India’s fault lines, explored in a film about a Delhi thief – Trisha Gupta
Guest post by TRISHA GUPTA
Fifteen minutes into Dibakar Banerjee’s new film, a bunch of lower middle class Delhi boys are beating up a private school kid whose one refrain is a pleading “Jaan de bhai, extra class hai“. They don’t stop. But at one point, the gangly teenaged sardar pauses in his pummelling to make the padhaaku kid answer a crucial question, “Yeh greeting card mein likha kya hota hai?”
The greeting card is just one of the motifs that Banerjee uses, brilliantly, to allude to the fault lines of class and language upon which the shaky foundations of post-liberalisation India rest. Having figured out that there’s something about greeting cards that makes girls happy, the turban-clad young Lucky makes a pilgrimage to the nearest Archies Gallery, shyly wooing the franchise owner’s daughter by taking her for a ride “from Tilak Nagar to Rajouri” on a “borrowed” motorcycle. Lucky’s bid for the girl’s affections is foiled by a smarmy waiter (and the fact that the card he’s brought her reads “Get Well Soon”) but the greeting card appears repeatedly in the film as an object of desire – and as an object that symbolizes desire.
For Oye Lucky is, more than any Hindi film till date, a film about the cycles of desire set into motion by the shiny new world of malls and Mercedes which lies just across the road from the ration ki dukaan. Across the road, and tantalizingly behind the glass – as the achingly apt lyrics of one song go, “Jugni charhdi AC car, jugni rehndi sheeshe paar”. But what is seemingly beyond one’s reach is not necessarily so. As Lucky says belligerently, having expressed some new outlandish aspiration to his friends, “Kyon? Main nahi kar sakta kya?”
But clearly, the path to the good life, for someone like Lucky, isn’t exactly made accessible by treading the straight and narrow. And so Lucky is a thief. He’s the most charming thief you’ve ever met, saying namaste to unsuspecting old Chaijis before driving off with their son’s cars and persuading young girls that the music system he’s carrying away is being replaced with an even better one by Papa.
Cars, music systems, colour tvs, carved furniture, framed pictures: these are the objects that Lucky steals, time and again. Partly the stealing is a lark, a response to the dare – “Main nahi kar sakta kya?” It’s also a passport – the only one he can get – to the murky yet luminous lives of Delhi’s rich: as the song declares, “ABCD chahida mainu, DVD vi chahida mainu…” (In one of the film’s most audacious early scenes, asked to organize a car as a “gift” to a politician’s bratty son, Lucky drives away from a posh wedding with a guest’s shiny red Merc. But when the brat expects him to play submissive chauffeur, and he’s refused entry to a discotheque the brat has just entered, an enraged Lucky charges into the hotel boutique and acquires two identical black velveteen suits for himself and his friend Bangaali – and sure enough, now there’s no problem walking in. The scene is funny, but also a sadly accurate depiction of the entirely taken-for-granted “what you wear is what you are” class politics upon which the everyday life of our cities is founded.) Finally, the objects Lucky steals aren’t merely a way to make money. Stacked in ever-increasing piles in his flat, those TVs and music systems create a claustrophobic mise en scene of middle class consumption gone crazy: a strange excess that somehow simultaneously stands in for the security of home.
Despite its unerring eye for our disparities, Oye Lucky admirably takes no moral high ground. Every character has a context, a location, a reason for being who they are. The women, particularly, are superbly observed studies in class and morality: the slinkily-clad, foul-mouthed Dolly, who dances in parties for a living but keeps a vrat every Tuesday; her quiet college-going sister Sonal, who “doesn’t touch Dolly” when she comes home drunk, but happily goes on holiday with her burglar boyfriend. Best of all, the gaze is reversed often enough to prevent any easy identification with one character: if the giggling South Delhi schoolgirls in the café make Sonal uncomfortably conscious of her lack of coolth, her disapproval of their short skirts is unequivocal (another angle on “what you wear is what you are”). The film’s subtle but clear message is that the ostensibly legal, respectable world isn’t all benign, just as the illegal world isn’t unmitigated evil. The smooth-talking Dr. Handa is the perfect personification of Bangaali’s warning: “In gentry wale logon se bach ke rahiyo, yeh bolte English hain, karte desi.” Amid the careless blacks and whites with which so many urban commentators paint large swathes of our cities, Oye Lucky provides a caressing, careful shade of gray.
[An edited version of this article first appeared in the Indian Express.]