Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A few stray thoughts on Gali Guleiyan...

[On one of the most immersive films I have seen in a while -- and why I was reminded of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom] 

There are many ways of looking at Dipesh Jain’s haunting Gali Guleiyan, a film that for much of its running time cross-cuts between a CCTV camera-obsessed man in Chandni Chowk and a young boy in the same milieu, who may be in danger. One can note, for instance, that the distinctive Old Delhi setting is central to the film’s effect and purpose; it wouldn’t be possible to tell this story in quite this way if it had been transposed elsewhere.

Because Gali Guleiyan makes unsettling use of the timelessness (or the perceived timelessness) of Chandni Chowk – as a place with narrow, winding lanes where small houses may be left abandoned for decades, people in the neighborhood barely registering their crumbling presence; where blankets of dust gather on forgotten mementos; where lives are easily petrified and minds can slowly decay as well; and from where, depending on how the chips fall for you, there might be no escaping. Its disoriented protagonist Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee) is one of these less-fortunate ghosts: at one point, it is indicated that taking an auto-rickshaw for a visit to south Delhi’s Greater Kailash would be as much of a journey for him – as intimidating – as it would be to take a train to start a new life in another city. We spend most of the film wondering how his life reached this pass.

The Chandni Chowk shown here is a place where cell-phones and broken-down CCTV cameras are among the very few markers of “modernity”, reminders that we are watching contemporary events. Otherwise, it’s all a bit fuzzy. One scene, where two boys settle down in a shop to watch a film on a video-cassette player, could be set two or three decades ago, but it could just as easily be set today. Even torn posters of 1980s films like Desh Premee could plausibly still be on these walls in 2018.
(But what of that old-style 100-rupee note we catch a glimpse of in one scene? Does Chandni Chowk have its own currency regime removed from the rest of the country? Can we take old, pre-demonetisation 500 and 1000-rupee notes and deposit them in this ecosystem?)

This is, among other things, a story about time; about how the past informs the present, even moves alongside it. And about a man who needs better cameras than the ones he has, but doesn’t know why his cameras aren’t good enough, why they can never capture the things he really needs to look at.

I know some of this sounds vague and elusive, but there is a two-pronged problem with discussing this film in detail: 1) it has a “twist” at the end, and I'm hesitant to provide spoilers; and yet 2) it wasn’t a twist where I was concerned, because I had figured it out 20 minutes into the film, and actually I don’t even think the film MEANT it to be a big reveal: Gali Guleiyan is suspenseful all right, a quiet, languidly paced thriller of sorts, but its suspense doesn’t reside in one “gotcha!” moment – it lies in an accumulation of events, in its use of editing and sound design, in our wondering exactly what is wrong with Khuddoos, in our wanting to know what happens to the young boy Idris, and if Khuddoos will succeed in tracking Idris down with his defective cameras and through the smoke-rings of his own mind.

Watching this film, I was reminded of another camera-struck protagonist: the disturbed photographer Mark in Michael Powell’s 1960 Peeping Tom. Both Mark and Khuddoos like peering into other people's houses and lives – a fetish that begins in childhood and extends into adulthood (where it takes the form of a profession or a part-time profession). There is a moment in Peeping Tom where Mark, persuaded for once to go out without his beloved camera, reflexively reaches for it when he sees something interesting, and then looks momentarily terrified and lost that it isn’t there. Similarly, one gets the impression that Khuddoos is most alive, most present in a moment, when he is looking at CCTV footage; without it, he has little control over his environment. There is one telling scene where his brother comes to visit him after decades, and the first time Khuddoos (and we) see the brother is as a grainy black-and-white image on a screen; then the door opens and the real flash-and-blood person enters – and Khuddoos barely knows how to speak with him.

Here are two people from two different films who, for various reasons, haven’t been able to look life directly in the eye and must look at screens or through lenses instead. In both cases, we get indications of what might have gone wrong in the past – Khuddoos and Mark are haunted by memories, haunted especially by tyrannical fathers who alternate between love and sadism. Both their present-day lives involve fleeting images just glimpsed from a distance, moving out of sight (or out of focus), and both films have long tracking shots that give us a sense of just how cut off from “reality” the protagonist is.

(All this said, the last scene of Gali Guleiyan reminded me not of Peeping Tom but of a famous last shot from another film with a photographer-protagonist: Antonioni’s Blow-Up in which the hero, no longer sure of anything, including the evidence of his own camera, simply disappears before our eyes.)


[An old post about Peeping Tom is here]

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