I did not awake at 6:30am on Day 3 of MAMI expecting to be back home halfway through the day, mulling over my PhD thesis to see if there’s anything left to save in it.
But here we are.
Perhaps the most straightforward manner in which to convey exactly how delightful theatre director-turned-filmmaker Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis, a very literal translation and one that isn’t half as biting as the Hindi title) is to reveal that the title is an actual line from the last few minutes of the film that does in fact refer to a man walking his horse down Dariba Kalan, Old Delhi, for jalebis. You may laugh, but I have never taken a horse walking toward its dreams more seriously in my life.
Ghode is a film about walking in Old Delhi. By which I mean, the film is explicitly interested in walking as a social practice. I wish with all my heart the film had existed during my PhD years. Haksar spent 7 years documenting the streets of Old Delhi, so I like to think that we perhaps walked past each other at some point, video cameras in hand. I don’t know if I would’ve been equipped to write about the film then—I don’t know that I am now—but it would have made the landscape of the thesis a lot less lonely. Ghode is a film with a lot of heart about people who walk for their living in a city that wears its dreams more openly than any other I’ve known. Breathtaking, bold: both the city and the film inhabiting it.
Four men—a pickpocket, a snacks vendor, a labourer/communist activist and a conductor of heritage walks—comprise the end points of the character fabric of the film. The real locii, however, are the 350+ residents of Old Delhi’s streets, whom Haksar films with humour and camaraderie: actors from “night shelters, peeli kothi slums, sadar bazar workers, Jamghat” and other institutions, according to a film programme that we were helpfully handed before the screening. Patru, the pickpocket, realises after watching the middle-class obsession with nostalgia for an imaginary Chandni Chowk—one that is, for instance, built entirely out of the ‘river of moonlight’ anecdote, a lust for local architectural and culinary hearsay that lies on a continuum straight from Early Modern India, and weekend bite-sized dips into Urdu—that the business of heritage walks in the Old City is a ridiculous but easy way to make money. He and his friends start walks that involve what could be seen as the ‘underbelly’ of the city when juxtaposed with the sunlit heritage walks invoking Mughal ghosts, but are in fact the stories of their community and their daily lives: where they eat, laugh, work, sleep. And—by the end of the film—where they dream, because when the men find themselves in trouble for sharing too much of their world, they decide to conduct a “dream walk”, entering the collective dreamscape of the people whose stories are otherwise kept to themselves. “If I conduct walks in their dreams,” says Patru, “No one can come after me.”
In Ghode, the city glitters through the vortex of a collective consciousness; here, at last, people can dream openly again. Dreams that are frightful, ugly; dreams that bring people to their knees for good; dreams about warm feet and tailored cloth and the will to hide the smack; dreams of an arm around your waist at night and a way to lead your beloved back from death; dreams that medicate. People dream on their feet, as they walk from gali to gali, working, while the middle-class heritage walking crowd barely ever touches earth, always struck dumb on rooftops or on animated carpets zooming around the Old City, aerial views in sight.
Haksar whisks painting, animation and special effects together to convey what the most imaginative cameras can’t do on their own: line-drawings of snakes and oranges populate a child’s narration of its dream. Squiggly forests attack a woman, who cuts her way through them. Men doze on their hand-drawn carts, which float in an illustrated blue river. The sodium gold of the nightlamps on Chandni Chowk squeeze music from the shadows. Men talk in their sleep. Others sing. Fireworks fall like rain as musicians in an abandoned haveli assemble their instruments in soft focus. On the rooftops of Khari Baoli, colourful animated kites wink as the sun sinks. Hearts quicken when feet are at rest.
The truth about great cities is that it’s very hard to get their stories straight. The architecture of Old Delhi lies for the camera, which complies with close-ups that look like no earthly landscape. The lie of authenticity is more interesting than any fact that could ever match anecdote to architecture. Haksar recognises this, and so, keeps the camera on the move. It is never still long enough to document, but it testifies throughout. The old ghosts of the city are wily; they do not share their secrets easily, and what you see or hear once you will almost certainly never access again. Not places and names and types of trees, but the shade of the sky over the Jama Masjid shortly after dusk, or the shortcut that once connected three havelis, led by a grey cat whom you never see again. You can call it magic, or history. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, if you must know, really about Delhi. This is also the worst kept secret in the world.
In Haksar’s Dilli, not everything is possible, or knowable—barely anything is. Streets remain unnamed and fates lie undetermined. People thread grains through needles to save food and summarise their tragedies as ‘subaltern histories’ briskly for tourists. But the potency of the desire for a better life that’s just around the corner from another day overrides the failure of all that is past. If a horse can have its jalebi in Dilli-6, so can you. The city survived 9 times over, it must wait a lifetime longer, even if Haksar’s oracle of the city is more uncompromising in its prophecy. “Can you rinse away this city that lasts/ like blood on the bitten tongue?” asks Shahid (‘Chandni Chowk, Delhi’). I am dreaming, again, of Delhi. I am dreaming of a walk.
I went straight from Haksar’s gorgeous urban ode to a film I was happy to think of as a palette-cleanser that I remain grateful for, halfway into the film festival. Jean-Luc Godard is not a director I will write about at length here; for one thing, there’s enough academics employed to devote their whole lives to him, and for another, I’m not sure I have very much to say that hasn’t already been said, certainly about his earlier work. I approach Godard affectively because that is all I can bring with me to his work; the rest being the academic score that plucks my reading into context, I suppose. Godard was a touchstone in my undergraduate introduction to academic research and now it’s hard for me to think of him as someone whose films I watch purely for the love of them. This binary, you must know, is the real failure of auterism.
But I enjoyed The Image Book as one would enjoy an image book; my eyes flickered as the images—disjointed, spliced, chaotic, volatile, copies, original footage, archival selections, negatives—sprinted past me, layered with sounds—dialogue, music, silence. I felt myself zoning out of the cinema hall and into the space of a video clip on repeat in an exhibition at a gallery, except the clip is 85 minutes long and you don’t quite know if you will recognise an ending when it arrives. So you give into the images, to the ‘calm inside a representation’, as I’m certain a line from the film goes at some point.
Maybe I dreamed it.
A lot of what I recall about The Image Book is its sensuality. Aspect ratios changed continuously, the images glitched, and the voiceovers sounded like they were being played on the surface of the images. And yet, the experience of watching the film felt so smooth, like downing a cold, hard drink and feeling your throat burn only pleasantly. People walked out as the film wore on; this was distracting but also made me smile, as the disgust of incomprehension can betray a real anxiety in us about what we desire from a film when we say we want to ‘understand’ it. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t anxious about this. This realisation did not make me feel like a better person, which did not surprise me. Neither staying nor leaving is a moral decision—or it shouldn’t be; life is short—but I did find it interesting to think about why this film did not merit patience so publicly. I remember giving up on Gaspar Noé’s Love after 5 minutes. I have no regrets.
“These are films that ignite every interpretative impulse in our brains without satisfying our desires to be passive, unproductive viewers; they do not give clarity or any obvious avenues through the deluge of information, even if they make us feel as though, were we smarter, more knowledgable, bilingual cinephiles, we would be able to do just that.”
As for why I stayed—since that increasingly and annoyingly seemed to be the question, given the way the film transformed into a silent endurance test of sorts for the room—I think I was tired, and easily pleased. But I was also interested. I remain curious about the film, and as I write this, the images flood over me. Hands, a variety of hands. There’s something—so much!—about hands. I was glad. An image breakdown would make for an excellent list of poetry prompts. Did I also see a reference to Chandra Mohanty?
Occasionally, I made a list of the sections, or sub-sections, or whatever I read as sections in the film:
Remakes/RIM(AK)ES (note: I enjoyed the pun. I enjoyed enjoying the pun.)
Petersberg Evenings (?)
Those Flowers Between Rails, A Confused Wind of Travels
[Under Western Eyes]
Spirit of Laws
[Les Signes Entre Nous]
[Thirst for words, then the image]
La Région Centrale.
[Archaeology and Pirates]
A woman sits across a baby antelope and caresses its nose. And then its face.
When the film ends, I walk into the blinding white afternoon. This is the last image I remember.