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Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebi: A Bitter- Sweet Spiral of Subaltern Dreams

Dreams have a habit of repeating themselves, which is why there are few of them that we can recall and retell, irrespective of how bizarre and weird they might sound. Dreams carry elements of our past and present associations and circumstances. There is so much of realism and far more of surrealism in them that the mind can go bonkers trying to make sense of it. Anamika Haksar, who comes from an established theatre background, ventured into finding out what were the dreams (not aspirations but actual dreams) of the common folk in the lanes of Old Delhi. Almost eight years ago, she and her asscoiates started a series of interviews with the people who inhabit the lanes, alleys and havelis of the melting pot that the area of Shahanjanabad is. Old Delhi has a cultural diversity that has flavours of the old, now visibly aged, and the present, which apart from the original residents and descendants has a major migrant population that has sought refuge in the lanes that offered hope. These inhabitants (the subalterns) work hard through the day as loaders, cleaners, rag-pickers, street vendors, beggars, and even pickpockets.

Screenshot from Delite Cinema press screening

(Photo courtesy of Abu Sufiyan)

The first thing that attracts, amuses and intrigues about the film is its wacky title – ‘Ghode ko jalebi khilane le ja riya hun’. From Hindustani, it translates literally in English to ‘Taking the horse to eat jalebi’ (Jalebi is a sweet delicacy that traces its origins to the Persian dessert Zulbiya or Zalabiyah). The translated title might amuse one but it doesn't reflect the disdain that comes with the statement, for when it’s a response to ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ or 'Where are you off to?' it means that the responder has no time for chit-chat or that the one posing the question is not worthy of wasting time over small talk. The way the phrase is repeated a couple of times in the film highlights the absurdity of the question so much so that this quirky answer as the responder rushes past is a just a summary of that brief yet unnecessary encounter. The dialect, tone and accent of how it’s uttered is reflective of the area itself – casual yet direct.

As the movie starts to unfold on the screen (which I was lucky enough to catch at the special preview for press at the Delite Cinema on Asaf Ali Road in Old Delhi a couple of days before the theatre release), one forgets the title and its weirdness, and rather gets lost in the stories of the four primary characters – Patru the pickpocket (turns into a walk leader of the dreams of old Delhi); Aakash Jain, a Heritage walk leader (sarcastically called the custodian of Old Delhi heritage by Patru); Lali/Lalbihari the loader/labourer with a communist revolutionary past; and Chhadami the street vendor (who despite having a sort of fan customer base is displaced since the haveli near which he used to sell his wares has been bought over by a developer).

The narrative is not exactly linear and that works as the film keeps jumping from past to present to dream sequences that quite often invade the regular storyline with animation and paintings on the buildings, streets and areas around the characters, bringing in a surreal experience. One gets lost in trying to understand what’s real and what’s imaginary. Trying to decipher the dream sequences is futile but engaging, since dreams are fragments and the snippets that get told in the film are suggestive, not explanatory. The dream sequences do explain the mind-set of the people having them, with the memories embedded and the fears untold of death, loneliness and even aspirations for a better future all clubbed into one.

Screenshots from the film screening at Delite cinema,

(Photos courtesy of Abu Sufiyan)

Lokesh Jain, who plays the heritage walk leader Akash, speaks in colourful embellished Urdu represents a caricature of many such real-life walk leaders trying to present the old Delhi charm to the attendees of such walks. Lokesh has also written the dialogues and has been able to capture the nuances of the daily-life conversations of these people. The satire is subtle, the characterization enhanced, and overall a true reflection of what one hears in these lanes and who one encounters. The conversation between the two rag-picking women is very real and in your face. The dialogues are definitely a success, and so is the direction. The story, though not necessarily linear, has enough to hold the interest of all types of viewers. The animation and VFX are engaging and quite competent to express the mood but the final sequence of the animated snakes is a trifle glitchy.

The actors – Ravindra Sahu who plays Patru, Lokesh Jain as Aakash Jain, Raghuvir Yadav as Chhadami and K Gopalan as Lali - present a star cast with a lot of experience of theatre and films. The other three-hundred plus regular people from the area who play small and on most occasions silent roles have been used very well by the director. They create the perfect environment for the film to unroll. Even the actors who play small roles like the foreigner who is desperately looking for the local folk songs and stories but is extremely disappointed with the real-life stories and songs of these people has been filmed quite realistically; or the person who looks like a woke social activist who on the walk when he encounters dead bodies not only helps lift them onto the cart but wants to continue the Dream Walk being conducted by Patru in sharp contrast with the sanitized, clichéd walk by Aakash. The police is shown one-dimensionally as perpetrators of violence and seeped in corruption for bribes or power. This could be true from the point of view of the strata of the society that is shown in the film. All the crimes are known to the police and they know who all the perpetrators are but action they take are quite selective, for some specific purpose or at the demand of one who is in relative power. Narcotics, pickpockets, soliciting, exploitation and illegal activities continue to exist. Even the dreams feature symbols of negativity around the ones with power and some sequences have the persona of a wrestler taking revenge on the downtrodden.

The brilliance of the film and I do think that the film is brilliant though it could have been a bit shorter than the two hours it is (there are a few end sequences that look rushed and could have been edited out completely leaving a tighter film) is that it brings forth emotions of a class of people who are generally ignored completely. The film realizes the dreams of these people, does not try to idolize what transpires in their lives or justifies what they do; it simply presents their not-so-easy-lives and uses animation and sequences that manifest the dreams as seen by them. One scene near the end when the cart puller pulls up to catch his breath and the dream sequence that follows has the green fields and of ready crops in the farms ends with two shouting and wailing children hiding in shade from the harsh sun. The suggestion of a migrant farmer in the urban, concretized setting, longing for his life in the fields while at the same time reminded of the debt-ridden life that he’s left behind in the village, is not easy to wash away with even a tear. I did cry after the film as I sat down to replay it in my mind, even though I’d laughed quite hard during the screening itself. The film stays with you for the story that is being told is of real lives and for the way that it has been told. The crew and cast, and especially the director, deserve special applause for believing in the project and to have persevered with its execution despite all the challenges that they must have faced, and not just financial ones. The camera work is brilliant given the narrow spaces that they’d have had to deal with and make it work. The streets continue to bustle undeterred or bothered with activity as the shooting goes on. The sound work is phenomenal. The sounds are again quite realistic and on the shoestring budget that the movie was shot on, which is quite something.

Raghuvir Yadav sings a song without any background music. ‘Tamasha khud na ban jana, tamasha dekhne walon’. The rustic nature of the song stays with you. So does the sequence when Lokesh Jain is reading a book, lying atop a donkey, as they are led through the narrow lanes. The film will connect with the people who are ready to face reality irrespective of the nature that it might be. The movie is shot in an entertaining fashion especially in the first half but it takes a darker tone in the second half. The film has done the rounds of the international film festival circuit in the last three-four years and won many accolades too but it will probably not connect with the general masses as it is not a cinema for escapism.

Scenes from the release of the film at PVR Saharaganj, Lucknow

(Photo courtesy of Alok Tewary)

A friend from Lucknow, Alok Tewary who watched the film at PVR Saharaganj, Lucknow, told me, ‘It’s a very well made film. There was an NGO who had booked three rows at the back for some of its members and they tried to bring in people who could be the real-life protagonists of the film to see their lives and dreams on screen. Fortunately/unfortunately they only succeeded in bringing hardly ten such persons. My personal opinion though was to bring in the people of well-to-do families to watch the reality which is far beyond the make believe festival being hosted in Lucknow by the present political setup. The reality walk by the pickpocket by hijacking the heritage walk carried out by Aakash Jain in chaste Urdu was the indicator of which persons/strata of society should be made aware of the life and times of the common man. This is where I believe the NGO (trying to get people from the same strata as the film protagonists to watch the film) failed.’

Post-screening discussion with the press at Delite cinema,

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

Anamika Haksar and all the cast and crew of the film took time out to respond to all the attending people at the press screening, which was quite informative, especially with regard to behind-the-scene incidents and efforts.

Post-screening discussion with the press at Delite cinema,

(Video courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)

The film is beyond numbers and stars. It works on many levels for me. The fact that the cast and crew persevered with the idea and brought it to fruition is to be applauded. The representation of old Delhi with all its layers irrespective of the dirt, grime and ruins that frequent the space is very realistic. I hope that more people will watch the film and not only form their own opinions but also stop ignoring the difficult parts in and around our lives.

The film was released in theatres on 10 June 2022 and is being screened in theatres in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Pune and Jaipur till 16 June 2022

(All images are courtesy of the filmmaker and Director Anamika Haksar, unless mentioned otherwise.)


Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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