In Gali Guleiyan, director Dipesh Jain used Old Delhi as a maze: 'I've seen people who lived there unable to get out'
'The maze-like area of Old Delhi is symbolic of Khuddoos’ headspace — the crisscrossing, winding alleys, electrical wires, claustrophobic spaces, the chaos of the crowds — they all add to Khuddoos’ physical and mental entrapment in the place,' says Dipesh Jain.
In the limited series #DilliDelhi, Devansh Sharma talks to scriptwriters and filmmakers who have explored the city of Delhi, in all its eccentricities, intricacies, and complexities, through their films.
Hindi cinema is replete with examples of filmmakers who have looked back at Old Delhi through a particularly tender lens. Its depiction, thus, has mostly been associated with the little joys of one's childhood, like kite-flying and flitting across the closely spaced roofs. But for filmmaker Dipesh Jain, who directed the critically acclaimed Gali Guleiyan (In The Shadows, 2018), Old Delhi has a different connotation.
"I’m not saying that the typical depiction — the food, the kite flying etc — is incorrect. That's one version. However, I see old Delhi as a dark and mysterious place, which can trap you," says Jain. Jain’s lens may be nostalgic, but it is not misted by fond recollections. "My grandparents used to live in old Delhi,” he explains. “We spent our summer vacations there. The idea of people being entrapped — it’s something I have experienced… generations of the same families living there, never able to get out. When we’d talk, I’d sense this longing for the outside world, which they were actually afraid of. I’ve experienced being lost in those alleys, unable to find my way out. It’s very daunting for a child. I tried to bring out those impressions and experiences in the film’s theme."
Gali Guleiyan is the story of Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee), who suffers from an unidentified mental condition. Khuddoos lives in old Delhi, and is drawn to a child in the neighbouring house who is often abused by his father, a butcher (Neeraj Kabi). Jain insists that the setting was integral to the story, and particularly, its protagonist. "The idea for the story came from that space. I always saw Old Delhi as a maze where anyone could get lost. When I was in film school, I used to get these vivid flashes of images of Old Delhi. It’s a very cinematic place. So while I was developing this story — of a man trapped within the city walls — Old Delhi, for me, became an obvious choice. The story of Gali Guleiyan is deeply rooted in the space, and Old Delhi is a character in the film."
Old Delhi is not only a symbol of the quagmire within Khuddoos’ head, but also a factor that contributes to his mental condition in the first place. "The maze-like area is symbolic of Khuddoos’ headspace — the crisscrossing, winding alleys, electrical wires, claustrophobic spaces, the chaos of the crowds — they all show and also add to Khuddoos’ physical and mental entrapment in the place. They show what effect the space has, on his mind and condition. This dual cause and effect relationship is what I tried to build in the narrative. We are all, at some level, products of the environment we inhabit. Also, spaces evoke emotions and memories. Khuddoos’ past and memories are tied to this maze. He wanted to run away from Old Delhi when he was a child, so that thought of escaping becomes an obsession for him as an adult, as he tries to save the child next door," says Jain.
Gali Guleiyan flits between past and present, and here too, Old Delhi proved to be an advantageous location.
"For the parallel narrative structure of the film, I needed a place which is ageless and timeless. Apart from a few modern hoardings and banners, the rest of Old Delhi is exactly how it used to be 20 years ago, when I was a child.
Nothing changes there. So our macro-level challenge of creating a period look for the place was sorted," Jain says.
Still, careful and minute detailing went into the production, costume, and light design. Hoardings were changed to be era-appropriate, as were the street lights; all modern cars were moved out of the alleys and replaced with period models; satellite TV dishes and radio transmission towers were erased from the roof shots via VFX. The dialogue editor and sound designer of the film went through each frame, scrubbing out the sounds of traffic.
All this effort was certainly not in vain as the haunting, dusty air of Old Delhi is palpable while watching the film. In order to capture this feel, Jain had gone the extra mile to shoot on location, rather than erecting a set to replicate Old Delhi. "It’s an audacious idea to shoot for 40 days in that place, literally pausing thousands of people’s lives so you can take your shot. We didn’t have the budget to hire hundreds of security guards and bouncers for crowd control. Also, the locations we chose were very challenging. For example, Khuddoos' house was locked for over 60 years. When we opened it, there were mites, insects, dust, debris, cobwebs. It was perfect for the look but not at all shooting friendly. But we didn’t clean it up. We let it be. You could see the dust hanging in the air, which we all were breathing constantly. My team and I were coughing madly, and came out sick from the shoot!" the filmmaker recounts.
Jain's journey to old Delhi to shoot the film mirrored Khuddoos coming to terms with his childhood. The haunting silences of the city persisted, but Jain could approach his childhood fear with more clarity. "I didn't want to show the typical Discovery Channel version of old Delhi. When the city is stripped of its people, noise, and chaos at night, it turns into a ghost town. I wanted exactly that," he says. "You can always find a fresh and new perspective in how to portray a city. The New York of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is very different from the one in Raging Bull. It’s totally different in Woody Allen’s Manhattan."
"Now,” Jain continues, “I often apologise to people for ruining their nostalgic and magical image of Old Delhi!" For those who have been transported to the Old Delhi of Gali Guleiyan, the chances of escape are as bleak as of those of people who have lived there all their lives.
Read more from Devansh Sharma's Dilli-Delhi series here.
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