Inside Bollywood's obsession with Chandni Chowk
Lately, Rishi Kapoor whizzed past in a cycle rickshaw in one of the busiest market squares of India: Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Surprisingly, the teeming crowds turned into willing participants of the scene picturised for director Leena Yadav's under-production film Rajma Chawal, named after the delectable dish of red kidney beans in a spicy gravy served with either rice or roti.
Yadav's husband, ace cinematographer Aseem Bajaj, exulted, "Wherever we went - through the maze of backlanes as well as the bazaar - people welcomed us with open arms. Shopkeepers would offer us home-cooked food, piping hot tea and tumblers of water to keep our spirits up. The experience was remarkably different from the interruptions and heckling by unruly crowds in any other part of India."
An extensive section of the film was shot in Lachu Ram Ki Haveli, an old-worldly mansion that has survived the vagaries of redevelopment under the guise of modernisation. "We were absolutely floored by the traditional hospitality of the locals," Bajaj added. "Old Delhi has a unique charm. Its residents as well as traders love the movies. They were considerate enough to keep a respectful distance from Chintu-ji (Rishi Kapoor). At most, at the end of a day's shoot, the young as well as their parents and their grandparents would politely request him for selfies."
Indeed, the romance of Bollywood with the centuries-old Chandni Chowk, aka Moonlight Square, has been one of a kind. The magnificent Red Fort at the mouth of the square, the Jama Masjid neighbourhood and the old single-screen cinema halls have frequently served as eye-caressing backdrops for movies over the decades.
The legendary poet Mirza Ghalib's house, right in the midst of Gali Qasim Jan, is about the only landmark that seems to have missed out on the attention it deserves. Gulzar's memorable TV series Mirza Ghalib (1988), with Naseeruddin Shah in the eponymous role, was shot in a Mumbai studio, perhaps out of budgetary constraints. To transport the actors as well as the technical crew to Old Delhi for a series would have surely escalated costs.
Curiously enough, in the hub of Bollywood, municipal officials and the state government aren't too gung-ho about allowing film units to exploit the camera-friendly monuments and streets of Mumbai. A welter of permissions has to be secured at prohibitive costs. As a result, most modestly-budgeted and indie films have to resort to 'guerrilla shooting', shoot-and-run before the municipal security guards and the police can confiscate their cameras.
By contrast, the authorities in the Indian capital appear to be more relaxed, explaining why film units often opt for the trend of 'Delhi Chalo'. Scores of top-of-the-line entertainers have captured the throbbing vibe of Moonlight Square. Count among the prominent instances Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Sultan (2016) pairing Salman Khan with Kareena Kapoor Khan and Anushka Sharma respectively, PK (2014), Rockstar (2011), Delhi Belly (2011), Delhi-6 (2009), and Chandni Chowk To China (2009) have specifically sought to capture the throbbing vibe of Moonlight Square.
Incidentally, Akshay Kumar has an unbreakable bond with Chandni Chowk. His grandmother stayed on at the famed Paranthe Wali Gali. At the height of his popularity, whenever he was in Delhi, he would make it a point to visit her, and feast on stuffed paranthas, which are the speciality of the neighbourhood.
Why is the square, designed by Jahanara Begum, daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, associated with moonlight? According to historians, there was a time when a pool in the centre of the square would shimmer on full moon nights.
Quite piquantly, Jahan Ara (1964), with Mala Sinha in the title role and Prithviraj Kapoor as Shah Jahan, did rekindle the aesthetic sense of the Mughal princess. Although mounted ostentatiously with an accent on grandiloquent sets and sumptuous costume design, the film tanked at the ticket windows - perhaps because of its languorous pace and restrained screenplay.
Nevertheless the music score of Jahan Ara by Madan Mohan, with such imperishable songs as Phir Wohi Shaam Wohi Gham, Haal-e-dil Yun Unhe Sunaya Gaya and Baad Muddat Ke Yeh Ghadi Aayee are prime favourites on the playlist of connoisseurs of vintage film music.
There is the undervalued film Chandni Chowk (1954), featuring Meena Kumari, which commented on social disparities through the story of a nawab's daughter who's tricked into a marriage with a gardener's son. Clearly ahead of its time, mercifully, its print, albeit hazy, can be accessed on the Internet.
Scores of documentaries, including actress Neena Gupta's Bazaar Sitaram (1993), which zoomed into a particularly vibrant precinct of the chowk, have been made over the decades, and deservedly so.
If you have ever visited Chandni Chowk, you'll know here's one place where time has stood still, making it a joy for the inquiring gaze of the movie camera.