The Bollywood blockbuster Dirty Picture starring Vidya Balan as Silk (Smitha) in a career-defining role, had famous dialogue where Silk described the films as simply “Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”. And, for much of the past decade, trade insiders have pointed the finger at the box office collections of Bollywood masala artists and smugly declared that only entertainment works.
Art, however, and cinema in particular, have much greater potential. Like literature, good cinema also has the power to transform mindsets and attitudes and thus effect (perhaps slowly) greater social transformation. Sensitive storytelling can make audiences more empathetic and insensitive, tone-deaf or propaganda films can inflame existing fault lines in society and normalize bullying or hatred.
Recently, audiences were reminded of this supreme goal of cinematic art by a small, self-financed, self-produced, decidedly avant-garde, almost provocative and totally independent Hindi language film – Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (I am Take the horse to eat dessert) written and directed by veteran theater director Anamika Haksar.
Based on extensive research and questionnaire based study of dreams and fears of street people of Old Delhi – loaders, pickpockets, day labourers, small scale factory workers, garbage collectors, street vendors, singers street dwellers, beggars and homeless, the partly fictionalized tale follows three friends who live and earn in the narrow streets and alleyways of Old Delhi. Patru, a pickpocket; Laali, a communist loader; and Chhadami, a street vendor, are roommates. We delve into their lives hidden in the shadows of the ruins of the glorious ancient Shahjahanabad. We jump into the dreams of the workers of this world using moving image montages, visual effects, folk art, graphics, folk tales, local legends, music, dialogue, dialect and sound design. The film is part metaphor, part allegory, part installation, part ballad, and a heartfelt ode to the people we don’t see every day. An ubiquitous but invisible world – which appears in the news and national consciousness only as statistics of those fleeing the capital on foot during a pandemic – is granted individuality and “lead role”, as they say. in cinematic language, by Haksar.
The film is as inflexible as its director. It challenges us intellectually while disturbing our collective boredom, accustomed as we are to watching content that is brighter, more palatable even if it is violent. ‘Ghode Ko..’ does not soften his world. The opening shot is a languid pan over a gutter, later we see an extreme close-up of the quivering muscles of a bare-bodied loader. Haksar’s skillful symbolism reminding us of the rat-like existence of these people was only worth a little more than the carrying cattle. Known for pushing the boundaries of “form” in her theatrical work, Haksar experiments with cinematic form, opening up storytelling to include graphics inspired by Madhubani folk art in one place! Although non-linear with a generous dose of magical realism; the film is loaded with multiple meanings and layers. It’s a delight for cinephiles, but it will also awaken the sensitivity of a lay audience! Haksar adds ideology and activism to his craft by imbuing these normally marginalized people not just with protagonist, but also with dignity, depth and often understated heroism. Haksar treats the genre with unfailing pragmatism. I wondered where the women were and almost halfway through the film when the first women were seen, rummaging through trash in a landfill, I realized with a mental jolt that Haksar points out that in society and in the marketplace work, women exist on the margins.
So it’s gratifying to see this spunky little film reach 80% attendance in Delhi and Mumbai, adding a second and possibly a third week to its run, with more cities and more shows!
Bollywood is a scared industry these days, playing it safe in every possible way. Perhaps he could learn a lesson from this unsupported, shameless, fearless film and remember that storytelling has transformative power! You walk out of the movie feeling stirred and oddly strengthened. Thank you, Madame Anamika, for bringing the narrative back to the laboring hands whose sweat fuels our lives and comfortable routines.
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometimes writer and social commentator.