Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
Recently, a friend from school watched Sai Paranjpye's 1981 romantic comedy Chashme Baddoor and suggested to me that the film should be renamed "Au Revoir, New Delhi." Besides being a sweet film that first introduced us to the pairing of Farooq Shaikh and Deepti Naval, Chashme Baddoor is also an ode to Delhi long gone. It is a love letter to Delhi of my memories.
Here are my memories. Delhi of that era, despite being the capital city, was like a sleepy town, a quiet suburb, where everything would shut down by 10 PM. The roads were practically empty for most part of the day. People would get back home after work to be with their families, and then spend the evenings listening to Vividh Bharati or the English services on All India Radio.
My junior school was located on the tranquil tree lined Humayun Road, on the edge of Lutyens' Delhi, close to Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi's first apartment complex and Khan Market, a local shopping area, long before it became popular with Delhi's elite and expat population. My senior school was on Barakhamba Road " a wide peaceful road on the way to Connaught Place. It emerged from Mandi House, the center of Delhi's theatre world.
Kids would ride bicycles on the main roads and parents seemed little concerned about the safety issue. I would ride my bicycle, crossing the now impenetrable Ring Road, and head to the Defence Colony market to rent Archie comic books for 25 paise per day. I would dream of another world, where Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead would meet in their local diner for milkshakes and hamburgers.
Or I would ride to our neighborhood market, to the Rhythm Corner music store and listen to LP records in private booths. That's how I discovered Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. The salesmen at the store trusted my brother and me. They let us listen to the LPs even when it seemed obvious that we were not going to make the purchase.
In the late 1970s, that tranquility of Delhi was disrupted when two young siblings from my school were kidnapped and later murdered. Their bodies were thrown in the hilly part of Delhi's ridge, behind Rashtrapati Bhavan, close to the historic Talkatora Garden built in the Mughal era. The innocence of the city was shaken up, but things eventually calmed down, once the criminals Ranga and Billa were caught, and sentenced to death.
It was this Delhi, the city of my wonderous childhood that I left in August 1981 when I went to New York City as a student. One of the last films I saw before I left India was Chashme Baddoor. It was released in May 1981.
The memory of the film carried the smell of Delhi with me, as I arrived in the cold yet invigorating city, which would become my home for the next three-and-a-half decades.
Watching the film today, my mind takes me back to my childhood and teenage years. When I see the three friends in Chashme Baddoor " Siddharth (Farooq Shaikh), Jai (Ravi Baswani), and Omi (Rakesh Bedi) living in a barsaati in Defence Colony, I can close my eyes and picture myself in that space on the top floor of the two-storey white-coloured house.
"These barsaatis have an innate charm and provide a secluded magical world of their own," Paranjpye wrote in her autobiography A Patchwork Quilt, published in 2020. "We found an ideal flat in Defence Colony. A roomy hall with a terrace running around it. An additional staircase for quick getaways made it perfect for some of our scenes."
The barsaatis gave a new generation of young Delhi residents a chance to live in affordable single rooms, often shared with friends. Artists and writers including MF Husain, Arundhati Roy, and Barry John lived in barsaatis in South Delhi before real estate prices hit the roof. A few years ago, John told me about the addas he would host at his barsaati in Jangpura where Shah Rukh Khan, then a young actor in Delhi and Irrfan Khan, a fresh graduate of the National School of Drama, would drop by.
Defence Colony is now home to expats " journalists working for foreign publications, diplomats, and Indians with strong business ties. Students like Siddharth, Jai, and Omi cannot imagine living in Defence Colony now.
Siddharth, Jai, and Omi in their Defence Colony barsati
It is from the terrace of the barsaati that Jai and Omi first see a young attractive woman " Neha (Deepti Naval) aka Miss Chamko walk down the street and they both make unsuccessful, though hilarious, efforts to win over her. One day, quite by chance, Neha drops by the barsaati to give a demonstration of the Chamko detergent powder, and that begins the romance between her and Siddharth.
Neha lives walking distance from the three men. But Paranjpye, the filmmaker took liberties with space. The location of Neha's house (Paranjpye described it as a "neat little doll's house, complete with a garden" in her autobiography) where she lives with her father and grandmother was found in Vasant Vihar, another upscale colony in South Delhi. But Vasant Vihar is not very close to Defence Colony. Given Delhi's traffic, it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes to cover that distance.
My real connection with Chashme Baddoor happened three years ago when I was invited to a New Year's Eve party in Vasant Vihar by a Pakistani-Australian friend. Her Whatsapp group for the party was titled "31st at Ms Chamko's." And that is when I realised my friend lived in the same red brick house with a black metal gate where parts of Chashme Baddoor were shot.
Only difference " Neha and her family lived on the ground floor. My friend's flat was on the first floor. But the film lover in me was thrilled to be in the same space where Paranjpye, Naval, Sheikh, Baswani, and Bedi had spent time nearly four decades ago creating a magical film that still gives us so much of joy.
The film still takes me back to many parts of Delhi which I associate with my life before I left for the US. Such as when the three friends meet outside the Central Cottage Industries Emporium's old location on Janpath in Connaught Place. As the camera faces the three men, one can read the sign of Rachana Books and Records store, which was located at the entrance of the emporium. It was a lovely little shop that I often visited. The owners encouraged potential shoppers to browse through its selections. That shop closed many years ago.
Jai, Omi, and Siddharth outside Central Cottage Industries Emporium at Janpath
In a brief scene at the beginning of the song 'Pyaar, Lagawat, Pranay, Mohabbat,' the three friends are seen flying balloons in the garden surrounding India Gate. That section of India Gate, which used to be the best place to eat ice cream in Delhi, is now a restricted area as the government has dug up most of green space for the planned Central Vista Redevelopment Project.
After Jai (Baswani) gets beaten up by Neha's brother, he is seen walking out of Sharma Clinic Cum Pathology Lab, for Blood, Urine, Stools & Sputum. As Jai leaves the clinic with his right eye and left hand bandaged, the camera pans to the clinic's board. We see the address 69, Khan Market on the board. The clinic is long gone. Currently the popular Asian restaurant Yum Yum Cha is located on the first floor of that address.
Another prominent spot in the film is Lalan Mian's (Saeed Jaffrey) stall where the three young men drop by to get cigarettes on credit. The stall was located in Nizamuddin, another posh locality in South Delhi and home to the city's prominent businessmen, filmmakers, and even authors like Vikram Seth. But Nizamuddin also has historical significance. Amir Khusrau, Jahan Ara Begum (Shah Jahan's daughter), and Mirza Ghalib are buried there. Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb is located on the edge of the colony.
Lalan Mian's stall was erected right on Mathura Road " a main artery in South Delhi that goes all the way to Faridabad and beyond. Watching the film today, it looks odd to see a practically empty Mathura Road. It was not as if the film unit has stopped the regular road traffic. That was Delhi in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the traffic congestions, flyovers, and pollution.
The city's roads are empty through most of the film, as Siddharth takes Neha on rides on his motorcycle, passing the spacious homes of ministers and MPs in Lutyens' Delhi or when the two go on dates to the Talkatora Garden cafÃ©. Neha always orders Tutti Fruity ice cream, while Siddharth sticks to plain coffee. It is in Talkatora Garden that Neha and Siddharth talk about their marriage plans, where they break into a song, and even have a brief encounter Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha.
The memory of the kidnappers Ranga and Billa must have been there at the back of Pranjpye's mind when she was writing the script of Chashme Baddoor. There was a few references in the film about rich people getting kidnapped for ransom. The narratives treats these incidents as minor humorous situations, but Paranjpye is definitely hinting at the fact that all was not well in the serene Delhi she presented to the audience.
But most of Chashme Baddoor moves at the languid pace, capturing the essence of the Delhi as I knew it, with its slow and calming energy. In her book, Paranjpye wrote the "film would ¦ (explore) the length and breadth of the beautiful city and lay bare its soul, providing a comprehensive Dilli darshan to its audience."
And that is what she does in the film. She makes us fall in love with Delhi again, even though that city does not exist anymore.
Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.