Gestures In The Air
Notes on the visualisation of 'Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon' directed by Anamika Haksar
Turning the first page of Anamika Haksar’s script for ‘Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis’ I was enchanted and terrified at once. I was in a crowded train between Andheri and Borivali, returning from a meeting in Anamika’s home where we had discussed the possibility of me coming on board as her director of photography.
The opening paragraph was liquid, moving from a dirty drop of water dripping out of a rusted drainpipe to flow down and through an entire network of gutters and scurrying rat trails to finally behold the old city of Shahjahanabad as it hesitated on the threshold between night and day, dream and wakefulness.
As I read on, it quickly became clear that this was not a regular script. It was written differently. Certain specifics, which are usually the starting points – is a given scene day or night? Interior or exterior? In which location? – were sometimes left for interpretation. The text hopscotched over boxes that seemed to be moving with lives of their own, while characters joined in or left mid-jump.
What was enacted? What was documentary? What was animation? And if we had to film this… how? There were scenes where the city is inundated by a giant wave; there were scenes where vegetables transform into children and then burst into terrible fire. Reading the script, I felt a disorientation comparable perhaps to finding myself in a bustling foreign city where signposts were unintelligible and whose spoken language I could not understand. I did not know where I was supposed to be going, let alone asking for directions to get there.
It was only after we started shooting that I began to gradually understand that Anamika saw things quite differently – and the key to this difference was her background in theatre. For while Anamika was a newcomer to cinema, coming with the exuberance of having found a New World, she was a veteran theatre person with a truly unique and path-breaking body of stage-work behind her.
Still from the film: The trade unionist Lalli (K. Gopalan) waves a red flag above the streets of Old Delhi.
My confusions with the script were largely due to my projections while reading – expecting the text to be a floor-plan of sorts, from which to build up and around and forward, but then discovering with some uneasiness that the pages were actually a pack of playing cards. The text wasn’t something that needed to be realized, but something that needed to be performed!
Indeed, this distinction was essential to Anamika’s method, and I slowly began to see why: cinema and theatre approach the question of how to represent reality and the imagined in quite strikingly different ways. But what, exactly, does this difference entail?
Of all the arts, theatre is cinema’s closest relative, sharing its proscenium format. Like the invisible fourth wall of the stage, the cinema screen becomes a window into another world where a dramatic narration of uninterrupted time plays out – “an event seen through a keyhole” as Jean Cocteau put it. Yet what is real and what is imagined is itself distinctly different on the stage as compared to on the screen.
The French philosopher Henri Gouhier once observed, “What is specific to theatre is the impossibility of separating off action and actor.” Andre Bazin, the French critic often credited for laying the intellectual groundwork of the Nouvelle Vague, developed this idea further, reflecting on how “the stage welcomes every illusion except that of presence”. For while the actor might be wearing a mask – becoming something he is not – he nevertheless exists contemporaneously within the range of our senses, as an actual being. Cinema, Bazin observes, is quite the inverse – accommodating “every form of reality save one – the physical presence.”¹
Bazin, of course, believed in cinema: and asks his readers, “what we lose by way of direct witness, do we not recapture by way of artificial proximity provided by photographic enlargement?” Leaving aside the question of effectiveness, we must nevertheless acknowledge that while the camera allows cinema to record an impression of real presences – not only of actors, but also of maggots, mountains and the Milky Way – it nevertheless lacks the actual physicality that characterizes a live performance.
This fundamental difference – in being an image of (in cinema) as opposed to being an image itself (in theatre) – has naturally led practitioners of each medium to take separate paths in exploring how their particular breed of images can best evoke an experience.
The stage for the most part does not bother trying to present a world – being content in just evoking it. The cinema must also evoke, no doubt – it does not bring a real steam engine to the screen, only an image of it. But the ‘life-like’ images captured by its mechanical and electronic devices from the very outset bring an element of realism part and parcel – seeming to offer an ‘objective’ view of an actual world, rather than a ‘subjective’ rendition of it. And so the temptation in cinema is often to make the guiding hand invisible – to hide the artifice and enhance the illusion, it being assumed (erroneously) that a sense of ‘direct experience’ paves the shortest bridge between moving pictures on screen and viewers being emotionally moved.
However, even the most ‘realistic’ sequences in cinema are nevertheless invitations into an unreal world – they feed and fuel our desire to be transported into an experience where we are both lost and found at once. The techniques that enable such evocations are many and varied, depending on the chosen medium... but what they all share in common is the need for a participant imagination.
One of the most stunning evocations of a battle scene I have ever experienced – in a stage production of Shakespeare’s Henry V Part II in the Swan Theatre of Stratford-upon-Avon, which I saw as a boy of 13 – was achieved by simply plunging the audience into utter darkness, and forcing us to only listen, the brutal bloody images of combat being conjured through slashes and spurts of sound.
In the same performance, however, I remember Falstaff coming right to the edge of the circular stage, and project his soliloquys towards us with the added thrust of his spittle. Sitting in the front seat, I was subjected to his lively and vulgar spray as he boomed, “Dost thou hear, Hal? Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit.”
This idea of the type (money) versus the token (a coin) and the token versus an imitation of it (the counterfeit coin) got me thinking about images – not as a 13-year-old, of course, but now... re-reading and remembering Falstaff’s words. Is the actor, by pretending to be what he is not, a counterfeit? Are the photographic images of cinema a forgery of the real world?
Let us here go back to our wise old drunk, Falstaff – whom we find in this instance lying dead as a doornail among a pile of corpses, as the stage lights fade in to announce the end of battle. For a few moments there is no movement. But once he is sure that the dead around him are quite dead and the armed living have ‘Exeunt All’, Falstaff begins to stir: he is an actor, after all! He winks at us sitting in the audience:
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.
According to Falstaff, we may infer, the dead are fraudulent of the living because they imitate the form of being human without the breath of life – while the living who imitate the dead are still in circulating currency. The liar who calls himself a liar is actually telling the truth... and in the end, it is in his affirmation of life itself that Falstaff is no fraud. In art, as in our lives, being counterfeit is a matter of intention... not substance! This is as true of cinema as it is of theatre or painting or any other form of art.
In her essay, ‘Reality and Imagination’, Jeanette Winterson digs into the rather surprising history of the word ‘real’ – which, it turns out, has direct ancestry in the name of a Spanish sixpence. Winterson builds on this analogy of money to exclaim “the honest currency of art is the honest currency of the imagination”2 – it is a coin that “cannot be spent” but is “ceaselessly renewed by the mining, shaping, forging imagination”. Viewers of a work of art do not ‘take’ what they see: but what is seen can linger, grow, fracture, multiply and be passed on to others. If you have a coin and I have a coin and we exchange, we have a coin each. But the gift of an idea, or a story, or an image… where these come from there is always more.
Still from the film: The snack vendor, Chhadammi (Raghubir Yadav) cooking up puris and gods.
What Anamika did in ‘Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis’ was to open up the borders – she allowed the currency of cinema and the currency of theatre to be exchangeable, and she allowed the values of each to enrich the other. Anamika took the realism of the camera and turned it around on its head – to create a kind of magic realism that penetrated into a subconscious world. She was not interested in the surface of things, she was interested in the feelings swirling and colliding within.
While ‘theatrical’ tends to be another way of saying ‘bad acting’ in cinema (obsessed as it is with verisimilitude), Anamika used it as a means of sculptural relief – lifting characters into the foreground, while the camera recorded the real street and surroundings as the backdrop. And suddenly, the foreground would subside – as if it were only a passing wave, an upheaval against gravity, and what would remain was our view of the life-like, the documentary. Then another wave would come – not enacted this time, but animated, a flying carpet over the city. And that too would subside, sinking back into the gutters.
What I found most exciting about Anamika’s aesthetic choices was that they were deeply committed to reality – to the daily struggles and daily joys of the daily wage earners – but approached through a tradition of storytelling that took heart as well as strength from folk imagination. Anamika embraced the whimsical, the caricature, the farce. Anamika also embraced the unsettling and vulgar and horrific. She embraced the city of Shahjahanabad the way the people who lived there did: entirely. She shared Luis Bunuel’s sentiment that “Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance…”³
The final result, everyone seems to agree, is an experience quite difficult to describe. For those going into the cinema hall expecting something “with human interest and a semblance of truth”4 as Coleridge would have it, the film is a veritable assault. Anamika does not ask her audience to “suspend their disbelief” – in fact, her jarring together of multiple forms ensure the exact reverse. Somewhat akin to the Brechtian effect of eye to eye, Anamika’s cut-outs and pasting together of multiple mediums and multiple aesthetic traditions makes the audience uncomfortably aware that they are watching, that they are tourists no different to the tourists who enter into her film – asking to see folk stories, but “not this, not this”.
Looking back, I think it was the many dream sequences contained within the film that pushed us into exploring how we could break out of the cinematic trappings of realism. It is interesting in this context that the dreams are the parts of the film taken directly from the testimonies of actual people. The dreams were real dreams dreamt by beggars, pickpockets, loaders, small-scale factory workers and many others who make the streets of Shahjahanabad their home. And they were communicated to us in short broken sentences, truncated by the daily nightmare to which they awoke:
“I see a dark dungeon. I see a temple. I see corpses. I see a dark dungeon. We are running… we are flying. We are running. I see dirt everywhere. We are going up… flying in the air. I see a dark dungeon. The Ganga has dried up. I see corpses. I see a graveyard. I see a temple. We are going to the shelter. We are flying. We are going up…”
When Anamika finished reading, we were all silent. This was the first time members of the core team were being introduced to one another, meeting in her house. Soumitra Ranade, who was to helm the VFX and animation of the film, was the person to whom many of the questions were being directed – because the pressing subject of the discussion was how to visualize the dreams. Gurudas Pai, the line producer, was also there – sitting with knitted brows, not saying a word, but listening with trepidation as to what all this might cost.
Anamika then passed around what she called ‘visual landscapes’ prepared by Archana Shastri – who was to be an integral part of the team, credited as Production Designer, but perhaps better described as Imaginative Instigator.
A mixed-media artwork created by Archana Shastri taking inspiration from the recorded dreams.
The visual landscapes that Archana had prepared for the film were inspired by the dreams Anamika had collected, and for the most part they were mixed-media collages, using cutouts from photographs, calendar art, maps and miniature paintings with the additional intervention of her own drawing laced on top. And we were all of us lost again, trying to communicate over differences in language, differences in form, about how we were to translate what Anamika had written and Archana had created on paper into moving images on the screen.
But the dreams challenged the crew beyond questions of representation. It was not a lack of budget or technology that we were faced with – though, for certain, those constraints were also there. The dreams challenged us fundamentally about what it is to create a sound-visual experience of something felt, something illusive to our senses, something so fragile and vulnerable that it needs the closing of our eyes to see.
What was this dungeon? What did the temple look like? Was it day or night? Were the corpses of people known or unknown? Who was running? Were you flying by moving your hands, or were you carried upwards by the air? What is this shelter? How did you know where to find it? Faced by a barrage of rational questions, the dream folds up like a touch-me-not. Even horror is vulnerable, even horror hides its face from the flashlight – burrowing deep into the warmth of our intestines. But stay a while, be silent, and the untouched leaves unclasp and re-open with soundless welcome.
Still from the film: Floating dead bodies: a recurring nightmare of an urban migrant worker.
We cannot depict our dreams as real things. Dreams cannot be shared as real things. We can only gesture – gesture with words, gesture with images, gesture with sounds – and hope, perhaps, that you might dream the same dreams.
What is most inexpressible, but most urgent, we communicate with gestures in the air. Gestures are perhaps all we really need, in any case.
Director of Photography (Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon, 2019)
Frames and References for the film
1. From ‘What Is Cinema?’ by Andre Bazin, translated by Hugh Gray.
2. From ‘Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery’ by Jeanette Winterson.
3. From ‘My Last Breath’, the autobiography of Luis Bunuel.
4. From “Biographia Literaria” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.