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Interview: Anamika Haksar

‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’ deals in bringing dreams alive

Print edition : Jun 23, 2022 T+T-

‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’ deals in bringing dreams alive

Anamika Haksar

Anamika Haksar | Photo Credit: udaya Shankar

Interview with Anamika Haksar, theatre doyenne and director of Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon.

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid. —bell hooks

Dreams have so much meaning, and yet they hide so much. At the 11th Indian Film Festival in Bhubaneshwar in January 2020, when I first saw Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, directed by the veteran dramatist Anamika Haksar, I thought I was watching a social documentary, but as the story unfolded, weaving together strands of imagination, the lived realities of genuine fictional characters and their hidden dreams, I was left wondering how the film was conceptualised, created, and found its way to an audience. True to the struggles the characters in the film face, the journey of the film too, Anamika Haksar’s first, has been tremendous. It premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2018 and was the only Indian film selected for the exclusive New Frontier section at the Sundance Film Festival 2019. It was slated for release in 2020 but the pandemic intervened.

After three odd years, the film will finally be released across theatres in India on June 10, 2022. This interview with Anamika Haksar was held in two parts: in February 2020, and in June 2022, after the film secured its release via distribution partners Platoon One Films.

The film traces the lives of four odd characters residing in Old Delhi, played by theatre artists Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav, Lokesh Jain, and K. Gopalan. Despite having elements of magical realism, it remains rooted in the realities, experiences, and aspirations of its main protagonists: Chadami, a sweet-seller; Patru, who plays the trumpet at weddings and moonlights as a pickpocket; Lal Bihari, a labourer as well as an activist; and Akash Jain, a tourist guide who romanticises the bygone eras that Delhi has seen. The film makes effective use of various art forms to represent the dreams of the underprivileged. The viewer follows the daytime lives of these characters, then slips into their dreams as night engulfs the city.

The dreams are vivid and depicted using interesting mosaics and layers of images; street sounds and the voices of people narrating their dreams get entangled; surreal imageries with animated figures float around the screen. A technical marvel, the film deserves appreciation and acknowledgement of the efforts of not only the film-maker but also the people living in the underbelly of our cities.

Anamika Haksar is one of the eminent directors of contemporary Indian theatre. Having trained under Badal Sircar and B.V. Karanth at the National School of Drama (NSD), she was one of the few Indians to join the State Institute of Theatre Arts, Moscow. These influences led her down an uncompromising path of formal experimentation, earning her a prominent place in the theatre lexicon. She was given the Sanskruti award in 1995 for developing a new theatre language in India. She was invited to the Kochi Biennale in 2016 to exhibit a theatre installation, which received critical acclaim. Now, having evolved a script around her love for Shahjahanabad, Anamika Haksar seeks to bring her unique sensibility to the cinematic medium. Excerpts from the interview:

Please describe your working process for Ghode Ko Jalebi...

We did workshops with characters from Old Delhi, where we asked them very personal questions: At night, when you dream, what are the images that come to you? What makes you afraid? What makes you happy? If there were specific characters, say, the pickpocket, we asked the pickpocket, where did you learn it from? Why did you choose this? If you had money, what would you do?

The film traces the lives of four odd characters residing in Old Delhi, played by theatre artists K. Gopalan (left), Ravindra Sahu (right), Raghubir Yadav, and Lokesh Jain. 
The film traces the lives of four odd characters residing in Old Delhi, played by theatre artists K. Gopalan (left), Ravindra Sahu (right), Raghubir Yadav, and Lokesh Jain. 

I had set up a personal survey, which was translated by our local team members Lokesh and his wife Chabi, who wove these narratives into their writing that was based on interviews in Old Delhi. Another friend, Sarita Sahi, was involved not only in Old Delhi but also with a voluntary organisation in Wazirpur with almost the same population groups, such as migrant workers.

The relationships were built over two to three years. Chabi transcribed the interviews. In my fiction, I would bring out these voices. It could be like a fictional documentary or documentary fiction; a fictional character of a pickpocket would speak the dialogues by a real pickpocket. There are vendors speaking, whom we hear through another character in the film. We took these responses and gave them as dialogues for our fictional characters so that you create a fictional world that speaks in many voices—beggars, vendors, unorganised factory workers.

EXPLORATION OF MULTIPLE LAYERS

What was your writing process like? How much of your work in theatre influenced the creative process? Clearly, a lot of research went into the making of Ghode Ko Jilebi….

Improvisation and doing etudes, short compositions, have been my forte. At the same time, even in theatre there is a lot of research-based work, like we did something called Raj Darpan, on the Censorship Act in India. [The play is built around the Dramatic Peformances Act of 1876 promulgated to thwart the voices of dissent in the performing arts.] Similarly, Uchakka, Huriya—all my work is based on research.

There is a wrongfully held notion that improvisation means it’s all random. We do a lot of research and we try and go for authenticity, be it as a theatre-person or as a film-maker now. In theatre this has been the tradition—exploration of multiple layers. We had done Uchakka, about pickpocketing, and Huriya, on anti-globalisation. So the film was a culmination of these efforts on a larger canvas.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to set out depicting life in cinema? How, according to you, does the visual medium add value to social science research?

Ghode ko Jilebi was seven years in the making, and post-production got extended by two more years. I think it is very important to understand the medium. Though I did not know much about films, I had 35 years of experience of direction in theatre. That gives one vigorous discipline. Whatever medium you enter, one has to know about it, train in it. What I feel is very helpful—which I learnt from my guru B.V. Karanth in the National School of Drama and in the Soviet School of Drama for six years—is [that] one should know the visual history and tradition of one’s people. This could be painting, tribal arts, folk stories. You should know it in order to know the medium people use to communicate. It may give you an entry point, a knowledge base to use many localised idioms and motifs. You may do your research, but what language are people using to describe their lives? How would you visualise those idioms?

In the film, one of my characters narrates his dreams: “What I remember of my dreams, is about a chaupal [a gathering place] near my home in my village, there is a white temple which is flying in the air. People are sitting in the chaupal and gossiping. When I leave the chaupal, I walk on a pagdandi [track] , I reach an old home where people are actually lying dead on the floor. When I see them, I observe ants and then suddenly I realise that someone has died in my house.”

A still from the film ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’.
A still from the film ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’. | Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

That’s his dream, so how do we depict this in a visual medium? One of our team members, Archana Shastri, a painter from the Baroda School of Arts, suggested paintings, and we drew out those dreams in paintings. Then we thought, when he enters this house cinema should take over—we created this old space and dead bodies. That’s how we arrived at various ways of depicting that one dream. There were several discussions among the cinematographer, animator, painter, and I. Understanding the idioms is necessary, how we move from one to another, as well as the medium. It is also co-creation in many senses. Theoretically, we were coming from different mediums, my cinematographer from cinema, me from theatre, Archana from painting, Ranade from cinema and also from JJ School of Arts—he is the guy heading animation. Actors are also very important Because they are theatre actors, they have come through vigorous training of a different kind; they have gone through physical theatre, folk theatre, and realistic theatre, especially Lal Bihari and Patru have had vigorous training of different kinds of theatre. Raghubhai (Raghubir Yadav] was a folk artist and is very well-known, Lokesh is more of Alkazi [Ebrahim Alkazi, the legendary theatre practitioner and the longest serving director of NSD] and theatre, more naturalistic, so it’s more verbal and shayyari [poetic]. So each person has come from a rigorous background and they also carry that, ...there are many things that we need to know, but idioms need to be known, and the more you know people, and the more you yourself are knowledgeable about the form, the music, the idioms of this country, [the better] you will understand how to translate that into the visual medium.

Did you always know that a film would ultimately emerge from these engagements and interactions?

Not at all. Just that I kept going to Old Delhi, and I have worked there over several years, and then it was getting very, very interesting. When I used to go into that area, I observed how people are labouring, what their muscles are doing, how they carry the heavy loads. So, how do you translate that, how do you talk about that? You understand that this is very difficult to do in theatre, it is a medium and an idiom.

There is a stark moment in the film when a foreigner comes and asks something and she isn’t interested in the story and walks away. That is a real commentary on whatever is happening here.

Yeah, all the audiences who saw this film in the West got annoyed with that scene. Our audience in India, I have always found them non-cynical despite facing such terrible things. There are a lot of images, positive dreams mostly, I have known this for a long time, and that has given me the strength to make the film. I also didn’t want to show each poor person as a drug addict or criminal. Half of the country dies because people are trying to live an honest life in the face of very dark circumstances.

CULTURAL VACUUM

What role do the arts play for today’s generation and how do we engage with them?

I think of the issue of communalisation and the fact that there are a lot of new films being used by the right-wing parties and all these reactionary forces. I feel now, more than ever, [there] is the role of the arts and of all art forms, it can be films. It is nice to see that some theatre people who have the money have created these nice little spaces near Versova, where only 50 people can come. There are people who have created little spaces, like Harkat Studio, Veda Factory, etc. I have done some scene works there. Recently we did some work on Macbeth using this thing around violence to describe things happening now, the whole thing about the dagger…. So, I made a dagger, which is like a generic thing—what happens when the bar of violence is actually crossed and you can kill? So I made it all in crosses, it was quite a horrifying exercise. I made lines, like psychic lines, and said that once you cross it you have to kill. What does that do to you? Some of them felt sick, vomited. How difficult is it to actually cross that line? It was a sort of live exercise, to the audience, and I felt that it makes a huge difference.

A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’. In an innovative approach, the film visually weaves together strands of imagination and the lived realities of the fictional characters and their hidden dreams.
A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’. In an innovative approach, the film visually weaves together strands of imagination and the lived realities of the fictional characters and their hidden dreams.

All of us need to constantly engage with the youth through theatre, music, or films. It might be just a workshop where painters come, young people come, tell stories…. It would be an alternative culture that would fill a huge vacuum. You can’t be stupid to think that this is going to be a substitute for someone who doesn’t have a job., But the vacuum which is there in smaller towns, where there is no access to alternative culture, even a breakdown of local folk theatre. Or let’s say the culture is still there but it isn’t relevant to a young person in his twenties. Take Karnataka for example, [where] many people used to come watch [the traditional folk dance] Yakshagana or Krishna Rasa [a story of Krishna where he dances with Radha and her sakhis (gopis)].… But, unfortunately, they are not appealing [any longer], so there is this huge cultural vacuum.

I wanted to create this cultural space in Old Delhi because it has become very violent, between Hindus and Muslims the divide is so stark. In fact, when we went for the shoot, I remember one guy running up to me and saying this dialogue from Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, “ Kuch toh Karo, iss nafrat ko kamm karo”— “Do something, lessen this hatred.” I asked him how I can do that. He said do it through your films. He was just a youngster, and I was in tears. I said, “ film se nafrat toh kam nai hogi, koshish toh jarur hogi”. [Through films the hatred might not reduce, but I will certainly try.]

Part 2

Thank you so much for your time once again. You are in the middle of interviews, meetings, and promotions for the film. How has this latter part of the journey been?

It has been a lesson in perseverance to get a small film like ours on screens and theatres across India. The film continues to receive so much love and recognition in international film festival circuits. It has now been invited to the Smithsonian, but our team wanted to secure a theatre release for the film, and then the pandemic happened. Currently, we are trying to ensure that our distribution teams can secure screening slots in cities like Lucknow, Patna, and so on. I must thank our distributors, Platoon, because what they have achieved is a feat in itself; we seem to be jostling for space with films like Samrat Prithviraj and Jurassic World.

Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, Miss World 2017 & actress Manushi Chhillar, and film director Chandraprakash Dwivedi during a promotional event for their film ‘Samrat Prithviraj’. Small films like Haksar’s seem to be jostling for space with major productions.
Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, Miss World 2017 & actress Manushi Chhillar, and film director Chandraprakash Dwivedi during a promotional event for their film ‘Samrat Prithviraj’. Small films like Haksar’s seem to be jostling for space with major productions. | Photo Credit: -

We are trying to connect to NGOs so that they can bring people to the theatres who cannot afford Rs.300 for cineplexes. We want to give out 20-30 tickets free to labourers, rickshaw drivers, vendors who can see the film and have a dialogue with us. If all goes well, we may hold an experimental film screening in front of Red Fort for Rs.50 or so because that is where the genesis of the film lies. An offbeat film like ours allows us to take such risks.

This sounds very interesting. Did your theatre experience help with this aspect?

Not at all for post-production. Distribution challenges for small films are mighty. We are taking on actors with much more clout. Big distributors can easily claim space, they exert huge influence on whether or not and how much space your film gets. We don’t have big advertising budgets like them. We are literally calling people up, meeting NGOs, asking them to bring audiences. This is where I think my theatre experience has trained me—to bring people together, to take art forms to where they really matter, and rely on truly dedicated people, their goodwill.

Was it hard to resist the temptation to release the film on OTT platforms? The pandemic saw a lot of films take that route.

We did receive an offer from MUBI, but will the cinema reach its intended audience through OTT? We wouldn’t have made any financial gains either through a digital release. We want to screen the film in Delight and Ritz, two of the oldest theatres in Old Delhi. It is a struggle to get screenings here. We are releasing this month [June], yet we have no idea which theatres we will be screening in. The existing distribution system is inaccessible and monopolistic.

TRANSCENDING BARRIERS

How much of this film is you and how much do you credit your team?

I seriously think we were able to pull it off because it was a team effort. Acknowledging individual efforts here is necessary; my part was to give creative direction and bring it all together. Gautam Nair brought the wonderful soundcapes of Old Delhi to the film; Soumitra Ranade believed in my vision and experimented with different art forms. The four actors are irreplaceable—nobody else could have played these parts. Lokesh and Raghuvir ji were stellar. Ravindra and K. Gopalan held the film together so well. Even in advocating for the film, we rely on so many well-wishers…. I think from start to finish it is about team effort. Recently we went to the Jama Masjid library through one of Lokesh’s networks. They added a sticker to the poster in Urdu, showing that this film transcends linguistic barriers as well.

What are you planning next?

Once the film is released, if we have some money left, we want to take it to small cities and the unlooked corners of big cities. We have tied up with distributors to make the film affordable to such audiences. However, other than that, I am keen to go back to theatre. Next year in January, I will start work on a production to tell a story about what is happening to women these days. Right now, my wish is that Ghode Ko Jilebi… is seen and loved by every cinema-lover.

Sneha Krishnan is Associate Professor at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, OP Jindal Global University.