Every artist had put their heart and soul into Delhi-6. For the cover design of the soundtrack of Delhi-6, we embedded an actual mirror on the CD cover and also when the first teaser poster of the movie was released. The idea was for society to take a good hard look at itself in the mirror. In the end credit roll, we had the entire cast appear on screen one by one and take a bow looking at their own reflection. I asked each actor to give that one emotion that defines their character: it was just amazing to see their talent emerge like a fountainhead.
The film opened on Friday, 20 February 2009, to a great response at the box office. By Sunday, we had done over 40 crore of business, but then came Monday, and the audience just vanished from the theatres. The collections that started dropping on day four never picked up. I was devastated. Was it too dark a reality for them? Were they unable to identify with the protagonist?
I was in the line of fire! Was Delhi-6 an actualization of the proverbial love’s labour lost? The box office debacle, and my own conflict with what ending was appropriate, shook me deeply. Was I capable of producing great cinema consistently? Was RDB a fluke? As I have said before, this period was after the runaway success of RDB. Over a live radio interview in Delhi, a caller announced a death warrant for me: ‘Bastard! How can you say Allah and Bhagwan are both inside you?’
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The National Commission for the Scheduled Castes summoned me to their office. ‘How can you refer to Jalebi [Divya Dutta] as lower caste?’ they asked.
I implored them to see my intention in context: in the beginning of the film, when Roshan (Abhishek) accidentally touches Jalebi, an untouchable, Gobar (an upper caste Brahmin played by Atul Kulkarni) wants to pour a bucket of water over his head to cleanse him. In the end, Gobar himself holds Jalebi’s hand. This is an ideological win. The commission was led by a very senior Congress leader who was in Parliament. They threatened to throw me out of the fourth floor of the window where the meeting was taking place at Khan Market in Delhi.
Thankfully, Ronnie stood steadfast by my side. He had lost a lot of money but never complained. Instead, he kept asking me about my next film. But my senses had deafened. The audience and critics that had loved me and showered praises post RDB were taking me apart piece by piece.
The reviews read thus:
‘The shockingly graceless final stretch, which implodes under the treacly burden of its good intentions,’ wrote blogger Bharadwaj Rangan.*
‘It’s hard to qualify Delhi-6 as an actual film,’ wrote Raja Sen in a review titled ‘Yeh Silly Hai Mere Yaar’ on rediff.com. ‘If dying means I get to wear white and sit next to Amitabh Bachchan and eat jalebis, I really wouldn’t mind being run over by a bus.’**
‘Ultimately then, the film is a noble failure. Delhi-6 is ambitious and well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t always translate into good cinema,’ said Anupama Chopra in her review on NDTV.***
I was going deeper and deeper into a dark hole. Unable to take it anymore, I drowned myself in alcohol. Not that I had never drunk before. In fact, I am infamous for getting drunk on my third drink, and post that, my behaviour is all about being footloose, singing songs, hugging and kissing my friends and so on! It’s how several people express their joy—for me, having a good time is also a manifestation of my love for my cast and crew and friends.
This time, my relationship with alcohol and the reasons for which I was getting sunk in its stupor were different. I wanted to drink myself to death—to sleep and never get up. Now, alcoholism is a very weak character trait! We all know that. We give excuses for our own shortcomings and become lesser human beings when we hit the bottle. I could see how much pain I was bringing to Bharathi and our daughter, Bhairavi, who was now in her pre-teens. My son Vedant was observing and things were eroding between us. I remained careless and insensitive to my closest ones, the people I loved the most. As I let myself drown, a part of me started to look for a float.
It was Bharathi who spoke to me and made me see reason. She told me:
You have to see the low of Delhi-6 in the context of the high of RDB. While it is normal for actors to be asked for autographs, post RDB when we were walking down Soho, London, people approached you for your autograph. Your fame was heroic. From that standpoint, the debacle of Delhi-6 seems catastrophic. But look at the film with fresh eyes: did the characters we created fail? Was the message of Delhi-6 not important enough? Maybe some parts failed but some parts succeeded too! We also have to think about the kids. Bhairavi knows what has happened, but Vedant is small and confused about why you’re so traumatized. How will the children have the courage to fail if you react so badly to it? No failure is final unless you decide it to be. Who will make the films that need to be made if you don’t?
As I heard Bharathi, I realized I couldn’t let down the woman who had always chosen me over every material comfort in life. I had to rise!
This excerpt from ‘The Stranger in the Mirror’ by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.