(Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis)
Hindi | Film | Director: Anamika Haksar
This is my belated first post about experiences at the Kochi Biennale in December 2018. I am starting not at the beginning of my journey there, but rather with this striking film whose images haven’t really left my mind.
A whirlwind of images that cycle from dreams to reality as we are drawn into the lives, desires, of remembering and forgetting of residents of Old Delhi. A woman describes having eaten only one chapati in a number of days and then the constant ache in her stomach as she sorts rubbish, picking up a tiny boat figurine as she talks of her father who worked as a fisherman. The smallest snapshots of dreams that touch on issues greater than life. The woman who dreams of lying with her female friend and them laughing, joyful. The man who thinks of his tribal community from his homeplace Jharkhand and the injustices committed against Adivasis. The labourer who imagines his boss as a lizard in a jar while being verbally abused by him, the woman who dreams of her and her husband in fine clothes, sipping cool drinks. Mr Jain’s famous tour is hijacked by the pickpocket played by Ravindra Sahu, whose use of physical theatre on the screen is striking. His alternative tour that weaves through the spice markets, to an old woman preparing aloo methi, where the workers eat sabzi, dal, chawal for 10 rupees. The story of the woman and the pin, who as a child would pick up every grain of rice that fell with a pin in order to eat it. Walking with a foreign tourist who doesn’t want to hear the stories of the woman whose son died when he fell in a well or the man whose father was a communist and suffered the consequences. A doorway that closes, hiding the face of a boy. Police targeting the vulnerable. In a fighting ring with authority. Failure of the health system. Set up of a ‘temporary hospital’. A woman who has been repetitively abused, treatment with special water and lighting of a lamp. To the ‘real’ tour with fresh meat and bread, jalebi. The alternative tour with jeera water and the offer of the 10 rupee meal amongst the locals, denied by all. The pickpocket turned tour guide holds the gaze of a young woman. Begins to reminisce about love that was lost. No linearity but an intoxicating swirl with the use of animation and paintings. Every shot striking and provoking, continuing to swirl long after the screen is out.
Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon screened recently at Sundance. It has not been picked up for a general release at the time of writing, but I did read that Haksar and team are hoping to take it to the theatre.
Documentary | USA | 2017 | English, Hindi
Here’s a charming man. His name is Dr. Mahinder Wasta, he is in his 90s and has dedicated his life to sex education. He is a gynaecologist, a father and a widower. And he has been encouraging Indians to ask questions about sex for decades. Most recently via a column in The Mumbai Mirror. This is not a one-sided story though. We are presented with Dr. Watsa, who is witty and pointed in his responses to everything from voiced insecurities to the weird and wonderful. We are also introduced to those who oppose an open forum like this, such as Pratiba Naittani, who has filed cases against both Watsa and The Bombay Mirror, whose editor says, ‘Obscenity like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder’. Naittani’s main concern is that Watsa is promoting sex, which goes against the values of traditional Indian society. Dr. Watsa’s concern stems from the fact that if people are going to engage in sex anyway, it is better that they are educated in safe and respectful practices. For a while I thought Watsa was being glorified, put on a pedistool. But then he was humanised, when openly stating that he had sacraficed family time in order to give more to his work. He also questions whether what he is doing is right, considering that in the case of young people, the families are not engaged at all. The sensation at the end for me was one of behind-the-camera integrity to an intriguing and humble man as the central character as well as to the greater debates around sex education in India, a country with a hugely young population. A good dose of humour is the masala of this documentary. We are offered an urban perspective, with Watsa’s column reaching only those who can read English and it doesn’t explore the challenges faced by the largely rural population of the country. What it does present is a brief lesson on the development of sex education and its opposition as well as the passion that drives Dr. Watsa and those around him who remain dedicated to it.
It premiered at Hot Docs in Canada, but I’m wondering if and when it will be screened in India.
Documentary | Germany, India, Finland | 2016 | Hindi
A man shovelling coal onto the flames. We move inside with the camera and we are in the eyes of a person walking through a factory of Gujarat. It is disorientating and promotes dizziness. From white cotton moving off the reel guided by hands to patterned fabric and lace. The dying of fabric. The mixing of chemicals to create colours. Men sleeping in piles of fabric. A man who is carefully moving a 120 kg tub of chemicals tells us that this work requires either muscle power or brains or both. He tells us that he is in debt so has no choice but to travel 1200 km to this factory where he works twelve hours a day. Sometimes with a one hour break before another shift. That on that 30+ hour train journey all he has to eat is dried chickpeas. That he is doing it because how else will he pay for his children’s education? He does not see this work as exploitation. Exploitation, he says, would be if he were forced to be there. He points out that he has come voluntarily. Though he does articulate that poverty is harassment. The factory boss has a different view on things. He says that wages are higher than they used to be. And this has created laziness among the workers. This lies in stark contrast to the experiences of the workers presented here. In one striking scene, workers are questioning the camera, as to what we are actually going to do about their predicament. They comment that researchers have come, politicians have come. All have listened to their concerns, but no-one actually takes any action. They also articulate the crux of the problem. The fact that they are farmers. That they have to purchase their potatos for 20 rupees per kilo. And they sell them for only 5 rupees per kilo. So they have to earn the other 15 rupees per kilo plus money to live somehow, don’t they? There is not a lot of dialogue. A lot of shots took me into the rhythms of different machines or of the work these men are undertaking around the factory. But this still leaves us with the question. Once again, these people have voiced their concerns, but what is changing for them?
India | 2017 | Malayalam, Hindi
A ceremony for the worship of Goddess Durga through documentary footage is where we begin. As men move in spiritual ecstasy. And we are taken to two who are suspended by hooks through the skin on their backs. A scene lit by headlights takes us to our protagonists, Kabeer and Durga, the names alone implying a Muslim man with a Hindu woman, on the run. Kabeer of Kerala and Durga a Hindi-speaking north Indian. They are picked up by a passing car. Two men are inside. And as we are plumeted forward, along for the ride, it becomes not about what happens inside the vehicle, but rather what doesn’t happen. What your mind is daring you to fear will happen. This film throttles along a very fine line from start to finish. As we are reminded by the benevolent driver and friend, that they have done nothing wrong by Durga and Kabeer. It is the fear in the bodies of the protoganists. The fears that we in the audience personally hold from our own experiences or from what we’ve heard about India that interact wildly with what is unfolding on the screen. We are also presented with policemen as interrogators, not protectors. And the type of policing of each other that citizens do, especially when it comes to women being out at night. This film stays right on that edge. But we can easily take it beyond with our own assumptions and presumptions. Durga the goddess is worshipped. Durga the woman is vulnerable. A sole woman in these night scenes. The men run over hot coals for Durga the goddess. The men in the car take joy from Durga the woman’s fear. And stare unwaveringly at her. You must move with the unpredictable rhythm of this film. The stop, start, eb and flow. For resistance to the forward motion of the story without a script will allow your own vulnerability to take you over. Let’s hope this film is released in its home country. I wait to hear how it sits with or hits people there. I came to this film on the recommendation of a friend from Kerala, so may they see it soon.