"The mirror reflects both - The Monkey Man and God. What do you see in it?" This is the premise of Delhi-6, lovely in its simplicity. Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) comes to India for the first time to bring home his ailing grandmother (Waheeda Rehman) who wants to die in her own country. We first see Delhi-6 through the fascinated eyes of an NRI. The crowd and color typical of India, and the thrust of human relationships overwhelming Roshan with affection and involvement make for a good establishment.
Abhishek plays the role of a well brought up NRI very convincingly. His screen presence is engaging enough to make us love him despite the flaws in his character sketch. Roshan is 30-something, American, born to a Hindu father and a Muslim mother. Both parents had to fight with their families, relatives and communities and leave Delhi-6 forever to keep their love. Roshan however reflects none of his parents' pain, or any of his own. He says he has a life back home in America, but we have no indication of what that life is, his friends or possible girlfriends, work or studies. Furthermore, he seems to have no plans for the future. Roshan is content to live the life his grandmother has lived all these years, with her neighbors and friends. He does not react to the living conditions, the heat, the crowd, the water, the political situation, anything. He is placid. Even when he does engage with something he considers wrong, for instance Bittu's father forcing her to marry, he does so with nonchalance, not really concerned with the results. This easy-going innocence in fact, reflects his American-ness with good effect, in contrast to the more repressed and intense emotions of his neighbors. But his casualness does not win him any brownie points with Bittu (Sonam Kapoor). Though she has fallen in love with Roshan, she prefers to rely on Suresh, her photographer friend (Cyrus Sahukar), deciding to run away with him to participate in the Indian Idol contest. Even when confronted with this fact, Roshan keeps silent, not declaring either his love or his knowledge that Suresh is having an affair with old Lalaji's (Prem Chopra) nubile, young wife.
This is why the climax of the film feels forced. It is as if Roshan's and Bittu's story exists only to lead up to a Hindu-Muslim riot, and Roshan's role as peacemaker in it. The idiocy of wearing a monkey man suit when the mohallah is already tense and hostile with the idea of a monkey man sighting, again exists only to take forward the premise. And of course, the niggling query that the monkey man suit is actually a bear suit should not even be discussed. Neither should the scenes between Roshan and his long dead Dadaji (Amitabh Bachchan) in heaven, which is a terrace in Delhi-6, where both are dressed in white, and eat jalebis.
Sonam Kapoor looks lovely but is underutilized. We know she wants to be an Indian Idol, but apart from some crazy pirouetting before Suresh's camera, and on the streets of Delhi, she shows us no evidence of her singing talent until the audition. Though her craze to be an Indian Idol is perhaps true of a lot of girls across the country, her statement that the Indian Idol show is the only way for a middle class girl to become something from nothing is presumptuous. The issue of faith so overrides the film that the issue of a girl seeking freedom from a claustrophobic environment is secondary. Her search for freedom is subsumed by love. Her flight must always be sanctioned by a man, first her father, failing which her friend Suresh, and failing that, Roshan. When the film ends, the father and the audience can breathe easy that from now on Roshan will take care of Bittu, and being an enlightened NRI may actually assist her in fulfilling her dreams.
Rishi Kapoor is wasted as Ali Baig, a friend and guide, to Roshan in Indian ways and love. He is charming, as usual, but doesn't have much to do except play pool and reminisce about Fatema, Roshan's mother, whom he secretly loved. Waheeda Rehman as Roshan's Dadi, manages to convey strength beneath her physical frailty. Her strong faith too is believable and her disillusionment with what attaches her to her land is handled with enormous grace.
The cameo roles in Delhi-6 are less filmi than in Rang De Basanti but they are still stereotypes. Warring brothers, an unmarried sister (why so?), loving wives, a greedy moneylender with a too-young wife, a photographer who is also a womanizer, a Muslim jalebi wala who believes in Hanuman, a mad fakir, an untouchable sweeper woman who the men of the locality sleep with but do not acknowledge during the day, a mohallah idiot, a sadhvi politician, a corrupt and violent policeman, a news hungry television presenter and so on. Individually, they all do their bit well, but there are too many of them. Their lives are presented in shorthand as an ironical contrast to the Ram Lila that they attend with so much devotion, but the values of which do not percolate into their real lives.
There is a quiet humor in the way incidents are handled, particularly through the two little boys, cousins, who with their impertinent childish remarks make pertinent points. But overall there is lack of a dramatic structure, which hampers the narrative. The elements used to represent faith in God and superstition i.e. The Monkey Man become so repetitive that they lose their impact. The film begins to resemble a video installation where sounds and images play in a loop. Too much screen time is given to the Ram Lila, the Gau-mata giving birth to a calf on the road, the Mataji ka jaagran, the daily visit to the temple and the Friday namaz. This makes you wonder if you have strayed into a television soap extolling traditional rituals and Indian culture. Then, as much time is given to the news broadcasts of The Monkey Man sightings. How many? One lost count, and the audience became restive. Between God and The Monkey Man and the mirror represented literally by a mad fakir running around the street with a mirror, there doesn't seem to be too much time for anything else to happen.
In the end, the characters in the film seem to be present only to illustrate the rather patronizing point that Roshan makes that though they may be fundamentalist where their religion is concerned, they are all rather nice people. Unfortunately, when the communities are actually pitched against each other with battle lines drawn, none of them look very nice; they look cruel and stupid, and rabid.
Binod Pradhan's camera work is consistent and strong; the film is well lit, though there is perhaps too much camera movement, which tires the eyes. Densely overlaid with the music track, it makes the film visually like a documentary one has shot over a long period of time, and then edited together to illustrate a point. AR Rahman's music is goo..oo..d. The song Genda Phool is the best picturized as a community song on the terrace, the shy unmarried aunt taking the lead with a surprisingly strong voice. The life of the terrace come alive where chillies are pickled, kites are flown; pigeons are pampered, and love blossoms. The views of Jama Masjid with 1000s of people praying the namaz are spectacular. And the view from a Chandni Chowk terrace of the Statue of Liberty is fun, to say the least.
The terraces are also the location where Abhishek can display his jumps, chasing a monkey man kite, and then jumping as monkey man himself. The interiors of the houses remain largely unseen; the people seem to live their life in the courtyards. The lane where Roshan and Bittu live is like an interior too, in its dark, narrow clutter, and the crowd is used dramatically in certain sequences like Dadi being rushed to the hospital.
One comes away from the film longing for something more to have happened with the main story of Roshan and Bittu and Dadi, but perhaps that was not the main story for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. What one is left with is the sense of a mohallah where life goes on, and will go on, amidst the crazy chaos. The smallness of the moment that brings forth all the underlying resentment and anger beneath the camaraderie between neighbors is well handled, as is the slipping back into normalcy from hostility.
The end of the film is beautiful, bringing to the fore again its simple yet powerful premise, with the mirror taking pride of place in the temple under the banyan tree, and each character looking into it for a moment. It brings together all the scattered elements of the film into a message valuable in today's time.