Think of a poor family, its urgent livelihood concerns and the critical importance of a bicycle in the scheme of things and you can’t help harking back to Vittorio De Sica’s devastating classic, Bicycle Thieves. For 45-year-old M. Gani, however, it is not the theoretical construct of Italian neo-realism so much as his own lived reality in the rural heartland – the outskirts of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh – that informs his debut feature film, Matto Ki Saikal, which will have its world premiere at the 25th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea on October 23, in the section ‘A Window on Asian Cinema’.
The title says it all; the film is about Matto, a daily-wage labourer, his small family and their prized bicycle. Their lives depend on it. It signifies a trace of hope, a marker of happiness, and an assurance of a modicum of stability in an otherwise choppy life. The bicycle is their only major possession but is way more than something merely material; it is handled with tremendous attachment and affection, as though it were another member of the family.
Apart from Prakash Jha, who acts in the film, most of the cast and crew of Matto Ki Saikal is drawn from the region, with local theatre artistes or non-professional actors playing pivotal characters. “Only the money and Jha saab have come from Mumbai,” laughs Gani.
The film is a slice of Gani’s own life and the character of Matto, played by Prakash Jha, is inspired by his father Nazar Ali who lived a life of labour. Hailing from Dorra village in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh, Ali would be constantly on the move, going wherever work beckoned. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it took him to Gorakhpur where work on the Gorakhnath Math was on.
Gani’s own memories, however, are to do with how he came to Mathura in 1981-82 as a seven-year-old, where his father worked on the construction of the Bhagavata Bhavan at the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple complex. As happens with most migrant labourers, Ali’s family lived in the temporary shanties that came up in the vicinity of the construction site, with the children often lending a hand. “The migrant workers that the whole of India finally saw during the pandemic, that was my family, that was me,” says the filmmaker.
Later, they moved across the Yamuna Bridge to what was regarded then as one of Mathura’s poorer areas. It is those settlements that find their way into the film. “It’s the world I come from. Many incidents, situations and people are drawn from my life,” says Gani.
Even the minutest of characters, despite their brief presence on screen, have a depth of detail and can be developed into protagonists in subsequent films. “I can tell you about their family circumstances, their personal dilemmas. It’s because these characters have been significant part of my experiences,” says Gani. That is also one reason why the film feels rooted in the community, its culture and language.
The period that the film is set in, however, is contemporary. The overarching idea of Matto ki Saikal is to look at the other side of ‘India Shining’, how “vikas ka rocket”, progress and development have eluded the poor entirely. It’s a world where the rich keep getting richer, while a Matto is left wondering if he has been able to achieve anything worthwhile in the 20 years that he has been ceaselessly toiling.
Gani’s own journey, however, has been remarkable for its accomplishments, and completely self-driven. He gave up formal education and schooling mid-way and has had no training in filmmaking either. At one point as a teenager, he even started apprenticing under a neighbourhood seamster with the idea of setting up a tailoring business.
As to how he learnt the ropes of filmmaking and even reading and writing on his own, Gani credits his achievements to the many people from whom he learnt life lessons – his father, who wanted his children to rise above their limiting circumstances and broaden their horizons and a person from the progressive fold who used to leave behind literary books and magazines at his tailoring shop.
The pioneer of the Nayi Kahani movement in Hindi literature, Rajendra Yadav, became an abiding influence. “Mujhe gadhne mein unka bahut yogdaan hai (He has had a huge contribution in moulding me). I used to devour Hans, the Hindi literary magazine Yadav used to bring out,” says Gani.
These influences led him to adapt and stage short stories and start a theatre troupe in Mathura called Covalent Group, targeted at the children from the bastis (resettlement colonies).
A piece on Shabana Azmi in the now defunct film magazine, Screen, made Gani aware of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Kaifi Azmi’s involvement in it and he soon joined its Mathura chapter. This was at the peak of the Ram Mandir stir in the early 1990s and he found himself participating in several events underscoring the ideas of syncretism and communal harmony. At one such gathering of intellectuals at Delhi’s Mavalankar Auditorium he remembers how energised and moved he was by Kaifi’s recitation of his nazm, Doosra Banwaas (The Second Exile).
Thereafter, Gani went on to associate with the Jan Sanskriti Manch (JSM). He also started a film collective with some friends, called Jan Cinema, which involved screening films in the neighbourhoods of Mathura and encouraging discussions around them amongst the viewers from marginalised communities. He also set up a school – Hybrid Public School – for local children in a small plot of land he had invested in from his small savings. Many children have passed out from the school to join film and drama schools, he informs with much pride.
Photography had always been a big passion in Gani’s life and cinematographers like Baba Azmi and Ashok Mehta were his idols. This, along with his involvement with Jan Cinema, put him on the path to filmmaking. Gani recalls watching Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba and calling up the filmmaker out of the blue. Gupte was encouraging. He assured Gani that the future of Indian cinema lay in grassroots cinema, which was bound to emerge from small towns and villages. Gupte put Gani in touch with his cinematographer Amol Gole.
The result of these conversations was another significant investment from his small savings – a Canon 7D camera with which he shot an experimental film on the complex psyche of a neglected child. Called Quaid (Captivity), it was based on a short story by Gyan Prakash Vivek. “If you keep aside the cost of the camera, we made that film on a budget of just Rs 2,000… People from the neighbouring areas worked on the film, they would bring their own food to the shoot,” recalls Gani.
The film was screened in schools, colleges and underprivileged neighbourhoods across Mathura. At one such screening Gani remembers being given Rs 33 by a group of children, who had pooled in their money, as donation for furthering the cinema movement! Matto Ki Saikal is his first real feature in every sense of the term.
Though he has worked as a cinematographer for other filmmakers – he has shot Nakul Singh Sawhney’s (who has a walk-on role in Matto Ki Saikal) searing documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai – Gani has always been clear about wanting to chart his own course in the world of fiction filmmaking. After all, his first work, Quaid, was a work of a team of novices who learnt on the job – the gargantuan script had an unheard of 100 scenes and the first cut turned out to be four-and-a-half hours long! “We committed every mistake possible to understand the process,” says Gani.
Through his stints in the field of education, theatre, documentaries and now feature films, Gani’s attempt has been to tell stories that are real and not fantasies: “If my hero jumps from the 10th floor of a building, he won’t land on his feet. He will break his bones.” He is also committed to providing a platform for the concerns of the those living on the margins.
Matto Ki Saikal raises several such pertinent issues – from the welfare of the girl child and the practice of dowry to caste and class divides – and how they play out in the daily lives of common people. The film may give in to emotions but doesn’t get didactic.
And that is because Gani wants to reach out to as many people as he can. “I want to make films for common people. A person who watches David Dhawan films should also understand it,” he says.
For him cinema is as much a personal as a social medium, rooted yet universal. One that can communicate the specificity of individual experiences and feelings to people across the world. So, a premiere at Busan for a film set in Mathura then doesn’t feel incongruous to him at all. Busan is that first window from which he wants the world to look at Mathura and for Mathura to travel across the world.
All images by special arrangement.
Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).