Manoj Bajpayee's Gali Guleiyan and Halkaa: Lockdown Blues Chasers Part 69

Subhash K Jha revisits two movies that depict poverty in a rare non-judgemental way -- Manoj Bajpai's Gali Guleiyan and Halkaa -- in his Lockdown Blues Chasers series. Read more.

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Manoj Bajpayee's Gali Guleiyan and Halkaa: Lockdown Blues Chasers Part 69
Gali Guleiyan (2017): Rarely does the location serve as an antagonist. In most films, the environment that nurtures the plot and the characters is captured with affection. Not so in Gali Guleiyan. It is the first film I’ve seen that doesn’t romanticise the location that nurtures the characters’ innermost fears of being trapped in the environment that breeds only stagnancy.

Old Delhi, Chandni Chowk is the villain of debutant director Dipesh Jain’s haunting parable on desolation and self-destruction. Manoj Bajpai has portrayed loneliness before with remarkable resonance and restrain in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh. Here, it is a quality of exacerbated desolation conveying such ennerving decreptitude that we soon realise we can’t trust Khudoos (Bajpai) to tell the truth to himself, let alone to his only friend Ganeshi(Ranveer Shorey, as realiably solid as ever) or to us, the bystanders who are sucked into Khudoos’ world of weltering disaffeaction.

There is a constant flow of ambivalence in the narrative , buoyed by the stifling location. The claustrophobic hemmed-in gullies of Old Delhi serve as suffocating relics of a mind that is rapidly losing touch with reality.

Bajpai plays the man on the brink of disintegration with a remarkable degree of anguished control. He is a man who can blow up like a home-made bomb at any time. When Khudoos does explode at a seedy hotel where he is eating and (contrary to law) drinking on a cheap table ,he spares us and himself no of his swirling wrath.

Lekin Khudoos ko gussa kyon aata hai? As portrayed by Bajpai, Khudoos is the epitome of bitter disenchantment. Life has offered him nothing. He has accepted his state of nullity so far. But now the CCTV cameras, which he likes to look at the world through, has captured a young adolescent boy Idris (Om Singh) being thrashed by his father (Neeraj Kabi, as defiantly fearless as ever).

The boy, played with unrehearsed sensitivity by newcomer Om Singh, spends most of days gallivanting with his only friend Ginny, and dreads going home to the cloistered sterile environment of dreaded domesticity.

It is in the way the narrative brings together the two disparate yet conjoined worlds of Khadoos and Idris that this remarkably sunless dim-litted drama acquires its piercing light of illuminated darkness. At times, I felt Dipesh Jain had worked his way backwards from his clever amnd startling finale. But then there is so much here that is genuinely raw, hurting and hurtful that I quickly banished all possibilities of subterfuge.

Writer-director Dipesh Jain takes us into the world of the young and the ones who forsake their youth to become prematurely old. The narrative brings both the past and the present in the same line of vision. It plays a cruel game of deception with Khadoos’ mind allowing him access into a world of adolescent pain that he has experienced personally. This empathetic knowledge does not give Khadoos the right to own the pain of a boy who is a mirror-reflection of his own tattered childhood.

For what it tells us about desolation and its consequences Gali Guleiyan is an enormously significant work of cinema. Do we care about the person who lives next door? Manoj Bajpai’s projection of disorientation doesn’t allow us to feel any extravagant empthy for Khudoos. What we feel is his abject wretchedness. Manoj owns every nervous twitch every slurred word of his character. This is a performance of tremendous skill, bringing to the psychologically disturbed character an aura of imperturbable impunity.

And debutant Om Singh’s scenes with his screen mother played by the wonderful Shahana Goswami are so filled with warmth you almost expect the tale to eventually embrace the growing sense of tenderness that seems to mushroom from somewhere deeo in the recesses of the suffocating setting.

But then life for those who lives in inescapable misery is not about a way out, but survival. Gali Guleiyan strips desolation and loneliness of all the romance that Mrinal Sen had brought to Shabana Azmi’s face in Khandhar. On Manoj Bajpai’s face, all we see is despair, and a longing for a better life that we know will never be his. The meek can never inherit the earth.

Halkaa (2018): Somewhere I saw a supercilious review of this marvellous film describing it as an exercise in “potty training”. This is akin to calling Pather Panchali poverty porn. Or Salaam Bombay an exploitative exercise. The morning toilet habit plays a big hand in director Nila Madhab Panda’s new film. But Halkaa is not only about morning ablutions. The potty prattle secretes an immense compassion for the downtrodden.

I wouldn’t call the wonderful children in director Nila Madhab Panda’s film “oppressed”. By India’s abysmal standards of poverty Pichku (played by the wonderfully sensitive Tathastu) is a happy child. Sure, his father is a wretchedly overworked rickshawpuller(play with characteristic credibility by Ranveer Shorey) who dreams of owning an autorickshaw. He shouts at Pichku. But if your son did his morning business inside your one-room tenement would you lose the plot?

Writer-director Nila Madhav Panda allows little Pichku and his friend Gopi (Aryanpreet Gopi) plenty of mindscape to roam freely. Their shared adventures with a bogus but benign baba(Kumud Mishra, as into his character as ever) constitutes the core of this heartfelt drama.

Providentially, Panda doesn’t suffuse the narrative with the blinding light of positivity. He never glorifies poverty. Nor does he use it as a occasion to share a raga of  wretchedness with the music of our stricken soul. There is no attempt to manipulate our emotions into state of sympathetic submission, as Pichku and Gopi set out on a mission to get a toilet at any cost.

The adventure takes the pair to corrupt government officers, caricatured in their corruption, who pocket the money set aside for toilet construction schemes. But the most memorable encounter with flush fantasies is it a high-end sanitation stores where Pinchu tries out the commodious commodes like a soldier at battle testing his new guns as a newly-recruited salesman (Devender Choudhary) tries to sell the boy his dream at a subsidised rate.

Indeed, there is a quality of contagious magic in little Tathastu’s personality. I am not sure the little child understands why the toilet is so essential to the child’s being. Even though he  doesn’t follow the concept of dignity, he seems to know instinctively that doing your morning business at the railway tracks is undignified. In this way, Pichku’s yearning for a personal toilet becomes a metaphor for a higher life that we all crave for.

Non-judgemental poverty is not easy to process and project on screen. Panda does it with an exceptional level of success. Of course, the performances lend a trend of great tenderness to the going-on. Little Tathastu is as precious and prized a discovery as some of Panda’s child actors in his earlier films.

Nihar Ranjan-Samal’s sound design and the cinematography are in absolute harmony with the determined quality of Pichku’s dream. He won’t do his business at the railway track even if the trains that pass do not stop to carry his dream.  

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