Two recent city films, one from Delhi, the other Bangalore, make us think about the role fantasy plays in the lives of the poor.
The memorably named Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon (I’m Taking the Horse to Feed It Jalebis) is a welter of visions. “This film is culled from interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small-scale factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, loaders, rickshaw pullers and many others labouring in the city of Shahjanabad, Old Delhi,” reads the opening text of Anamika Haksar’s debut film. A long-time theatre person and activist, Haksar has said in interviews that the film germinated in her mind soon after her marriage, when she first began to spend time in Old Delhi and had a window looking out on a roof where three men slept every night.
Watching Ghode at the Dharamshala Film Festival earlier this month, it was clear to me that Haksar had spent many years with that memory, trying to turn that real window into a metaphorical one.
Ghode retains her originary three men on a roof, giving them professions and roots — the pickpocket (Ravindra Sahu) and the sweet seller (a tragically under-used Raghubir Yadav) are from UP, while the loader (K Gopalan) is Malayali. But she surrounds them with a cast of 400 non-actors from Purani Dilli. An unorthodox mix of animation, fiction and documentary, Haksar’s film has a clear political aim: expanding an uncritical, vaguely nostalgic gaze (afforded by her upper-middle-class Kashmiri family’s Old Delhi connections) into a perspective simultaneously sharper and more broad-based.
A crucial conduit in that politics of representation is the portly figure of Akash Jain, a well-off resident who serves as guide to Old Delhi, and as faux-sutradhar to the film. Played by real-life theatre person Lokesh Jain (who with his partner Chhavi did the interviews on which the script is based), “Awaragard Akash” sings the city’s praises in highfaluting clichés as familiar as they are fake. To watch him shepherd clueless visitors through this overburdened, garbage-filled, drug-addled place of poverty and backbreaking work, while declaring it “Tehzeeb ki jannat (A heaven of civilization)” is to both laugh and cry at the ironies we live with.
Less successful is the film’s shunning of a linear narrative and near-total jettisoning of psychological realism. Ghode’s multitude of dream visions can be surreal and cheeky — levitating corpses bandaged in white; a calendar-style Lakshmi contending with a lehrata hua Communist flag, or my favourite: a labourer’s fantasy of his exploitative boss turning into a lizard. But there’s also a hyperreal mode that tries too obviously to grab our attention: for instance, that same labourer’s muscles shown pulsing exaggeratedly, at excruciating length.
Dreams animating the dreary lives of the poor are also the subject of Indu Krishnan’s 78-minute documentary, Good Guy, Bad Guy, which was screened at the Urban Lens Festival in Delhi yesterday. Like the 59-year-old Haksar, Krishnan spent over five years with a much younger working-class man who is her central character. She first meets Zakhir in Cubbon Park, that island of quiet in the raucous tide engulfing Bangalore. He is feeding the monkeys — not by strewing food on the ground, but feeding each individually.
Krishnan finds this unusual and decides to get to know him. A runaway who left home many years ago, Zakhir works as a ragpicker in Bangalore’s scrap-sorting area, Jolly Mohalla. By day, he trawls the city’s streets for reusable trash. By night, his primary concern is to find a safe place to sleep. The animals he befriends — monkeys in Cubbon Park, street dogs, even pigeons that roost above a house where he sleeps — are a refuge in a hostile city, and Zakhir imagines their lives as implicitly better than his own. “No one bothers these creatures,” he tells Krishnan. “They can do what they want. If they show up at Cubbon Park, they’ll get fed, too.”
That imagined life is quite different, however, from that of a caged animal. In one of the film’s oddly moving juxtapositions, when Zakhir ends up in jail in a murder case, the filmmaker manages to track him down and asks him if he might want to work in a zoo upon release since he likes animals so much. Zakhir’s response is characteristically gentle but immediate: “It is a sin to keep animals captive.”
Later in the film, he ends up working for a piggery. But with Krishnan’s help, he also embarks on an attempt to fulfil what he tells her is his real dream: directing a feature film. In contrast to Ghode’s biting sarcasm and rambling excess, Good Guy is a gentler, simpler film, a bit like Zakhir. Like Haksar, Krishnan remains a privileged outsider, never really exposing herself. Still, despite some unnecessary drama and bad background music, her honesty about her own position vis-à-vis Zakhir — bailing him out or connecting him with a Kannada filmmaker because “without that there would be no film” — disarmed me.
Watching the near-illiterate Zakhir create a script and songs for his film, with at least one featuring himself as a sort of anti-hero, it was hard to know how I felt about his dream life. The question is similar to the one implicitly raised in Haksar’s film: do dreams keep people from being crushed by hopeless conditions? Or are they a perpetual escape from reality?
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Nov 2018.