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Dibakar Das Roy on “Dilli Dark”: “I wanted to show the cyclical nature of history … the cyclical nature of societal biases.”

“Dilli Dark,” a cross-cultural film, examines the intricacies of being an outsider in India through the eyes of a Nigerian immigrant, while highlighting societal prejudices and bringing to light a history that has been forgotten.
April 30, 2024
9:02 pm
Dibakar Das Roy Portrait Black and White
Dibakar Das Roy Portrait Black and White

In the crowded city of New Delhi, the protagonist, Michael Okeke, a young Nigerian student is always an alien everywhere he goes. His story, vividly captured by Dibakar Das Roy in his thought-provoking film “Dilli Dark,” stands as a poignant metaphor for racial biases and identity struggles that are common in Indian society.


The movie was inspired by the filmmaker’s personal experience and the experiences of the African diaspora community in India. Das Roy skillfully weaves a multi-layered narrative which contrasts Okeke’s contemporary challenges with the history of Africans in royal courts centuries ago. This juxtaposition is meant to show not only how societal prejudices are cyclical but also to highlight the deep ties between these two continents.


Employing satire as an effective tool, “Dilli Dark” addresses such sensitive issues as racism, colorism, and demonization of foreigners.


Using satire as well as nonlinear storytelling techniques “Dilli Dark” presents fresh perspectives on legacies of colonialism and shared human experience that surpasses borders. By digging up ancient histories of African diaspora.


In an exclusive interview with The Nollywood Reporter, Dibakar Das Roy went into detail about what motivated him to make this movie, some difficulties he encountered and key messages it seeks to deliver.



TNR: What was the inspiration behind telling a story that interweaves historical and contemporary narratives around racism and identity in India?

Dibakar: It’s a great question. There haven’t been too many stories in mainstream Indian cinema that deal with racial identity, although there’s a lot about religion, class and caste. India is a country with immense diversity, and wherever there’s diversity, problems often arise from that diversity as well.


I felt we needed to talk about racial identity and look at the complex nature of Indian society through this lens. One of the best ways to do it was to explore how we, as Indians, look at ourselves and how we perceive outsiders or so-called outsiders in our society. That’s where the story of the protagonist, Michael Okeke, a Nigerian student living in New Delhi, comes into play.


He is an outsider in every sense, but it is through him that we explore the complex nature of race in Indian society. He is a metaphor for every person who feels like an outsider in society for whatever reason. That was the main inspiration.


I also feel that Indian society has a lot of racial or color-based bias. I’ve faced it myself, being an Indian, and I’ve felt that there’s a lot of discrimination in different ways that happens in our society, and these are things that are often not spoken about, which is why I realized that this was an important subject to address.



The film explores the experience of a Nigerian immigrant in India. What kind of research went into authentically portraying this perspective?

During my 10 years of living in Delhi, I met a lot of people from Nigeria in different levels of society – students, professionals, and even actors. It was through speaking to many of them that we gathered a lot of our material.


Delhi is infamous for racial attacks on the African community, as there’s a certain amount of bias against people with darker skin tones. This connects to my previous answer about the inherent biases in Indian society, whether against dark-skinned people of Indian origin or from outside. This is where my exploration of having a Nigerian protagonist comes in – he doesn’t just play a Nigerian; he represents everyone who has faced this kind of racial or color-based bias in India.


After I started pre-production and the writing process, I spoke to many Nigerian-based actors in India. Even when my script was at a very basic stage, I bounced ideas and material off them. A lot of the incidents in the film were testaments to their own experiences, and even worse. So it was a process of working with the actors, doing research, and drawing from personal experiences. All three elements came into play to create this authentic portrayal.


While writing the script, I often questioned why I, as a person, had the right to write with a Nigerian protagonist. But as you’ll see in the film, it’s a third-person perspective of an outsider living in New Delhi, where I, as an author and creator, am reflecting the interaction with the city, hence the title “Dilli Dark” – it’s about the city and the man, where the two come together.



By juxtaposing Queen Razia Sultan’s love story with the modern-day challenges faced by the protagonist Michael Okeke, what message are you hoping to convey about societal biases?

The reason I wanted to show the story of Queen Razia Sultan was twofold. First, it’s an 800-year-old story, and I wanted to show that Delhi was a very cosmopolitan city back then, and that Indian society was cosmopolitan.


The Indian and African continents have had a relationship going back hundreds of years, but not many people in modern-day Indian society know about this connection. There were people coming from East Africa who were living in cities like Delhi, who were part of our royalty and courts, who became generals and rulers of small kingdoms, and who were of African descent. This is a part of history that is often lost, and I was fascinated by being able to shed light on this broader historical perspective, as it makes the world feel smaller when we understand our shared histories.


Secondly, I wanted to show the cyclical nature of history. Razia Sultan’s purported lover, who was African, was apparently killed because the royalty at that time did not want the queen to mingle with someone outside of her caste. Such problems are reflective of the issues we see in modern-day India, showcasing the cyclical nature of societal biases. That’s why I wanted to bring out this aspect – it fits perfectly with the story I’m telling.


India has a rich history of African diaspora communities. How does “Dilli Dark” shed light on this often overlooked aspect of Indian history and culture?

When you watch the film, I think you’ll become aware of another aspect of Indian culture that the general population is not familiar with. There’s a tribe called the Siddis, who came to India about 7-800 years ago from Africa and settled in different parts of the country. They are a thriving population, and their identity is that they are Indians.


What I wanted to bring out is that my entire film is a question of identity and belonging – who are you, and where are you from? Because that’s such a relevant issue in today’s age. When Michael Okeke, my protagonist from Nigeria, comes to New Delhi and faces racial threats and prejudices for being African, the strength of the idea lies in questioning who we say we are and what determines our identity – is it our race, where we are born, or the country we choose to live in? That’s the main question I want to answer with this film.



What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing this cross-cultural collaboration between Indian and Nigerian filmmakers to life?

One of the first challenges was when I started talking to people in India about making a film with an African protagonist. People questioned my sanity, asking why I wanted to make an Indian film with an African hero. I was like, “That’s my story, that’s the story I choose to tell.” I think that’s one of the biggest problems we face in India – we are a society driven by stars, and we only want to see the same people over and over again on TV. People don’t give enough importance to storytelling, and that was one of my first hurdles.


And then, of course, there were the usual challenges of creating an independent film and reaching out to audiences. I thank publications like yours for being able to reach another country and culture and give them this message. It’s actually one of the first times, or probably the first Hindi-language film with an African protagonist and a sizable African cast. This can go down in Bollywood history, and I definitely feel that it has created the potential to be watched across both continents. It’s a first, but there are always challenges when you’re doing something for the first time, and a lot of people will question your sanity – that’s where I’m at right now.


The trailer hints at cleverly satirized portrayals. Can you share more about how you used satire as a tool to address serious issues?

You know, one of the problems we’re facing in the Indian film industry right now is that, very often, our filmmaking may not be as relevant, and people want to watch entertaining movies. I feel that satire is an interesting way of bringing about a message in an entertaining way. So, if you want to do something meaningful, if there’s an urgent message you want to communicate in your work, then satire becomes a very effective tool because it’s also a very entertaining art form. It does not alienate audiences as much as a “serious” film might.



As a filmmaker, what is your goal in terms of representation and giving voice to marginalized communities through your work?

The first thing that comes to me is authenticity. It has to feel authentic. Giving voice to any issue that you feel is genuine is very important in your work, but it has to feel authentic to you. You have to be honest about it. I feel that in my work, there will always be some amount of voice being given to some issue because it often comes from very personal spaces, where you feel society could have gone wrong. That’s where you try to address it. But it also has to be authentic – I’m never going to do what I feel is not authentic to me.


After the New York Film Festival, where the film will be screened in May, what platform can the audience expect to see the film on – cinema or streaming platforms?

Right now, we are looking at going to platforms and cinemas both. It is currently the closing film at the New York Film Festival, and I think we are doing about four to five more festivals in Europe. We are in the process of looking for distribution partners all over the world, looking at theatrical releases and TV releases in India, and we want to do the same thing with Nigeria and other countries.


What are your plans or hopes for how “Dilli Dark” will reach global audiences and further cross-cultural understanding?

I really feel this is a film that needs to be seen by Indian, South Asian, and African communities around the world in order to better understand the complexities of race and the resulting problems arising out of it that we are facing in South Asia.


I feel it is an extremely important collaboration in terms of bringing together two of the largest film industries in the world – Bollywood and Nollywood. There is so much work that can be done there and so much interesting talent – there are a lot of great Nigerian talents in India, and there’s a sizable African diaspora in India as well as an Indian diaspora in Africa.


I feel this is criminally under-looked most of the time. I believe that this movie will set the tone for such collaborations in the future and, personally, I’m looking at further ideas that have to do with Indian-African collaborations.


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