Sunday, July 03, 2011

Delhi Belly by Abhinay Deo

Delhi Belly is a serious film to study, for cultural scientists.

Let's leave aside the obvious criticism that the film's humor (that is, when the hall depressingly bursts into laughter) is either scatological or due to the usage of words (crass by middle class standards) related to fornication. When people are sought to be entertained at the sound of farts, the visual of feces, or by the use of vernacular swear words in a clearly anglicized film (with clear hat tips to The Hangover or Trainspotting), it is time to stop clapping and to start listening to the claps.

Let's also leave aside the slightly reflective criticism that becomes an inane script with too many lame subplots, poorly developed characters, and just-for-that-dose-of-realism-momentary-visuals-of-the-third-world-city-that-delhi-really-is.

And while we are at it, let's also not talk about the homophobia which this film tries to make light of, but ends up doing the exact opposite.

What I am more interested in is what the target audience (English speaking, service sector employed, in their 20s, unmarried or recently married) is subliminally absorbing as it enjoys this comedy of errors.

A few notes:

When goods which were once not in easy reach become accessible, it is a symbol of fashionable elitism to hark back to tradition in a chic way (the old rickety scooter, the Maruti 800 being driven by a woman who can obviously afford a much better car, the clay cups in which filter coffee is served from a carafe (milk chai after all is so middle-brow), the ancient flush and the ceiling fan, the retro spectacles, and so on. I confirmed this agenda when a new red hatchback (which is now a middle class car) is shown in a clearly sarcastic visual montage.

Observe also certain musical incidents in the film when exaggerated expression of tradition suddenly becomes a distancing device. Observe the caricature of the traditional Indian dance and the dance teacher, the clearly archaic voice of K L Saigal and his contemporaries (the nasal era, so to speak), the flamboyant interpretation of Elvis Presley (also done in Dev.D) and the disco era, etc.

Meterosexuality as an ideal. Observe the casualness of relationships, the lack of incident with which they are entered and ended, and the situational and impetuous nature of sexual arousal instead of it being emotional or personal. Observe the buffoon who, horror of horrors, feels jealous (jealously is so old school, no?), and the obvious making-fun-of-a-bride-to-be-who-slaps-her-husband-to-be-because-he-takes-her-gifts-but-kisses-at-liberty as well as the caricature of smothering, suffocating parents and parents-in-law ("leave me alone, motherfuckers!" seems to be what the protagonist is saying. "What, me, meet your parents? I like only you, and you are nothing but a hot air-hostess for me and the audience, perhaps that's why.") Observe what the film is telling the recently-graduated-from-middle-class-employed-with-Accenture-employees what HOT sex SHOULD be like: screaming and moaning, woman on top, man giving oral pleasures under the sheets, "do it in the other hole", french kissing in public. In other words, situational and positional rather than personal. "I just wanna have fun, baby."

The disdain of authority and rules. Burqas, bah! Parents, bah! Boss, the asshole (even though he is just instructing the employee to improve his work)! The police, inept! Middle-class-work-ethic (observe the room-service-boy, clearly shown to be a lowly, subservient not-yet-married, effete), just take the money and don't be a pest, man (observe that the situation demands that you side with the bribe-giving), and so on.

The I-can-get-away-with-it-because-I-am-hep attitude. This is the most subversive, and I think dangerous-for-an-impressionable-audience, message provided by the script writers of this film. I understand, I get it, that this film is a slapstick comedy, not to be taken literally. But, but, BUT, I am not talking about the stupid slapstick shit at all when people fall from the ceilings or when something hits somebody's head in a funny way, or when you stick a firecracker in somebody's bum. What I don't understand is: why is the business-minded jeweler, and the landlord are to be considered villains or at least pests (that is clearly the intent of the script writers) but the opportunistic protagonist and his blackmailer friend are heroes. The answer is: because the jeweler is old-school, middle-aged, uses-oil-on-his-scalp-kind-of-guy (and similarly, the landlord has a wife and kid and is wearing a TIE, for crying out loud, dude!) whereas the heroes are US, the uber-cool who wear over-sized wrist-watches, trendy t-shirts, shave their heads to get over a break-up, live in chic flats (or decrepit flats which are chic in their own way, see above), speed on the highways, drink orange juice from the cartons but forget to get up to fill up the bucket when the water supply is on (getting up in the morning is so blah and aastha-channel-like, right, my friend?).

The culture in which real work is boring and better left to the illiterati, and creative professions such as journalism, photography, illustration, music-video-production, etc. (the new media jobs, which are primarily driven by the engine of consumerism and disposable cash) are where fulfillment truly lies. Quite a few of Aamir Khan Productions' last few films have been telling people that if you just end up in a normal profession (unconnected to the media that is), you ain't cool. That if you fail in math, it is ok, because you are a great painter, see? In essence: That to be chic is more important than to be useful. The corollary is obviously: That to be rich, by whatever means, is more important than to provide value to others.

And then we wonder where we are headed. We are not the only country which is corrupt or consumerist, but we are uniquely placed as a nation which has a free media pumping desire like all get out, where vast swathes of young people are suddenly prosperous and can at least imitate if not live a western lifestyle, and where it is too much effort to think about the costs of this sudden affluence and consumption on the hinterland which is more and more like Africa. We may institutionalize means of thwarting corruption, but as our literate population laps up the message of consumerism, live-for-the-moment and short-term opportunism, sex-not-relationship as the ideal, coolness versus substance as what is important, we should not then be surprised when the Haryanvi drop-out rapes the skimpily dressed BPO employee, when maids from West Bengal or from Nepal murder their masters, when the passport office employee or the policeman are full of resentment towards the prosperity that they see burgeoning around them and demand a piece of the pie from what-have-you-done-to-deserve-seventy-k-a-month-you-just-graduated-son-of-a-bitch-offshore-slave-of-uncle-sam, and when people need private guards for their mansions in Greater Noida (which overlook Golf courses built on the graves of farmers).

I am sorry. I just could not take Delhi Belly lightly. I did not laugh once during the film. It was not funny to me. Maybe, as was advised in the film, I need to "loosen up and chill".