On an unbearably hot afternoon, the loader rests his bareback on the multiple sacks he’s been dragging for a while somewhere in old Delhi. The cacophony of traffic noises and the blinding summer sun drown out as soon as he shuts his eyes. There’s a green field, a calm river and birdsong. As the camera pans, however, there are two bawling children standing in the field. They must be the loader’s children far away in his native village somewhere in India – maybe hungry, maybe awaiting their father’s return home from the city.
What started out as a mid-afternoon dream turned into a heart-breaking nightmare, punctuated with the cries of his children. And it is this emotional turmoil that theatre veteran Anamika Haksar captures in her film Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking The Horse To Eat Jalebi), which released in cinema halls on Friday, 10 June.
The film, which stars theatre actors Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav, Lokesh Jain and K Gopalan in titular roles, is set in the familiar, cramped lanes of old Delhi. Unlike most films, however, that romanticise Shahjahanabad or old Delhi, Haksar’s film delves into the lives of the invisible – Chhadami the chaat-pakodi seller, Patru the pickpocket who moonlights as a band wallah at night, and Lali the labourer-activist. There’s also Aakash Jain, a chikan-kurta wearing, Shahjahanbad heritage tour guide, who charms his English-speaking, culture-soaking clients with poetry.
But this is no ordinary film about the struggles of the pravasi mazdoor or the migrant worker in old Delhi. Haksar’s camera steps into the dreams and nightmares of those who have left their homes and families behind to earn minimal wages (or even less) in cities.
The filmmaker’s team, including actor Lokesh Jain who plays the heritage walk guide, interviewed street singers, beggars, ragpickers, street vendors and others over months.
The question was simple: what do you dream about?
The answers were plenty and varied but had a running thread – home, ghar.
Lali, the labourer-activist, dreamt about the walls of his house covered in Gond art. A woman dreamt of her saheli, her best friend, and their afternoon of shared giggles. All these cut short by the harsh reality of sleeping on the pavement, of being berated by the employer, and of being thrashed by a drunk husband.
Haksar shows two cities inside one – there’s Aakash’s old Delhi of kuchas, galis and zaikedaar street food. And then there is the old Delhi Chhadami, Patru, and Lali inhabit where hunger rules, where drains are clogged and where the pravasi mazdoor after years of work hasn’t been able to afford a roof above his head.
So, one day, Patru (played by the spectacular Ravindra Sahu) begins a “Dream Walk” by walking away with Aakash’s clients. Instead of the usual Ghalib ki Haveli-type visits, he takes them to the grim side of old Delhi, the underbelly. Instead of folk tales, he tells the clients stories of oppression, and poverty. It’s this juxtaposition of two old Delhis that Haksar creates in Ghode Ko…
At no point in the film does it look like there’s fetishisation of struggle or abject poverty. The gaze of the camera never takes a disrespectful turn.
I watched the film at Delhi’s Delite Diamond cinema hall two days before its release, and for those two days, and I wondered how Haksar ensured she wasn’t offering her viewers poverty porn.
Haksar patiently answered my question over a call. She said, “It’s long years of orientation for which I credit my family. We were brought up in a middle-class family, but the orientation given by my parents was very pro-people. There was no way that you could disrespect anyone, so that gaze came right from my childhood. Then there is my older sister, Nandita Haksar, who is a human rights lawyer, and she only worked for people, people, people. There was no scope for condescension or patronising behaviour.”
About the film – which had its world premiere at the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2019 – Haksar said,
“The desire was to not talk down or patronise but to really find out. We didn’t want to play anyone as a victim, and showing that people live with dignity was crucial. All that we documented made it to the movie.”
Those familiar with Haksar’s work won’t be surprised by the treatment of her film and the gaze of her camera. In 1995, her theatre production titled Gaon Se Sheher Tak, portrayed the lives of those who worked in stainless steel factories in Delhi’s Wazirpur area. “We did a survey for three months for the play about the money they earn, the economics of it. When I started working on the film, I realised that instead of asking about the economics of working in a city, I wanted to know how it penetrated in their zehen, their mind. What is it doing to you? That can only come in a dream – the fears, the joys,” said Haksar.
It's these fears and joys that turn into dreams and nightmares that Ghode Ko… is all about.
What I write next is as dated as the floral motif on a haveli door in Shahjahanabad but it must be said – cinema has the power to take us back to those places and people we had once visited, known or briefly spoken to. Ghode Ko… did exactly that for me. In 2020, as COVID-induced lockdown led to lakhs of migrant workers walking back home from cities they worked in, I reported a story on Mohd. Samirul, a 38-year-old porter in Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar who rode his thela (wooden cart) back from to Umgaon village in Bihar’s Madhubani district. The father of four cycled for nine days, covering 1,180 km.
As I watched Ghode Ko…I thought about Samirul, who had spent his youth in Sadar Bazaar, loading and unloading goods day and night, how he too like Lali slept under the polluted sky – far away from his four children. Days after he reached home in 2020, the landless labourer wondered where the next meal will come from.
At various points of the two-hour journey that is Haksar’s film, I found myself getting reacquainted with the lanes of old Delhi – no, not the ones we romanticise but the ones we often report about and then forget but Ghode Ko… ensures you don’t forget.
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