MIDWAY THROUGH Dibakar Banerjee’s 2008 film Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, someone asks Baangali, sidekick to the film’s protagonist, “Tu sach mein Baangali hai (Are you really Bengali)?” We have heard this amiable rogue addressed thus many times already and not thought much about it, perhaps taking for granted that he is a Bengali raised in the film’s West Delhi setting. But no, he mumbles sheepishly—he got this nickname because his father was once arrested in Kolkata.
It’s a chuckle-out-loud moment—unless you miss it, which you might well do during a casual first viewing; the lines are spoken offhandedly, not lingered on, and the shot is framed in such a way that the two men are on the right edge of the screen while the rakish thief Lucky—our focus of attention—is on the left, glancing about nervously for cops. But the scene captures one of the defining features of Banerjee’s cinema: a delicacy of touch, where dialogue is allowed to be the tip of an iceberg, suggesting a whole world behind a character without thickly underlining it. In another scene in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Lucky’s future girlfriend disapproves of the short-skirted schoolgirls in a café—“Hamaare school mein salwar kameez pehente thhe (We wore salwar-kameez in school)”—and he gives her his trademark cocky grin and says, “Tabhi toh jal rahi ho (That’s why you’re jealous).” It is a small but significant moment from a filmmaker whose work is often about the nature of aspiration in a many-layered society, and about the impulse to look at other people, wondering what it might be like to live their lives—along with the fear of crossing over to the other side.
Over the course of four films in seven years, Banerjee has become widely recognised as one of our most original directors—a poster boy for the so-called Indie movement, though a better formulation for his work might be personal cinema, since he has laboured very near the mainstream. Four features is not a very large sample size, but consider the progression: from the relatively simple-minded morality tale Khosla ka Ghosla (still his most popular film among middlebrow audiences who aren’t too invested in edgy cinema) to the more nuanced Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (a colourful but savage indictment of the same middle class that was idealised in the first film) to the formal departure of Love, Sex aur Dhokha (three intersecting stories about honour killings, sexual exploitation and media voyeurism told through handheld cameras and CCTV footage) and finally to last year’s Shanghai, a dark, stifling work about a country trying to emulate the First World while pretending that its poor don’t exist.