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Interview Hindustani

We have to be truthful to what we are trying to say, says Anamika Haksar on Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

The writer-director has adopted a unique model of taking her film to the street people and labourers whose lives are brought alive on the silver screen.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Anamika Haksar’s debut film Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking The Horse To Eat Jalebi) takes us into the bylanes of Old Delhi, excavating the lives of dozens of people on the streets, offering a rich visual, aural experience of the city dwellers. Provocative and reflective, the film takes us to spaces that are largely obliterated from mainstream cinema.

Weaving together several stories, it follows four main characters: a pickpocket, a vendor of sweet and savoury snacks, a labourer-activist, and a conductor of heritage walks. We see the city through their eyes, along with their dreams, hopes, desires, aspirations, and we hear them in their varied language and dialects. The pickpocket decides to take curious tourists on a different kind of ‘heritage’ walk, one which lays bare the underbelly of the city, which leads to all sorts of complications.

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon review: A surreal collection of fantasy, gritty realism, and bitter truth

Starring Ravindra Sahu, Lokesh Jain, Raghubir Yadav and K Gopalan as the four central characters, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon has been released in theatres. It had its world premiere at the 20th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in October 2018, was screened in the New Frontier section at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, and has travelled to several festivals across the world.

Theatre director Haksar joined Digital Academy and did a nine-month course on filmmaking, which culminated in her diploma film, Pagdandi. In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan, she discussed the making of her debut film and its limited release in the country.

Speaking about the genesis of the film, she said, “Since childhood, I have been connected to Delhi. My ancestors came down from Kashmir and the father’s side settled in Old Delhi and the rest went to Lucknow. Visiting Old Delhi was part of my childhood, but that’s not why I made the film. I find that the way people exist is a complete hellhole in terms of the labour part and working in that, preserving your humility, dignity and humour at all costs. I was fascinated by what’s happening inside that mind and the subconscious. When you are pulling that load [as a labourer], what is happening to your body, these are things I asked people in a questionnaire, so with these concerns, I felt that let’s get into the subconscious of the population. I felt that dreams was the best way of getting into that.”

A still from the film

An ode to the migrants and labourers in the city of Delhi, the film reflects their reality. The dreamscape is an integral part of the film as it explores the desires and hopes of people on the street. This incisive study was aided by years of research.

“I had written a questionnaire which had 20 questions asking [people] what do you dream, what do you think of, what are the repeated images that come to you, what happens when you leave your family at home, is there a fear, what is your relationship with money, what gives you joy... then, I asked my friends to take these questionnaires and they documented this over two years because it was 50 or 60 people whom they had to cover. I had written a fictional structure of about 25 pages. I started splicing the documented text with the fictional characters, so the fictional is talking in the voices of the documented. That was a big effort, to try and fuse them together.”

With an unusual form that melds dreams with reality and fantasy, the film's magical realist elements come together through the use of animation and effects which change according to the content of the dreams.

Describing the process of finding the creative form, Haksar said, “The nature of the dreams was very vivid and varied. Some were realistic, but then there is someone [in the film] saying I see cows who are trying to move out but then snakes come and bar their way and then I feel there is no exit. This ‘no exit’ was repeated quite a bit. So this is not realistic and cannot be handled in that way. So, Archana Shastri, my production designer, who is an artist from Baroda said let’s used Madhubani, which is a folk form, and the person [in question] was also from Bihar, so why not merge this. The consciousness of our people is also echoed in our folk art, in their memories.

"Elsewhere [in the film], where we felt that the dreams needed to be depicted realistically, we went into pure cinema. These were the considerations when we chose animation, painting or special effects. We have to be truthful to what we are trying to say. We are choosing [the form] because it is the idiom of expressing something happening.”

Haksar, who made the move from theatre to cinema for this film, explained the reason for capturing these stories for the big screen, “Only cinema can catch that aspect of the city where you can see subconscious landscapes with the physical landscape, with histories. In theatre, you can do multimedia, but then I’m not so much into multimedia when I do theatre, and then, especially with COVID, there was this fear in people about losing their jobs, about their bodies not being able to work. So I thought only cinema can do it. The struggle is immense, but once you do manage to make it and if it works for people, then at least it can stay for about 50 or 60 years, whereas theatre will not, so this will be a documentation of people’s voices.

“I really felt that this milieu [depicted in the film] is being completely washed out and this can remain only in cinema because in theatre, it cannot remain since theatre is a transitional art form. That was the intent behind recording and documenting people because I thought they are disappearing from the vocabulary of the country,” she added.

The film has travelled across the world and been screened at several festivals but Haksar was keen for it to have a theatrical release as well in India. “I was always determined [to do a theatrical release] because I wanted the people who acted, the people who are concerned with what we are taking about, they must see the film," she said. "I had said that even if we get an OTT [over-the-top], which we haven’t got, we will first release the film and then go on to an OTT.

"As it is, I have taken a loan and it was very kind of the producer to support me because people do not support people like us at all. I wanted it to palpitate with real people watching the film.

"There is also a lot of hard work that Gautam [Nair] has done on sound, which will not come out in an OTT. I thought that in its glory, even if 5,000 people in the country see the film, let them see it in its whole form, otherwise why have I made this film? I’m trying to facilitate it so that more and more ordinary people on the streets get to watch the film.”

Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon will be in cinemas on 10 June

With a zeal and commitment to the people whose lives are brought alive on the big screen through her film, Haksar has adopted a unique model of taking her film to them. She has earmarked a certain number of tickets every day for ordinary people from the streets to come and enjoy the film.

“Today, in Delite [theatre] the show is full and there are three people watching Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 (2022), which shows that if you make things for people, they will come. At least, old 'Bollywood' reflected people and people came to see it because they saw their own faces there. This is why we insisted on getting Delite. Today, 20 labourers who work in the streets are coming [to watch the show]; we are giving them free tickets. Everywhere, we are working with either activists or NGOs and whether it’s Lucknow or Delite, 40 tickets everyday will go to the working people of Delhi and Shahjahanabad.”

For an independent filmmaker, the avenues for experimental films have been few and far between. Although Haksar is hopeful that her film will eventually be picked up by an OTT platform, the two major ones flat out refused her film. “Very categorically, very arrogantly, Netflix and Amazon said we do not want these sort of films. [They said] you have no star cast and all that sort of stuff. We have brilliant actors. Just because they are not stars, you just decide to discard them?”

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Indian independent cinema