After the critical and commercial success of Dhobi Ghat, Aamir Khan returns with his second release of the year as a producer. If one was to unpack Delhi Belly and look carefully then it is plain to see the film uses many conventional elements of the multi protagonist crime comedy but adds a mischievousness that is both infectious and very funny. Abhinay Deo is a new film maker and whilst his debut film Game (released also this year) fell flat on its face Delhi Belly seems to suggest that given the right script, actors and producer he is more than capable of producing some exciting and inventive work. One could argue that Delhi Belly has all the hallmarks of another quality multiplex film and with the plethora of colourful expletives and reflexive characters it certainly seems to be the case. Aamir Khan and UTV Motion Pictures have developed a strong grip over the way their films are marketed and Delhi Belly has certainly been sold as an event film. The marketing for the film particularly the posters, trailers and accompanying music videos are mischievous and playful as the film itself. Written by LA based Akshat Verma, Delhi Belly almost seems in many ways a parody of Three Idiots, deconstructing many of the popular elements of the mainstream Indian film comedy. An interesting point to note is that Akshat Verma is credited in the opening titles as an assistant director, indicating his close involvement in the project.
Unlike the characters from Shor in the City, another multi protagonist narrative, who all seem trapped in some way in their lives, Delhi Belly gives us three wayward middle class characters who are experiencing the pains of youthful boredom whilst repeatedly coming up against a vein of traditionalism that they assumed had vanished. Much of the success of Delhi Belly lies in the script and it is well known that Aamir Khan has cultivated a reputation for taking his time to choose film projects. In many ways, recent films like Delhi Belly, Dobhi Ghat and Rocket Singh illustrate the centrality of a good, solid script. The use of swearing throughout the film was refreshing as it was delivered inventively and energetically by the cast especially comedian Kunaal Roy Kapur as Arun who really does steal many of the scenes (whilst the toilet humour may be juvenile it is also insanely funny) and much of the film with his hilarious performance as a photographer turned blackmailer. The opening titles, one of the best I have seen all year, juxtapose the wonderfully morose song Saigal Blues to a steady montage of shots detailing the dysfunctional qualities of the apartment shared by our three protagonists. What does feel like somewhat of a clique is the final denouement and I’m not sure if the film succeeds in sustaining the energy of the first half of the film. More strengths are the vivid production design and an alternate kind of soundtrack with the final number delivered by none other than Aamir Khan (tribute to Mithun) in one of the more bizarre ‘item’ numbers of recent years. New kid on the block Imran Khan definitely needed a boost to his middle of the road career and his encouraging performance as the disillusioned Tashi hints at a darker side to his acting skills. Delhi Belly holds together splendidly (no intermission folks) and comes highly recommended in terms of mainstream or should I say middle cinema from India. Like Kaminey, Delhi Belly is a very postmodern work that blends together many styles, ideas and aesthetics into a hyperkinetic cinematic whole.
The multi protagonist narrative film has emerged as a favourite amongst the multiplex crowd in India and with Shor in the City we find a continuation of the familiar cocktail of crime, gangsters and expletives witnessed before in contemporary films such as Sankat City, Johnny Gaddaar and Kaminey. (See The Guardian Newspapers article on the Multiplex Indian film published last week) Collectively these films constitute a new genre of Indian cinema that one could argue extends from the Mumbai Noir lexicon. However, Mumbai Noir has mutated somewhat aesthetically (not thematically though) into the stylised multi protagonist urban crime film that adopts a portmanteau narrative structure involving chapters, colourful characters, kinetic editing, visceral camera style and a self reflexive edginess. With the rise of the Multiplex film and niche cinema the Bombay film industry has seen a flowering of new production companies who are supposedly willing to take a risk on more edgier, daring and controversial subject matter. In this instance Balaji Motion Pictures (run by Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor) backed Shor in the City and has already proven itself commercially as a multiplex player with recent films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. I’m not sure to what extent this claim holds any validity when one looks closely at films such as Shor in the City. Essentially the appeal of these films is constructed around a level of dark humour that is filtered through a discourse of intertexuality. Such a postmodern approach not only underlines the technical sophistication of directors who have been trained abroad (mainly in American film schools) but confirms a similar and growing cine literate appreciation in the middle class urban youth audience. Of course we have been here before in the 1970s and early 80s when Shyam Benegal referred to his films as part of a new middle cinema and it is easy to position Shor in the City and respective films in such a category that negotiates between the commercial and art cinemas of India in such a way that offers an attractive artistic compromise for film makers, producers and audiences.
Shor in the City revolves around five stories in the city of Mumbai. They are urban stories that attempt to meditate on familiar aspects of the city including power, poverty, class and conflict. Structurally directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K are largely successful at weaving together the different narrative strands into a satisfying, if not far fetched, conclusion. The title card at the end claims every one of the events in the film was based on newspaper stories and this certainly holds true when one considers that micro details are emphasised as a way of validating an authentic reality. Admittedly songs do creep into the film but they are not signposted in anyway whilst melodramatic histrionics are equally restrained by the sympathetic characterisation. A fundamental point of thematic unity for many urban based multi protagonist films is the visibility of the city of Mumbai. Shor in the City gives us characters rarely seen indoors but instead shows us people constantly on the move and carried along by the flow of daily life. It is a perpetual flow of bodies, vehicles and buildings that overwhelm our powerless and fragmented protagonists in search of an anchor on to which they can fix their dreams, fears and hopes. Whilst the Ganpati celebrations seem to bring Mumbai together as a secular and collective community, the disparate lives of our struggling protagonists caught up in the euphoric religious celebrations points to the way in which most urban cities are home to an invisible underclass trying desperately to prove their worth. Like Abhay in the film who has returned from America to set up a small business in Mumbai, the city swallows him up until he gradually becomes another part of the unidentifiable mass of humanity. Shor in the City was critically lauded on its release and certainly serves to illustrate the creative vitality of the middle cinema multiplex film. What is somewhat dispiriting is the unwillingness of UK distributors to back these films as many recent independent multiplex films have simply been rejected. It doesn’t make commercial sense as they would find an audience in the UK especially amongst the youthful Diaspora.