During the lava-hot summer nights in old Delhi during 2001, stories of a half-man, half-ape night prowler harassing city residents captivated the masses. On some nights, so many phone calls—allegedly reporting “sightings” of the elusive critter—lit up police switchboards that the capital’s celebrated men in blue temporarily ran out of vehicles to investigate all credible stories. As the sweltering summer dragged on, the tales grew more sensational, and, with each telling, the creature acquired new limbs, glowing eyes, and by one account, even a mustache. At least two people died in what was attributed to attempted “escapes” from the purported night apparition. Whether the “monkey man”—as the creature was dubbed by local know-it-alls and tattling aunties—was the product of over-active imaginations fired up by the heat or escapist pulp-fiction fodder boosted by a pre-9/11 slow news season was interestingly, and utterly, besides the point.
Fast forward to spring 2009. A hairy, ape-like beastie is terrorizing Delhi residents by night. The prowler can jump from rooftop to rooftop with ease. The police are helpless. By daytime, the bazaars are boisterous. The night, however, brings with it an uneasy hush—as if a dark shadow has fallen over the vistas.
Lightly based on the superstitions and old wives tales plucked from filmmaker Mehra’s real life Delhi childhood, Delhi 6 bursts with an unusual kinetic energy. Against the backdrop of the mysterious nocturnal mischief-maker, lyricist Prasoon Joshi’s first foray into writing spins an enjoyable urban fairly tale complete with a mythical dragon (the elusive half-trog, half-sapien you know what), a princess (a nubile Sonam Kapoor) about to make a mistake by eloping with an unscrupulous photographer, a tyrannical patriarch (Puri) with anger management issues who won’t let the princess out of the roost, and, of course, a gallant prince charming (Bachchan) as a highly Americanized, multi-cultural all-around cool dude who returns to Delhi with his grandmother (Rehman) only to get entangled in the goings on.
As fond as Mehra is of Delhi (the “6” is taken from an Indian postal code for the old city), Delhi 6 was ironically filmed far from Delhi. To accommodate logistics and security concerns, the “Delhi” scenes were shot near Jaipur, while other far-flung onscreen locales were shot on Mumbai soundstages with 3-D Delhi vistas added later. The special effects are simply fantastic. Even after the search for the nighttime jokester sparks Hindu-Muslim tensions, Mehra is, for the most part, able to maintain control, and both Bachchan and Sonam Kapoor provide credible delivery.
Inject into this yet another scorching Rahman soundtrack, notably the playful “Masakali,” named after a pigeon, and Rahman’s success at adding a hip hop base to the provincial folk song “Genda Phool.” Rahman should take off for a year or two just to savor all his 2008 musical milestones, including his Slumdog Millionaire Oscar. He has our permission.
Back in the monkey’s lair, Delhi 6 can be filed under a Psych 101 chapter on mass hysteria—a horizon that spans everything from New Jersey’s famed Jersey Devil, to Orson Wells’ Armageddon-delivered-by-ET’s, to stampedes at soccer stadiums. Mehra’s take highlights a metaphorical beast within, while drawing up a sharp allegory about communal harmony.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.