I watched “Delhi Belly” twice. The first time in the original English/Hindi format and the second time in the dubbed Hindi. It was a different experience each time and frankly, this is an English language film through and through, never mind the litany of Hindi profanities punctuating it. The celluloid-burning cussing is the USP of this movie and completely manages to carry its comedic weight and invest it with whatever entertainment value it can lay claim to. This is a legitimately funny film, one that can be quoted and chuckled about much after it is over. However, make no mistake: that is all it is. A hollow, labored kind of humor keeps this film afloat in the graying puddle of mop water it has collected scrubbing through other foreign movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But going into paroxysms of delight over this year’s product of Edgy! Bollywood is all a bit too much. A new director, Abhinay Deo, and a competent dialogue writer, Akshat Verma, fail to make this anything more than a potty-mouthed exercise in banality.
This is the tale of three roommates – Tashi (Imran Khan), Arup (Vir Das) and Nitin (Kunal Roy Kapoor) – who get into trouble with the underworld (Vijay Raaz) after one of them doesn’t deliver a package, another one delivers it for him and the third spends most of his time dealing with the titular stomach ailment by excreting at various moments in the movie.
The problems with the film are manifold but, at the outset, I would like to tackle the loud proclamations of this being “just like Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino” or whichever English language filmmaker has ever made a gangster flick. Um OK. Ritchie and Tarantino are derivative enough to have never been able to come up with anything more interesting than their debuts, although “Pulp Fiction” is world-class stunning enough for us to forgive QT that. Let’s all acknowledge that everyone in mainstream cinema the world over is ripping each other off, calling it a homage and backslapping one another at festivals. We must base the criticism of these works on stronger foundations than Spot the Magpie. The real consternation at the heart of films like “Delhi Belly” is not that they are reviewed by Anglophone film watchers and compared to Western films to be found wanting but that they basically fetishize the very Indo-Anglian, upper middle class double-consciousness that sneers at them afterwards. The spectacle of Indian bourgeois values and monotony challenged and subverted by the clash with the criminal “other”, that has come to dominate respectable Bollywood fare in recent times, definitely has some link with our national social reality.
Self-congratulatory excess is the main problem of “Delhi Belly”, whether it’s the gratuitous swearing or sometimes smug jokes (“Mill On The Floss”?) or even some carefully affected shots that implore the viewer to pay attention lest they miss all this ridiculous cleverness. In contrast to the throwaway ironic dialogues that elevate the film, the filmic grammar is often contrived. It is a well cinematographed film though, the fulgent lighting and vivid palette arresting the eye even as the story becomes sluggish.
This viscosity of narrative is a big issue I had with the film because it is one that is entirely centered on plot. Basically, the characters are funky archetypes without anything to propel them except the plotline; their motivations and minds remain a mystery and there is no sense of arc that emerges. The storyline is too far from a slice-of-life routine to justify the “suddenness” of these personalities, without any seeming consistency or coherence. There needs to be a dexterous balancing act in crime/comedy capers that allow us to become familiar with the protagonists even as the engine of the all-important plot continues running. The Delhi Belly that afflicts one of the main characters is supposed to be the cause of much sardonic, vaguely allegorical funniness and it’s a little too Vincent Vega for me to buy it, as blatant as this randomness was. Also, the intertextual patchwork in most Hindi films nowadays has officially reached critical mass with this one and is now on its way from cute to cloying; the throwback to disco days through diegesis and diorama is part of the excess I mentioned earlier.“ The world of “Delhi Belly” is like a glossy magazine with frivolous articles. As a friend pointed out, there’s no sense of even Delhi, the city, that manages to permeate this self-satisfied fortress of funnies. The only really enjoyable bits were those scored by Ram Sampath’s naughty and fantastic music.
The characters being almost empty, inhabiting them as skilfully as Vijay Raaz and Vir Das did, is commendable. Their acting consisted in fantastic timing and dialogue-delivery and, for this movie, that suffices. Kunal Roy Kapoor is an engaging debutant, doing a lot of heavy lifting rather well. The Love Interest is Maneka, Tashi’s colleague with and to whom he becomes infatuated and beholden respectively. Poorna Jagannathan who plays her, while nice enough to look at, slips a fair bit in portraying the kind of girl she’s meant to, something that alerted me to the lack of characterization in the film. Shenaz Treasury has little to do except be the stereotypically ditzy harpy of a bratty girlfriend who can be conveniently lampooned and Kim Bodnia, the Russian mobster, is ill-used.
Other Hindi filmmakers, from the hoary days of a dated Kundan Shah in the ’80s to piping hot Dibakar Banerjee in the last couple of years, have done a much better job of delving into these darkly funny spaces of Indian life. A flat, unevenly pitched film, “Delhi Belly” can be laugh-out-loud hilarious in bits but remains only an amusing little collection of a few smart zingers. Its ‘A’ rating by the Censor Board might be exciting for a while, but graded on merit, it doesn’t quite make the cut.