In the middle of evil, with Dibakar Banerjee

The radical filmmaker, who has been breaking rules as part of the nouveau brigade in Hindi cinema, has an honest, clear, unflattering view of the rising Indian middle class.

Shriram Iyengar

In 2006, Dibakar Banerjee made the Hindi film industry sit up and take notice with his black comedy, Khosla Ka Ghosla. The film, about a middle-class Delhi family's struggle to save its little plot from land sharks, was one of the best films of the decade.

With his maiden film, Banerjee announced himself as one of a new breed of purveyors of authentic, original content in Indian cinema. He went on to create radical films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhoka (2010), Shanghai (2012) and, more recently, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). His oeuvre is diverse, as is his style. The common thread, however, is the theme of the aspirational middle class, a society that Banerjee himself comes from.

Growing up in Delhi, Banerjee recognised the aspirations, and limitations, of the middle class. Throughout his career so far, he has subtly blended the humour of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's world with the pathos and humour of Satyajit Ray's films. In Khosla Ka Ghosla, the older generation hunts for its 'own' house as the holy grail of life, while the younger generation seeks to leave home. On the other hand, the younger generation is not averse to cheating to get what it wants. As the director himself said in an interview, 'The Delhi of Oye Lucky and Khosla Ka Ghosla, where I grew up, was a city of class, money, violence, conflict....'

It is a statement that finds expression in the menace of the land sharks, played by Boman Irani and Rajesh Sharma. The good middle-class sophisticates find themselves battling the crude, crooked brokers. The sober pre-liberalisation generation also battles the younger upstarts in the family. Yet, all of them desire the same thing – a house. 

This aspirational battle continued in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! If the first film established Banerjee's nuanced, sensible style of filmmaking, his second was testimony to his understanding of Indian society.

In Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Lucky is a normal teenager from Delhi who lusts for the good things of life and turns to theft to acquire the objects of his desire. There is no sad story or childhood trauma that drives him to be a thief, just the absolute need for life's goodies. One song in the film lists everything Lucky wants – from LCD TV to fridge and Ferrari. Lucky is not ashamed to be a thief. On the contrary, he is proud of the fact considering it is the one thing he is good at. Eventually, the 'thief' manages to mingle with the upper middle class of Delhi by dressing and behaving like them. It is the ultimate achievement of a yuppie.

Many have hailed Banerjee as the latest exponent of a cinema that was nurtured most famously by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. However, Banerjee's middle class is not just aspirational and humorous, but also cruel and violent.

In LSD, the director exposed the dark underbelly of this class in three interwoven tales. Shot with handheld cameras, to provoke a direct reaction, LSD is a treatise on the director's understanding of middle-class psyche as he unravels stories revolving around the three emotions in the title to disastrous conclusions. The first story, in particular, seems fun-filled and light till the young woman's family comes into the picture. In Banerjee's films, the middle class would suffer death but not a damage to their dignity. The shock of the couple's death, when it comes, is magnified by the fact that it is committed by seemingly normal people.

In Shanghai, Banerjee turned to the political side of this class. In Dr Ahmedi, he created a stereotype that seeks to uproot the status quo while everyone else seems comfortable with it. The many facets of the death, and the variants that spring up to explain it, become a representation of the degenerating state. In many ways, Dibakar Banerjee's world revolves around the dimensions of the middle class. It is the state. 

As a filmmaker, Dibakar Banerjee is not a judge. He simply shows us what he experiences. This expression of his experiences has become his voice. This fine understanding of a people clinging to their past, striving to build a future, and creating chaos in the process is a gift. It is also the greatest strength of Dibakar Banerjee's films.