Directed by theatre veteran-turned-debutant filmmaker Anamika Haksar, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon has faced a long road to release. Set in Shahjahanabad and co-written by Haksar and Lokesh Jain, it premiered on the film festival circuit in 2019, most notably in the Sundance New Frontiers line-up. However, it sat on the shelf for three-and-a-half years, seemingly due to its failure to find a theatrical distributor until its limited release in five Indian cities on 10 June.
Baffling, surreal sequences
— Ashwin Mushran (@ashwinmushran) June 10, 2022
It is both baffling and understandable why there was such a gap until Platoon Distribution took a punt on bringing Haksar’s first feature to mainstream movie theatres.
Baffling because Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon is a technical marvel, by far the most creative and immersive Hindi cinematic experience of the year, yet understandable as Haksar achieves this by walking a fine line between the hyper-real and surreal, instead of taking a more accessible approach.
As impressive as the audience response and footfall have been so far at the two Delhi cinemas playing Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, this is not necessarily a film intended for significant commercial appeal or a widespread diehard fan following.
Rather, it is a documentary-style slice-of-life film about today’s residents of Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi as Haksar and Jain see them. Be it the extreme close-ups of sweaty backs of cart pullers, the constant verbal scraps between workers and the teamwork actively involved in the pickpocketing process, Haksar’s shooting and editing choices present everyday routines as if you’re on the spot, physically absorbing each moment.
The central plot of the film revolves around four such residents — pickpocket Patru (Ravindra Sahu), kachori seller Chhadami (Raghubir Yadav), labourer-activist Lal Bihari (Gopalan), and tour guide Akash Jain (co-writer Lokesh Jain).
Heavy influence of theatre
The film’s acting strength rests almost entirely on Sahu from Delhi’s theatre scene, who does a phenomenal job of convincingly expressing a diverse range of emotions as pickpocket Patru over the course of his character arc and is also the source of much of the film’s humour.
Patru and Akash figure in the film’s most memorable scenes, as Patru looks to progress beyond pickpocketing by dabbling into his own version of guided tours, in order to make a quick buck off of unsuspecting tourists. Here, Haksar and Jain seem to have taken that tourist stereotype joke from Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, but made it a million times funnier—this is reflected in repeated satirical references to ‘subaltern studies’ and the sharp insults exchanged between Patru and Akash.
Show, don’t tell
For the remainder of the film, understanding a significant portion of the ‘Shahjahanabad dialect’ and Urdu dialogues is challenging due to the absence of subtitles. Perhaps that is by design, as Haksar’s excessive attempts at lyrical subtext, visual metaphors and animated symbolism would not look entirely amiss in a Terrence Malick film.
But while Malick’s signature style consists of slow-burn stories set in the backdrop of extended shots of soaring landscapes and classical background scores, Haksar prioritises sight and sound in a completely contrasting manner.
From the crackling of cooking oil and continued fast-paced point-of-view shots of the droning traffic and the hustle and bustle of Shahjahanabad, Haksar takes the basic ‘show, don’t tell’ filmmaking adage to the other end of the spectrum.
While this results in beautiful poetry, it occasionally comes across as self-indulgent and meandering. That being said, even as the film approaches its chaotic climax and lacks cohesion, it is equal parts heart-breaking and hilarious, and successfully combines depressing realities with black comedy.
“The film is culled from interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small scale factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, load rickshaw pullers and many others labouring in the city of Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi,” says the message that bookends Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon. The level of research and authenticity advertised here clearly comes through, given the sheer numbers of local residents involved in bit-part roles as well as in the production crew.
Overall, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon may challenge you, frustrate you and get you thoroughly lost in its endless dream sequences. However, more importantly, it is a film made partly, unapologetically by and for the people of Shahjahanabad, and requires repeated viewing to peel back all the layers of subtext Haksar, Jain and companyhave to offer.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)