Delite Cinema, one of the earliest post-independence cinema theatres in old Delhi's Asaf Ali Road, saw the release of a rather curiously titled film by theatre director Anamika Haksar, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking the Horses to Eat Jalebis) on June 10. It is one of the few screens across the country that played it, along with large-scale productions like Vikram and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. But the packed single-show per day pulsated with the excitement of a diverse host of audiences, ranging from arthouse cinema aficionados, theatre veterans, daily wage earners, people from the Delhi Hawkers' Association and other sections of the street population.
The audience from the labouring classes carried film passes with popcorn and Pepsi tokens, distributed by the production. Unsurprisingly, given the film's thematic concerns, built out of the dreams and visions of people living in the streets, it featured as a part of the production's audience design. By itself, the theatrical release of an indie film with an excruciatingly radical form fostered an experimental cinematic phenomenon. After its festival run in 2019, including being selected as the only Indian film in Sundance's New Frontiers line-up, Haksar's debut film eventually started running in select theatres under the banner of Platoon Films.
As a cursory note on its method, a text card declares in the beginning: "This film is culled from the interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small-scale factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, load-rickshaw pullers, and others labouring in the city of Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi." The ensuing non-linear narrative unfolds through a richly textured tapestry of dreams, fantasies, documentary figments and a jerky gamut of emotions.
The fragmented sequences loosely hinge on four principal characters: Patru (Ravindra Sahu), an expert pickpocket and a part-time band player with philanthropic aspirations, Chhadami (Raghubir Yadav), a kachori seller who tosses magical elements out of his frying pan, Lal Bihari (Gopalan), a labourer-activist who turns his grumbling boss into a lizard, and Akash Jain (co-writer Lokesh Jain), a tour guide who takes tourists around the gullies of Shahjahanabad on a flying carpet. With a heavily graded use of digital collages, juxtapositions, animation, and special effects, this magical realist tale assembles such narrative fragments with an aesthetic rationale grounded in the fantastic visions of people living in the underbelly of old Delhi.
Over the seven years of the film's research and shooting, around 400 people from the streets working in unorganised labour sectors participated in the process by providing interviews and acting in small scenes. The images, symbolisms, and allegories derived from their dreams do not simply figure as narrative vignettes but also contribute to the film's formal choices and structural composition. Since oral narratives and testimonies inform the heart of the audio-visual melange, the nature of the scenes is exceptionally organic and constantly on the verge of mutating to something else. The conspicuous use of VFX and animation, geared by Soumitra Ranade (Paperboat Studios), add to this graphic pliability by magically filling the scenes with raining toffies, swirling snakes, streaks of rain, floating dead bodies, or flying people. For Haksar, the screen becomes a theatrical space to improvise, juxtapose, and creatively institute eclectic elements.
The camera manoeuvres in myriad rhythms to complement the complex landscape of this hybrid genre. From smooth, top-angle pans to paranoiac close-ups, cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi responds to the dynamic contours of the narratives traversing fiction, reality, and myth. Furthermore, Paresh Kamdar's sprightly edit involving collaging, overlaying, and aberrant cuts manage to build different dramatic arcs and tension points out of non-linear dreamscapes. A bizarre ambience cloaks the film that numbs and pierces our affective responses in varying measures. The patchy soundscape designed by Gautam Nair accentuates the texture of the film, pasted with glitch, noise, band music, and echoing voices from oral testimonies.
Anamika Haksar dabbles with images, symbolism, and metaphors while consciously abstaining from deducing comprehensive meanings or moral standards. In an absurd and bemusing brew of narratives, dismal circumstances appear peppered with instances of humour, hit-and-miss jokes, and tomfoolery. A comic scene about a street-side medic or a magic healer can give way to a harrowing story of a woman injured and traumatised after repeated acts of sexual violence. Such is the inconstant, precarious character of life in the streets, where injustice and exploitation co-exist with humour and spiritual resilience.
Despite the spasmodic anatomy of the film, its political critique remains acute. Haksar employs an array of narrative devices from folk idioms to oral histories without reckoning them as consumable entities, unlike the caricatured character of a middle-class youth excited about getting a piece of "subaltern history" or the foreign tourist desperately vying for unsullied folk stories amid the bazaars of Delhi. Rather than postulating evidentiary fidelity, the film points toward alternative historiographical modes of processing the complexities of people living in the streets.
In certain sections, however, the film streamlines into predictable pragmatic discourses. The political stump by the labourer-activist Lal Bihari or the reflexive monologues by Patru appears way too articulate and inch-perfect compared to the film's wayward structure. Contrary to the perpetually bamboozling Om-Dar-B-Dar by Kamal Swaroop, probably Haksar's nearest reference, the political crises around migrant labour, communalism, urban planning, human rights, and socio-economic insecurity seem minutely detailed in this film.
The concatenation of images weaved from narrated accounts matured uniquely in Delite Cinema, seated among the narrow gullies constituting the film's landscape. Adding a twist to the consumption of these images, a large section of the audience in this theatre were people who participated in the filmmaking directly or indirectly– those labouring in the streets of Shahjahanabad and surrounding areas in old Delhi. It initiated a reactive process, where they interacted with the film's renditions of their dreams. Their reactions varied from laughter, jeering, silence, or exclamations like "Woh aur accha Jeb kat deta hai (He pickpockets better than this)." The cinema theatre became an expanded cinematic phenomenon, where the characters and spaces involved in research, shooting, production and consumption merged. But their general reception of the film betrayed a dithering response that suspends indeterminably like the tangled overhead wires of old Delhi. Perhaps, there cannot be a more befitting compliment for a work having minimum pretensions in navigating such perplexing issues.