The Dreams of an Underclass Which Remains Invisible Form the Nucleus of 'Ghode Ko Jalebi'

The stories do not have the usual narrative arc in this ‘anti-beauty’ love letter to Old Delhi.

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Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon opens (and ends) with a fascinating disclaimer: that it’s based on the “dreams” of “pick pockets, domestic workers, loaders, street vendors”, among others, “in Shahjahanabad”. These are the very people whose realities and, of course, dreams have vanished from Hindi cinema – along with their homes, “Old Delhi”.

The movie opens, like the recent documentary All That Breathes (they share a cinematographer, Saumyananda Sahi), to a scene observing the city’s squalor: a cramped gully, repulsive drain water, malicious insects. It cuts to a sweeping shot over the street, continuing to film the ‘unseen’, before settling on the sleeping – rather dreaming – protagonists.

Their dreams, like most dreams, are disoriented, discontinuous, idealised. An exaggerated shaky camera films a person walking on a ledge; the other involves a giant man outsizing the city waving a red flag – cutting a very Lenin-like figure – as a candlelight vigil moves on the ground. This framing still allows us to distinguish dreams from realities; soon, even this scaffolding vanishes.

Absurd pops out of nowhere throughout: animated icons of goddesses in a frying pan; people flying in the air on a carpet; the upper-back muscles of a daily worker, sweaty and hardy, making a torturous oscillating motion, as if screaming grievances.

The drama is centred on four individuals: Patru (Ravindra Sahu), the pickpocket; Chhadami (Raghubir Yadav), a sweets and snacks vendor; Lal Bihari (Gopalan), a labourer-cum-activist; and Akash (Lokesh Jain), a tourist guide conducting ‘heritage walks’. But barring Patru to some extent, none of them have a fully realised narrative arc. In fact, if you crave a beginning, middle, and an end – or an inciting incident or an overarching story or ‘character motivations’ (the whole Syd Field bible) – then this is not the film for you. Because if that is the case – like it was for me, four years ago, when I watched at a film festival, nursing a creeping fever and a distracted mind – then you’ll navigate the movie like a whining tourist fixated on finding what it lacks, as opposed to what it has.

A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’

So, what is the film about? It’s an anti-narrative ‘anti-beauty’ love letter to the pluralistic, confounding, and contradictory swirl of Old Delhi. Imagine being a poor migrant in a big city. It’s nothing that you’ve seen, or felt like, before: bustle, opportunities, confusion; bosses, toil, dehumanisation. Living on the margin of margins, where nearly nothing is constant and everything precarious, a migrant feels some semblance of equality, sanity, and dignity via a constant solace: dreams. It’s free to all yet can’t be owned, accessible yet confounding, real yet surreal – an egalitarian cosmos where our affluence, degrees, and networks don’t matter.

It’s also a weapon – the only form of revolt left for blue-collared people. When a store owner castigates a worker for not being efficient, the latter imagines his master as a lizard trapped in a mason jar. A prisoner, dressed like a pehelwan, beats the shit out of a cop. Sometimes the dreams underscore despair. Several businessmen in a later scene duplicate themselves to form a large group. We hear a voice in the background: “Instead of workers, we’ve a union of the masters!”

Haksar’s film prods us to abandon control – to drop our search for a story (a potent cinematic control) – and instead explore the movie like its protagonists waddle across the city: loveable rogues interrupting stories, ambitious hustlers sneaking one con under another, idealist fighters trying to make reality dream-like.

Haksar realises most of her goals through Patru, a character who gets the most screen time. He starts off as a magician-like pickpocket, making wallets evaporate from fat pockets, causing a digital camera to disappear from a wedding party – and more. His is a “dhanda”, not “chori” – a business where help is always available, via fellow workers (legally) conned by their masters.

A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’

But the film’s most thrilling (and satisfying) subplot comes via a bigger con, when Patru takes over Akash’s business of heritage walks. Akash has mastered the art of saying what his customers like to hear – the polished crowd wanting to explore the ‘real India’ – making them visit all the ‘bucket list’ places, telling stories of old opulence: the kings, the havelis, the bygone romanticism.

The tourists are almost always charmed, focusing on what’s ahead and above (a magnificent mosque, an alluring minar) and not what’s below and around (the abject poverty, the crippling captivity). It’s colour-corrected beauty – ‘real’ but not so much that it makes them uncomfortable – sustained by elision not depiction. No wonder, then, that one of Akash’s tours transforms into a flying carpet. A scene that is less fantastical than Karan Johar recreating Chandni Chowk through ‘appropriately’ pretty and colourful sets in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.     

Patru changes all that, promising “apni Dilli ki walk”. He takes them to the city’s oldest “masala mandi”, urges them to eat a simple aloo-spinach curry from a roadside stall, shows them an “FLC – Fokat Log Chikitsa” (a medical jugaad for street workers, as they hardly get appointments in big hospitals). Most tourists, affluent liberals who wear sincerity like an oversized coat in Delhi summer, consider such experiences an assault. One says, “I’d rather save polar bears”, the other coughs. A white woman wants “folk songs” and “folk story” not the unvarnished reality. A young man, straining to be participative, blurts, “Great subaltern history, man.” Haksar’s arrows fly in all directions, not even sparing, as Patru says, “Dilli ke tehzeeb ke thekedaar [the custodians of Delhi’s culture].”

A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’

It’s precisely why the movie’s ‘anti-beauty’ and anti-narrative bent are not just aesthetic choices but also political statements.

Made before the relentless, almost daily, communal polarisation in the country, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon still feels pertinent, examining the city’s pluralistic culture as well as bigoted fissures. If Chhadami’s trunk contains photos of Hindu goddesses as well as Jesus Christ, then Akash is accused of deserting temples and spending time in “mini-Pakistan”.

It’s a befitting choice, because if a crucial portion of the city is pivoted on its syncretic past, then its future risks becoming a homogenised land devoid of history – a lesser city, an orphan city. The movie tackles many heavy ideas, but they’re often leavened by absurdist rooted humour. Take a scene, for instance, where Akash reads a passage on Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, sitting on a donkey and trips over – a memorable illustration of what humour can achieve that sanctimony can’t.

A still from ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’

It starts to lose control, however, towards the last 30 minutes.

Haksar is clear-eyed and perceptive about the roles of authority in modern life – especially the callous industrialists and the subservient Delhi police – hitting the right chords along the way. But such impassioned lunges get suffocated with many ideas, subplots, and characters. Activist Lal Bihari, absent for a large portion, resurfaces in the final act with such renewed vigour in so little time that you want some breathing space.

We get a series of dreams with tacky VFX (the only constant blemish in the movie) – featuring a snake, a fornication, a burning child. Some bits – such as characters talking about the dispossession of Adivasis’ lands and a mall replacing a haveli – seem like planted afterthoughts, intending to inject ‘gravitas’. On their own, they’re of course significant, but coming one after the other here, they produce a forgettable vignette-like feel that belong to a different film.

But even in middling portions, you get a line or two that makes you pause and ponder.

At one point, Patru is asked, “What will you do if you get an Aladdin ka Chirag?” He replies, “Agar mil gaya toh main phaila dunga [I’ll spread it, if I get it]” – because, of course, why should magic be limited to a few? Much like dreams, where domineering masters are helpless lizards, and a ginormous pro-worker flag caresses the sky with such ferocity that it can blind the sun.