhardwaj and V.N. Mahathi, “Genda Phool” sounds like a folk number until the hip hop beats drop. Adapted from a (“Sasural Genda Phool”), the song captures the intimacy of closely-constructed havelis (palatial homes) of the past. As the women, young and old, sing about their marital woes, kites are flown and a kabootar baaz guides his pigeons around the sky. Rahman nestles the kabootar baaz’s calls into “Genda Phool”, adding a distinct flavour of Old Delhi to the song. The cherry on top is the video that shows Waheeda Rehman, matching steps with Abhishek Bachchan as he channels his NRI energy into a dance that makes you want to say, “go white boy go”.
This song by Karthik, Naresh, Srinivas, Bony Chakravarthy, is the allegory that the film aspired but struggled to be. With funky beats, an addictive rap sequence and some pungi intervention, “Kaala Bandar” sounds fun while tactfully talking about how the average citizen couches themselves in denial when surrounded by the politics of hate and empty rhetoric. Here is a sample from its lyrics:
“I like the bandar, since he came,
A lot of things changed,
There’s way more police on the streets,
So I feel safer at night when I go to sleep,
Now we’ve always got electricity,
So I never miss my favorite show on TV,
I might be with the bandar, as long as he don’t get me.”
Rahman arranged the legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s rendition of “Bhor Bhaye” with Shreya Ghoshal’s soothing vocals to craft a song that speaks of Bittu’s heartbreak at the idea of separating from Roshan. Bittu is compared to a distressed Sita as she waits for Ram to free her from the clutches of Ravan. Ustaad Khan’s original lyrics work magic here: “Bhor bhaye tori baat takat piya, naina alsaaye ne bhaye [Dawn has broken as I wait for you, my eyes are heavy now]”. It feels particularly resonant because of Mehra’s use of traditional Ramleela performances in the film.
Trust Rahman to deliver a qawwali and an evocative bhajan on the same album. The original version of “Aarti” was not used in the film and instead, the song was shown as a competition between two belligerent brothers at a jagran. The gentle bhajan, sung in the sweet voices of four women, becomes hilariously weaponised when sung by the two men trying to out-sing and out-worship the other. As the music reaches a crescendo, so do the festivities, underlining how worshipping can often be a celebration – of gathering, rejoicing and holding the same faith. Mehra wisely casts a lone shadow over this merriment – Jalebi, a lower-caste woman, sits outside the house’s door, knowing she will never be let in. Even as he urges for harmony, Mehra never lets you forget that tradition, for all its charms, marginalises some to such an extent that they can’t even hope to fight for their rights. Which is why tradition needs to be, respectfully, shaken up the way Rahman’s soundtrack does.