Delhi in a Day starts out with great flourish. The opening shot of Delhi’s skyline, reminiscent of the documentary James Ivory filmed in India’s capital back in 1964, perks our interest. The minarets and the brick buildings contrast with the poverty and the squalor. The sounds and the rhythms transport us so that we can practically smell India.
When the camera focuses on the ritzy, middle aged couple sleeping in the lap of luxury, I am hooked. The wife wakes up complaining of broken down air conditioning and I know that this is not a typical Bollywood film. The director, Prashant Nair, hits the right note of irony in these first few scenes. The husband swats a mosquito; his purpose is not to kill the insect, but rather to strategically fall into his wife’s arms. When she subtly rejects his advances, I can sense that all is not well with this household.
The camera moves downstairs, where the servants are parodying their mistress, hinting at an Indian version of Downton Abbey. When we learn that a foreign visitor is expected, we expect the household to be shaken out of its comfort zone.
Lee Williams, as the visitor, turns out to be an odd casting choice. Perhaps he is a little too nice, a little too soft, a little too unreal. With the entrance of Williams, the film takes on the tone of a parable. He is seen counting bills and the audience is left wondering if they are pounds or rupees. Soon, Williams discovers that his money has been stolen. The servants are, of course, the usual suspects.
What follows is a drama about class. Even as the poor servant Raghu is blamed for the theft and asked to return the money within twenty-four hours, we feel sorry for him and his niece Rohini, the young and beautiful Anjali Patil. We are offered a glimpse into the deprived lives of India’s underclass. After nearly a hundred years of film-making, Bollywood is finally returning to an exploration of flaws in India’s social structures. I say returning, because India’s film industry was started by Dadasaheb Phalke in Maharashtra and came of age in the 1930s with avant garde films like Achhoot Kanya(untouchable maiden) and V Shantaram’s Kunku. Such ground breaking films, made in the wake of Gandhi’s call for social and political reform, shattered social dogma and paved the way for women’s education and liberation.
Alas, once Independence came, the need for self-examination evaporated. By the 1960s, the realistic movie with a message had all but disappeared, replaced by technicolor dance dramas. In the 70s, the new wave came, made a splash, and then petered out.
I anxiously awaited the moment of truth when the rich landlady would realize that the servants were not the culprits. For I already knew who had done it, long before the director got around to revealing it.
This is the main problem with Nair’s debut film; that at each stage, it is completely predictable. We never get so absorbed in the narrative as to be unable to figure out what comes next. This predictability, along with the one dimensional characters, undermined an otherwise viewable film.
And yet, I was rooting for Rohini and her uncle, rooting for the servants, rooting for India’s underclass, to make a statement. What I longed for, however, was the missed opportunity for exploring the characters further. On several occasions, the elder patriarch in the household hinted at his unfulfilled longings, yet, that storyline was never developed. The character of the father, a left-leaning recluse and artist, hinted at another India, but again, his character was used more as a sounding board rather than as an integral part of the story. And the young adults in the household remained shadowy figures, serving as mere plot vehicles. Instead of concentrating on the whodunit aspect of the story, Nair would have been well-served to develop the rich characters we were introduced to.
Prashant Nair has proven his flair for camera and storytelling in Delhi in a Day, no small task for a novice. I hope he will develop his craft to make further explorations into social themes.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com