Cast: Raghubir Yadav, Ravindra Sahu, Lokesh Jain, Gopalan and 400 street people
Director : Anamika Haksar
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
Old Delhi, with its storied past and unique cultural mores, has served as the setting of many a Hindi film over the years but what writer-director Anamika Haksar crafts in Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis) isn’t a conventional ode to a place on the map.
The film isn’t set in a crumbling haveli whose occupants have seen better days and pine for what they have lost. It is invested in stories that spring from a sweeping subaltern imagination. It is a testament to the struggles and aspirations of those that subsist in a part of a city that is steeped in history but is oblivious to the precarious existence of these men and women.
Blending ethnographic minutiae with free-flowing surreal strokes, the film captures the social sinews of Shahjahanabad like no film ever has. It employs a melange of visual and aural means to rustle up a wondrously lucid cinematic portrait of Chandni Chowk and its less fortunate but ever-tenacious denizens.
Ghode Ko Jalebi…, released in select cities, plays out in the form of free-flowing vignettes that articulate the yearnings and frustrations of a group of dispossessed people caught in the pincers of fate and systemic exploitation. They retreat into dreams and stray acts of defiance, acutely aware of the futility of their attempts to break free from the soul-crushing vagaries of their lives.
While it deals with men and women whose lives resemble a freefall into a dark dungeon, Ghode Ko Jalebi… paints an exuberant, kaleidoscopic and hypnotic portrait of the underbelly of Old Delhi. Street vendors, pickpockets, loaders, factory workers, rag-pickers and beggars who labour on in the face of continued privation and exploitation populate the film.
One character is asked: what would you do if you were to stumble upon Aladdin’s lamp and a crore of rupees? I will distribute the largesse, he replies. Altruism seems to be a common trait among these down-and-out but spirited folks who refuse to give up on life. Another man says something similar: he dreams of offering material help to everyone who needs it. It can only be a dream but so be it.
For the people that Haksar, a theatre practitioner of long standing, places at the core of her maiden film, each day represents a bitter tussle for survival and dignity. The only thing that they have sovereignty over is the power to dream.
Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon throbs with life. Its empathy for the marginalised shines bright and clear in every frame – intimate, evocative and stark. Folk songs fly in the air and folk stories stroll down the streets here, says one character. Tuning into the cadences of the place, this whimsical, sagacious tapestry is just the film that Shahjahanabad had been longing for all these years.
Haksar’s screenplay blends an unusual narrative rhythm with an infectiously Aesopian spirit to underscore the potential of song, poetry and fable to form a bulwark against the deleterious effects of poverty and social inequity.
Patru the pickpocket (Ravindra Sahu) alludes to the reveries that every corner, every crossroad, every rooftop, every dome here nurtures. No matter how brittle these dreams are, they do matter a great deal in the lives of these disadvantaged people.
Not much before Patru strikes the aforementioned note of optimism, a woman laments that she is too poor to celebrate Eid. “All our dreams have remained unfulfilled,” she says. But the dreams, rendered in the form of animated and VFX passages created by Soumitra Ranade and his Paperboat Design Studios, are necessary escape valves.
Ghode Ko Jalebi… homes in on four individuals – besides Patru the pickpocket who is also part of a wedding band, there is a street food vendor Chhadammi (Raghubir Yadav), a labour activist-loader Lal Bihari (K. Gopalan) and a heritage walk guide, Akash Jain ‘Junooni’ (Lokesh Jain, the film’s dialogue writer).
The tableau also makes space for men and women desperate to escape their plight but reconciled to the harsh realities of an unchanging destiny. Magic, miracles, gods and djinns dominate their consciousness. Their songs, their lingo and their stories suggest that many of them have ended up in Shahjahanabad after being displaced from their villages and families.
But this is now home and they aren’t, despite the massive hurdles in their way, turning their backs on the challenges that life hurls at them day in and day out.
The heritage walk guide speaks flowery Urdu as he describes the sights and sounds of Shahjahanabad to tourists. He is an integral part of the milieu, but his friends, negating the fact that pluralism and harmony have firm roots here, taunt him for spending most of his time in ‘mini-Pakistan’.
The daily grind breeds instinctive solidarity that erases religious differences. Shahjahanabad’s underclass is bound together as it negotiates threats, hindrances and indignities that are an inescapable fact of their lives. The sheer unpredictability of their existence is mirrored by the film, which combines documentary realism with flamboyant stylisation to take the audience into the heart of a world that is rarely seen in our cinema.
Saumyananda Sahi’s cinematography delivers wonderfully vivid frames that reflect the defiant energy levels of the location and its people. From the beads of sweat on the back of a man straining every muscle to push an overloaded cart to the squalid and chaotic innards of Shahjahanabad teeming with oddballs and rebels – the camera takes in everything without a pause.
The resilient ‘little people’ of Ghode Ko Jalebi… celebrates life on the margins of an urban sprawl with infectious optimism. The film uses animation and painted landscapes in articulating the dreams and delusions of the residents of old Delhi, captured through the stories of the four principal characters.
Alongside the professional actors, all of them with roots in forms of theatre, the director employs 300-plus real Shahjahanabad residents to realise her vision.
There has never been a better paean to old Delhi than Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon. The film paints no prettified pictures. Neither does it romanticise the struggles of the have-nots. There aren’t too many women in this vibrant film. But a couple of them deliver one of the film’s most startling sequences suggesting a furtive but assertive same-sex bonding. Filled with delightful swishes of fancy, Ghode Ko Jalebi… abounds in surprises that add up to a matchless, multi-hued synthesis of cinema, art, creative caprice and sociology.