MAMI Day 3

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.

A still from the trailer for  Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

A still from the trailer for Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon

*

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.

Blake Williams—whose honest and thoughtful review I enjoyed so much—writes very astutely:

“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:

  1. Remakes/RIM(AK)ES (note: I enjoyed the pun. I enjoyed enjoying the pun.)

  2. Petersberg Evenings (?)

  3. Those Flowers Between Rails, A Confused Wind of Travels

    [Under Western Eyes]

  4. Spirit of Laws

    [Les Signes Entre Nous]

    [Thirst for words, then the image]

  5. 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.

MAMI Day 1

Film festivals are a competitive sport. I can’t believe I wasn’t told this before. I partly think this because of the particular situation at MAMI, where ticket bookings for the following day open only at 8am the morning before. It means, for one thing, you can’t always get what you want, which shouldn’t be a lesson I need to be reminded of at this stage of my life, but is regrettably so.

Mostly though, it’s the endurance of zapping oneself in and out of a litany of films that have just been strung together in accordance with screening protocols and film categories that make no sense to a certain viewer, who has long since wished for thematically-curated festivals over those peeled open along nation-state lines. Love is the worst competitive sport. Surviving the utter, bone-crushing sadness that accompanies spending a whole day in darkened cinema halls investing in alien worlds is only exciting if you don’t think too hard about it, and in any case, after a few days, I suspect you can’t. Badges out, heart—out. Like a match. A restlessness from waiting in line that only bloats through the day. Melancholia and practicality have never made for a good dressing, and they pair poorly when you’re trying to factor in slow/fast trains on the Western Line to see if you’re in the mood for a Bilge Ceylan—or something closer to home.

*

I barely recovered from two hours of inter-city travel when I found myself heaving in an overly air-conditioned PVR in Andheri ten minutes into Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River. Entering the space of a film requires recovery time beforehand—a threshold between the screen and the world—and I bought myself none, because everything is expensive in Bombay. I realise now, of course, that I couldn’t have picked a better film to wade into the festival with because Hong Sang-soo’s meditative, meandering film about vulnerability and care between two young women, and a father and his two grown sons, all of whom happen to be staying at a snow-blown hotel by a frozen river, is a better endorsement for the luxury of keeping yourself warm than anything I ever saw at Zurich airport.

Zurich. It made entire sense that Roger Federer would endorse minimalist watches. The orange juice glittered needlessly. The local mobile network is called Salt. The rooftop of the airport is a sightseeing space. Mountains surround you like a goddamn film set. Everything looks like it should be CDG white, or wrong.

I thought of Zurich airport while watching Hotel by the River today, perhaps because Hong Sang-soo tracks the exact monochrome horizon where the physical comfort of friendship, or the solace of desperate, plain love dissolves into a human obstinacy for eeking out a mess from taking need itself too far. A poet father makes his older son jealous by discursing at length about how his younger son’s name was chosen with great care. It starts out as a moment of great frivolity, before settling into one of discomfort, because Sang-soo’s full-length shots—always keeping everyone accountable, documented—releases his older son into frustration. We all laugh; it’s funny. But the son’s fallen face continues to rankle. Soon, there are forlorn stuffed toys—white—on the table.

Or one of the women, who wears an oversized cowl neck jumper with white sleeves that hug her into the smoothness of the hotel bed when she lies beside her friend. The softness of the jumper is unbearable, I can feel it. Their conversations are restless and circular, the kind you have when you spend too much time in a strange, pristine room where you can only disturb the furniture of your feelings, with a person you love deeply but not enough—and not often enough. The woman’s jumper was cropped at her waist, a detail that stunned me, as it was only then that the margins of their respective self-preservation tendencies emerged. She couldn’t envelop her clever, caustic friend—her jumper wasn’t big enough, and neither was her heart. She could’ve been the face of a luxury brand, if her distaste for the world wasn’t so palpable. There is nothing clean or sparse about the mess of loving another person, even if capitalism does its best to convince you otherwise.

Later, the women put on long, black coats and go for a walk in the snow, and then again when they walk to a small restaurant near the hotel for dinner. They slurp from their bowls and argue about men. I stayed with them, watching, as though I were at a table nearby slurping my own ramen. Until I wasn’t anymore.

*

It was a day for transformative cinematography. I went on to a single-screen Bandra cinema hall—slightly distressed by the white marble floors and plush decor which, at one point, included hundreds of seemingly fresh blood-red roses stuffed into the walls of the hall—to watch Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. I knew I was in Bombay when the filmmaker confessed, in an post-show talk, that she shot the film on her 7-year old Sony A7S and the cinema hall broke out in applause and low choruses of ‘wow’s.

That Bulbul can sing is evident—which I appreciated, as why must one watch one more film about a talented young girl who demeans and then recovers herself for the sake of plot—as is the fact that the film is as much a mood as it is a story about three teenagers in a small village in Assam, which is still difficult for me to grasp as the cinematography is simply overwhelming, in the most ordinary sense of the word. I can only summarise and remember the film in impressions; an effect that has so far remained for me the preserve of Chris Marker’s films and Frank O’Hara’s poetry, because the sequence of events, overpowered by images, begins to fail me. Take:

A dull red flower at the throat of a young girl

Cautious young hands sifting out the bark of a tree branch

A vermillion, stick-like insect being released

Circular, defocussed degree shots of a dangerous familial argument

Bulbul’s hip-length hair being gathered into a perfect bun by her best friend’s mother

A glance from Bulbul’s teacher that lingers for a second too long on the nape of her neck

A broken swing hanging limply from a tree branch on one end

Bulbul snacking candy by herself, lost in thought on the rocks by a river as the sky darkens overhead

Her gay best friend, the loneliest boy on earth, carving out a heart on a tree, his eyes narrowing over it, as a single white flower sits tucked on his ear.

The size of the embers bursting from a young girl’s funeral

Das’s film follows Bulbul and her two best friends, Bonnie and Sumu, as they navigate being teenagers in a world that isn’t fully ready for them, or their desires, or their joys. For so much of the film is about joy—long tracking shots of the friends chasing the rain, squeezing water out of their saris, waving sparklers through the streets on Diwali, huddled over a game of Ludo. Joy that is accentuated with spectatorship. A tally of synesthesia, without revealing itself to be one.

Bulbul Can Sing is a feast of intimately scripted detail and dialogue—not an indulgent line of dialogue nor a sentimental finish in sight—which is remarkable for a film that appears to have been largely unscripted, and improvised with an emphasis on character and mood-building alongside a community of children and teenagers, some of whom Das initially met for Village Rockstars. All the characters who emerge from the film carry it through to the end, right from the three teenage friends and Bulbul’s ageing father who continues to dream about a singing career, to the boys who bully Sumu and Bonnie’s affectionate mother. A note, though, on the flora-fanning that I remain struck by: there are enough memorable and genre-changing flower scenes in Bulbul Can Sing to put my beloved kaash flowers in Ray’s Pather Panchali to rest.

*

On the train home, I watched the sun turn back over Mahim. I could feel the tiredness bricking up in me. My eyes wouldn’t close; not-watching felt more exhausting. It’s only day 1, and my appetite is ruthless, but growing. The question of sadness in a film festival will persist, I expect. I can feel it biting its way back. This, I was told.