Delhi Belly is a slice of life comedy that serves up simpletons, squalor and scatological humor with great sophistication.
The scrolling yellow announcement above the screen showing Delhi Belly announced a rarely seen linguistic classification. “Hinglish” it said in parentheses adjacent to the title, proudly announcing that this was not a film where characters translated thoughts out of commercial pressures. True to its claims, Delhi Belly is bilingual in an entirely believable fashion. If the subliminal linguistic classification that we indulge in – directing an auto rickshaw driver in Hindi but addressing acquaintances in English – is seamlessly integrated into Delhi Belly so is the infinite variety of the titular city. Both the squalor and the splendor of Delhi make appearances in the film, though not in equal parts. Fancy parties and hotels are contrasted with narrow streets and dubiously constructed tenements. This duality is one of many sources of depth in Abhinay Deo’s hilarious film.
Delhi Belly opens in a Jackie Brown-esque manner with Vladimir, a nervous Russian mule, transferring a package to a bimbette airhostess Sonia (played by Shehnaz Treasurywala) who is unaware of the contraband she is in possession of. In a miniscule span of screen time a whole slew of comedic possibilities are set up because of this disparity of information. The economy of expression in that opening scene is present through the entirety of Delhi Belly allowing the film to paint even its most insignificant of characters with color and complexity. The film’s three male protagonists – Tashi, Nitin and Arup – live in a habitual state of squalor and slack. Tashi (a grungy, bearded Imran Khan) nurses ambitions of being a serious journalist, a sentiment not shared by his photographer and roommate Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur in a ‘free flowing’ performance). What they do have in common, though, is an internal dichotomy. Despite his professional ambitions Tashi is not serious about the one mainstay in his life – long time girlfriend and fiancé Sonia. And despite his mercenary attitude, Nitin does have artistic tendencies, even if they are of the morbid variety. The roommate who commits the delivery error that leads to the film’s shenanigans is Arup (Vir Das). Whether head nodding to a hack boss who issues absurdly hilarious directives or being reduced, quite literally, to a doormat by his by his girlfriend Ritu, Arup is a safely submissive young man. His urge to fight back is reserved for his friends. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan), a fellow journalist with a crush on Tashi and a jealous husband filled with murderous anger, is the fourth piece of this unintentionally comedic quartet.
Be it the protagonists or a philandering yet conscientious landlord, Delhi Belly is chock-full of flawed people who find themselves in hilarious predicaments. Even the archetypal jealous husband expends a second admiring (what he thinks is) two women kissing before realizing that one of them is his wife. Ironically the only soul who stands tall above them as a man of refinement is a gangster. Slipping into Hindi and English with equal élan, Vijay Raaz’s performance as Somayajulu is pitched and timed to perfection. Somayajulu may be a gangster but he is a purveyor of items of immaculate beauty – diamonds. There is some artistry to his trade as evidenced by his elaborately delicate procedure for viewing the diamonds Vladimir has smuggled for him. First, a velvet cloth is laid out on a flat surface. Then any dust or other extraneous impurity is dismissed with a flick of the wrist or a puff of air from the lips. And finally the contents of the package are lovingly emptied on to the cloth. It is both inexplicably sad and funny that the reward he gets for all his care is a stool sample. For all the running scatological humor and great lines in Delhi Belly, it is this moment of dual emotion that defines this riotous film.
P.S: An edited version of this piece appeared in the City Express supplement of the New Indian Express yesterday. Link.