Thieves of Delhi
A B C D Chaida Mainu, Vadi Biddi Chaida Mainu
Ctvv Chaida Mainu, Lcd Bhi Chaida Mainu
Laal Murseri Chaidi Mainu, Laal Kila Bhi Chaida Mainu
Haa Haa Chaida Ho Ho Chaida
Oye Lucky Lucky Oye is about a real life superchor Devender alias Bunty, a compulsive thief whose niche was burglarizing independent bungalows in posh Delhi colonies. He is reported to have committed more than 500 burglaries, amounting to loot worth millions of rupees. From luxury cars to flower pots and cutlery, his range was truly eclectic. He was finally caught in 2002 after dodging different state police departments in the most creative ways possible. What director Dibakar Bannerji and his co-script writer Urmi Juvekar have done to this story of a real life character is to turn it into a much larger comment on the sleaziness of Delhi. While it is true that Delhi is often characterized as such, owing to its wheeler-dealer population of politicians and bureaucrats, the film’s originality lies in looking at this sleaziness from a non-bourgeois perspective. Far from seeing the whole package of corruption, kickbacks, and conspicuous consumerism with superior disdain, the film presents everything as a product of the nexus between the capitalist market and a more informal economy, embodied in the triple persona of Paresh Rawal. Rawal plays a sleazy adulterous father who trades in peanuts, a sleazier puff-haired showman named Gogi Arora close to the powers that be, and (sleaziest of all) a veterinary doctor Handa who hangs around with the upper end and uses Lucky to finance his restaurant. The ambience of sleaze is created by a general proximity to butter chicken and restaurants in which ghazal singers pause in the middle of their improvisations to accommodate tantrums.
There is a scene right in the middle of the film where Dolly (Richa Chaddha) a dancer-sidekick tries to seduce Lucky, the screen thief played by Abhay Deol. He is actually interested in her sister (Neetu Chandra), a strange mixture of prudery and pride masquerading as respectability. When he spurns Dolly, she starts shrieking at him, detouring abruptly from the praise of his aftershave and his good looks to vitriolic abuse. The content of her abuse actually gives us the clues by which the film may be understood. She tells him, “What after all is your valuation (her word)? First go and learn English and then come here… and don’t you fool around with my sister. She is counted amongst the gentry (her word)”.
It is interesting that the real life chor Bunty apparently spoke fluent English despite having studied only up to class 9. Lucky the screen chor is for some reason refused this eloquence. The taunts that gather around him are all to do with this particular lack. The film then dramatizes his deficiency in English to make a point about the limits to the acquisition of gentry status through a mere accumulation of commodities. It goes on to show how despite his immense talent and intelligence, and his appearance of gentrified identity—expensive shirts, imported cars, a suave manner, money—Lucky is unable to carry it off. In fact, the harder he tries to enter the gates of gentrified respectability, the more flatly he falls on his face.
What is remarkable about the film is that although treated poignantly, his failure to make it is not seen as a tragedy. The film refuses to show Lucky as serving a prison sentence. On the contrary, the stress is on his mercurial temperament. He steals on a lark, or to teach the gratuitous and sensationalist reporter of the Toofan channel a lesson. He might steal only to return or just steal a teddy bear or a pet dog. He also steals with a lot of panache and enjoyment. The idea is to trick the so-called gentry into thinking of him as their very own. He does not like the oiliness of his friend and collaborator Bangali (Manu Rishi) who is ready to lick ass at the slightest pretext. Lucky wants to be his own bossman, and his eyes grow wary at the homo-erotic insinuations made by the boss Gogi Arora. There is continuous tension between succumbing to the whims of such a tyrant and wanting to make a solo flight. But apart from his strong bond with Bangali, what makes him swallow pride again and again is that he is part of a wider network in which there cannot be any professionalism. He needs them to dispose of his stolen goods. Nor can he enter the more formal economy as an investor because he has no juridical status, no bank account, no pan card, no tax returns to announce his legitimacy. He cannot steal legitimacy like his nouveaux riche double. This does not stop him trying, but he is daunted by the dirtier ways of the more entrenched bourgeois players like Handa. When defeated, he concedes, with at most a desire to slap his opponent and double-crosser.
To my middle class sensibility, the idea of theft as art (not simply artistry) was introduced years ago by my Jat broker when I complained to him about my neighbour routinely stealing water from my tank. He shrugged it off with an appreciative, “kalaakar aadmi hai”! In sizing up Lucky as the incredible chor, the filmmakers are of course attesting to his kalakaari, but also underlining his value as someone who has nothing left to lose. Because he plays for such elusive stakes, he can never be impoverished. Despite the fact that what he does is deception, he is not a poseur. When his girlfriend teases him that he should come to marry her in a Ravi Bajaj ensemble, he replies, “why should I wear somebody else’s suit when I can buy my own?” By association, the motley crowd of poseurs and wannabes may not be as cutely honest as Lucky, but they can be seen as part of the very same informal economy to which Lucky belongs. Under the guise of export-import, trading and business, real estate speculation, what goes around is not capitalism, but primitive hoarding. There is very little capital investment or honest trading, just an accumulation of commodities and property by hook or by crook. And yet these other players are each contextualized in their own ways, which may not necessarily humanize them. For instance, when Gogi Arora adorned with a ‘Jai Mata Di’ scarf is booed out by the farmhouse Jat crowd in favour of Dolly the skimpily-clad dancer, he comes backstage and expresses his disgruntlement by saying, “bacchi ko noch dalenge”. Later Dolly tells Lucky that she was really touched by his attention: nobody else had bothered to ask her to eat and that she had been dancing on an empty stomach all day. She also reveals that Gogi kept her working all day long by addressing her bacchi. Gogi’s solicitude on her behalf is exposed; at the same time, we know the exploited worker is more than a mere pawn.
It is interesting that the producer of the film mentions that one of the possible audiences for the film is call center youths, who would be able to identify with Lucky presumably because of their combination of flaky education and aspiration to gentrified identity. But how would it square with the glorification of thieving?
The theft is moreover so excessive, so gratuitous, even discriminating in its indiscriminateness that it leaves the viewers with a nauseating spectacle of piles of television sets and other objects of desire bereft of any possible allure. The film shows the interiors of these wealthy homes as nothing more than claustrophobic clutter, as go-downs full of stolen goods. Perhaps, Lucky’s assessment of things as disparate as a luxury car, a teddy bear or greeting card as equivalent is not only because they relate to his aspiration for gentrification in comparable ways but because the same amount of labour, risk, and innovation has gone into acquiring them. In other words, the commodities mediate social relationships, but they also put a stop to them. What is both comforting and discomforting about Oye Lucky Lucky Oye is that it reveals the whole economy as based on theft, on appropriation and misappropriation. Our admiration for a single thief who owns up to his theft in an honorable and non-violent way, upon reflection, seems justified in this jungle of people trying to live respectably off black money.
In conclusion, I must mention that for a film that willy-nilly celebrates robbery, the music done by 24- year old Sneha Khawalkar strikes a gesture completely at odds with the reigning piracy culture of the Bollywood music industry. Khanwalkar has not only scouted the tunes from village singers, but has had them sing her remixed versions, using instruments they are comfortable with and which don’t drown out their voices in a cacophony of digitalized beats. Their voices are not merely borrowed in snatches to punctuate her tracks with exotic effect, but entire songs are rendered and credited.