Theatre Veteran Anamika Haksar On The Intensive Research That Went Into Recreating Old Delhi For Her Film Debut

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon recently played at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival and the Dharamsala International Film Festival
Theatre Veteran Anamika Haksar On The Intensive Research That Went Into Recreating Old Delhi For Her Film Debut

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon marks the directorial debut of veteran theatre artist Anamika Haksar. The film started its festival run with MAMI 2018 under the India Story section followed by screenings at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Set in Old Delhi, the film gives an insight into the lives of the working class who run the city, right from rickshaw pullers, labourers, vendors, factory workers and so on. It tries to shift perspective by including the dreams of real people and then blending them with magic realism, animation and abstract visuals for the screen adaptation.

Director Anamika Haksar elaborates on the filmmaking process, her journey across mediums and her first feature film that took seven years to make.

I have been an Old Delhi visitor since birth and yet, I had never seen what I witnessed in your film. Was there any particular perception you were aiming to avoid, in terms of how the place and its people have been depicted in popular culture?

I have been connected to Old Delhi through my family and I also worked there as a healer and acupressurist apart from doing hardcore theatre. The thing is when you start working and associating with it, the people around become friends and people you observe and interact with rather than acting like a Bombay company coming to Chandni Chowk with a camera. The person who was doing research lives there, some of the actors are also from there. So, they know it backwards. Also, a childhood nostalgia exists about food and historical places but there is also a contemporary migrant culture.

After having worked in theatre for more than four decades, what made you switch to a different medium to tell the story in such a contemporary style?

The theme, I believed, wasn't well suited for theatre. If you really want to show texture, faces of people, it is the camera that captures them all. The trained actors were really good but if I were to cast a beggar, it was better to cast an actual beggar. It is much more authentic. Also, we have used real locations in mostly all the scenes.

Your Kochi Biennale piece 'Compositions on Water' deals with a lot of improvisational and physical theatre. I saw a few remnants of it in Patru's (the pickpocket) performance. What were the other tools from theatre you adapted for the big screen?

Patru has been trained in many styles of acting, he has been exposed to different styles and methods. In fact, I was heading course syllabus in the National School of Drama from 1991-1996 where Adil Hussain, Nawaz, Atul Kulkarni were trained in direction or acting. I was also in Moscow where I trained for 7 years so there was an exposure to how to handle an actor, what are the different acting styles. Let's say, Raghubir Yadav, who is a folk actor and realistic actor, had his own style. So, we were able to bring a wide variety of dialects, folk styles, acting styles. I believe cinema isn't that exposed to acting styles like we have in theatre. I was also trained under B.V Karanth, traditional theatre personality. Moscow was also a home to Stanislavsky. So, I could use that whole experience to work with the main actors and then understand non-actors.

You launched a crowdfunding campaign to back the film, but couldn't raise enough money. Could you talk about how the film came to fruition?

I didn't get it. My lot of people are mainly in theatre who don't have enough funds. People supported the campaign but we couldn't collect the huge amount that we needed for the film. Then, I went to corporates like Mahindra, Jindal, SAIL, they all refused looking at the script that goes haywire. I then, broke a big saving account because I sold my house and further begged and borrowed from relatives and family. It was a constant struggle to make this possible and now I don't know how and whether I would be able to recover all the money.

I also had the humility to undergo a basic eight months course in an academy to learn about films. Although, I was exposed to world classics all my life, it was the basics of camera and shoot, I was aiming for. I planned all this to have a collaboration with the DOP. I never faced any difficulty in direction because I am good with actors, creating mise-en-scene, blocking and choreographing movements, I was used to all this because of theatre.

But, my major difficulty was lensing, where are you placing your camera. Saumyananda Sahi being a young cinematographer was open to ideas and there was a good democratic spirit between us. I used to give him the conceptual brief and would take a step back because I didn't want to dictate a person who was trained for many years in FTII. After the shot, I used to give him my critical feedback.

We faced all kinds of difficulties during the shoot. Sometimes local residents would call the police, and sabotage the shoot process. Our locations were fluid, so it used to change according to time and people interacting within that space.   

The film uses a fascinating visual style to depict the insider's take on dreams, life, hope and thoughts of the working class. Were you always clear about using animation and special effects to bring about that magic realism?

My friend Archana Shastri who is also the Production Designer of the film, is a painter. We always used to wonder if folk painters actually dream of the painted landscapes that they create? So, why are we always seeing talking heads on screen sharing their stories, which is also very boring. That way, we were clear to use different mediums from Indian origin using realistic elements. We used Folk art, Madhubani paintings, also to say it's our people's language and expression which is otherwise not well spread today but very much a part of culture back in time.

Given the extensive pre-production and interaction with the people of Old Delhi, how did you zero down on the dreams you included in the film?

We used to ask them about their dreams, one of my friends was working so they were confiding with him. Normally, they won't open about intimate dreams but each dream was described to us like the pick pocket said – 'I was arrested and put into remand home because I was a minor. Back there, someone threw a birthday party with Mickey Mouse distributing toffees.' He said that particular image keep coming back to him. We recorded 40 such dreams. I was determined not to use second hand information, and not imagine anything.

The film's surreal visuals are balanced out by understated soundscape for the stories that was realistic. What was your idea behind this?  

We recorded sync sound, nothing artificial was used to create it. A lot of ambience and natural sound was recorded. It was a deliberate decision to create sound the way it was. For example, if a labourer is living by high decibel area, we tried not to clean it while we were recording him. We wanted to capture that nausea for the viewer to experience when he/ she watch the film.

Sound wasn't used illustratively as such. We tried to layer it in context to the dreams and conversation depicted on screen. You never exactly get to know what people have gone through, you try to imagine the memory through what person is doing. 

The film follows an interesting structure that totally defies the conventional narrative acts and arc of screenplay writing. What is the writing process like when it comes to stitching so many voices in a singular narrative of a film?

The writing process started with me writing a basic skeleton of 25 pages consisting of main characters like Akash Jain organising heritage walk, 'Patru' pick pocket subverting the walk at one point etc,. It was a rough layout of ideas which, then I thought was essential to be worked, on including dreams of real people.

We have done about 70-80 people's interview including pickpockets, vendors, loaders, rickshaw pullers asking them about their dreams, biggest fears, subjective feeling and personal questions that gave us an insight into the psyche of the person. Everything was recorded on audio in order to not make people conscious of the camera. These transcribed interviews were then worked upon in scripts.

What are you planning to do with the research and footage you couldn't use in the film?

As of now, the film has completely drained me physically, mentally and also monetarily. We are just hoping for a good festival run. The thing is that we haven't catered to the West at all. Though we get a lot of appreciative letters for the film, like from Cannes where jury was divided on the film, and at Rotterdam. It's also because of the fact that we made a mockery of the western view of exotic India.

I have at least two hours of footage and we thought of including more animation to it and selling it to Netflix rather than going for theatrical release.

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