Dipesh Jain’s feature debut is set in a neighbourhood that been depicted in movies, television shows and commercials as a land of quirkiness, endless joy and vibrant community spirit. In Gali Guleiyan, however, the locality surrounding Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi comes across an open prison, one that traps Khuddus (Manoj Bajpayee) in more ways than one.

The independent feature, which was made in 2017, is finally being released in India on September 7 after touring film festivals, including Busan, Mumbai, Kerala and Melbourne. The English title, In the Shadows, aptly describes Khuddus’s world. Scarred by childhood trauma, Khuddus has retreated into his mind. He spies on his neighbours through a closed-circuit television system and becomes obsessed with a young boy, Idris (Om Singh), whom Khuddus believes needs rescuing.

The cast includes Shahana Goswami and Neeraj Kabi as Idris’s parents and Ranvir Shorey as Khuddus’s only real friend. The movie is anchored by Manoj Bajpayee, whose performance has won plaudits across the board.

Dipesh Jain studied filmmaking at Prague Film School and the University of Southern California Film School. He has directed documentaries and short films, including 11 Weeks, set in Kashmir. The 36-year-old director is already working on his next project, titled A Stone’s Throw Away. He spoke to Scroll.in about rebelling against the nostalgia that is usually associated with older urban neighbourhoods in cities and the casting and production decisions that went into Gali Guleiyan.

‘Gali Guleiyan’ runs in the opposite direction from the fond nostalgia associated with Chandni Chowk.
The film has been shot on location in the inner alleys of Old Delhi. I have known these alleys because my maternal grandparents lived in this area. I didn’t grow up here, but would go there every summer vacation. I grew up mostly in Chandigarh and then in Delhi.

I wanted to tell a story about that neighbourhood, but I didn’t want to show Chandni Chowk, pigeons and people flying kites. It’s not as happy a place as people show. This film is not about nostalgia, but about being trapped in the alleys. There is a section in the film where the boy, Idris, gets lost, and that is what happened to me when I was very young. I was lost for about 40-45 minutes, I would start in one corner and end up somewhere else. For a young kid, that space is daunting.

When I showed people the script, people said, why do you see Old Delhi in this way?

Gali Guleiyan.

One of the film’s themes is Khuddus’s inability to escape the place where he grew up. Was this autobiographical too?
My grandfather could never get out of that space. There was a fear of the outside world. I saw a lot of people around me, generations, living in the same space. Something held them back [from leaving]. They didn’t have the courage to explore the new India, and were happy within a half-mile radius. The world had moved on, but this space was like a time capsule. It felt like entrapment. Old cities tend to have that feel.

There was never a romantic idea of going back. The film was always meant to address the fear I had.

Was Manoj Bajpayee your first choice to play Khuddus?
The film was written for him. Sitting in Los Angeles, I didn’t know anybody in the industry. What happens in an independent film is that you cast the lead first and then package the rest. But I could not get a hold of Manoj, so he was the last one to be cast. The script had already gone to Neeraj Kabi, Shahana Goswami and Ranvir Shorey, and they had agreed.

A friend of mine, a guardian angel, knew Manoj, and she made the call. He asked me, when do you want to shoot? I was foolishly arrogant and when he said that he might not have the time because he might be shooting, I said, it’s your loss.

We eventually set up a time. He grilled me for three-and-a-half hours about the character. The filmmaker inside me was jumping with joy because he had cracked the nuances that only I knew as a director. How Khuddus’s voice would be, how he would walk, the shoes he would be wearing – I knew the role had generated enough interest.

Manoj Bajpayee in Gali Guleiyan (2017). Courtesy Exstant Motion Pictures.

What about the rest of the cast – Om Singh, who plays Idris, for instance?
I looked at between 2,000 and 3,000 kids. I had a team of 10 casting people. We eventually found Om at the Salaam Baalak Trust. We shot his interview, and I connected with the kid. His own story was close to Idris’s story.

Every part of this film is written for the actor who played it. Neeraj Kabi was the first one to come on board. I had loved his performance in Ship of Theseus.

I also loved Shahana’s performance in Rock On! She is the only light in a a film in which everything is dark. Ranvir Shorey agreed even though his role wasn’t too big.

What does the film say about surveillance and voyeurism?
The germ came from the child’s story. In Old Delhi and the older parts of cities, people are peeping Toms. Everybody knows what is going on in another person’s life. The idea of voyeurism came through the space itself,

I could intellectualise it, but the CCTV was the need of the script, the foundation for the theme. I needed a device with which Khuddus would know about his surroundings. Even though some people are isolated and connected, they still know about the world.

Plus, the film also has a social commentary about a problem about which people know but don’t do anything.

Om Singh in Gali Guleiyan (2017). Courtesy Exstant Motion Pictures.

How much work went into the production design, which is vital to creating a sense of the film’s theme?
Production design was elemental to this kind of a film. I did extensive location sourcing on foot for two-and-a-half months. I was looking for claustrophobic alleys, alleys with life, but I was also just clicking photos of walls.

Khuddus’s house was crucial. I wanted a house that looked like a jail. I saw this ash-grey half house with its wooden balcony falling apart. The house had been locked for 60 to 70 years. It was just like I had imagined it to be – it had this foyer we needed. We spent a lot of money fixing up that house because it was in such a state that we could not have seven or eight people on the first floor without it falling. So we did reinforcements. We had few people on the sets.

Everything has stopped for Khuddus, his mind has stopped. The production designer built this decrepit world. There was a lot of discussion about his phone. There was also the matter of getting the right kind of CCTVs. The plates Khuddus eats in, his tea cup – the brief was that it should not look modern at all.

Gali Guleiyan (2017). Courtesy Exstant Motion Pictures.

‘Gali Guleiyan’ has been shot by a foreign cinematographer, Kai Miedendorp. What perspective did he bring to the film?
Normally, a cinematographer is called in a week before the prep. I called Kai a month in advance. He is a Czech-German director of photography from New York. Since I have trained abroad, I know the grammar of technicians there.

It was very important to get a fresh perspective. He and I walked a lot through the neighbourhood. I wanted him to soak in the whole space. It was very important to get the look right.

We shot with two or three lenses. We didn’t have wide lenses and also no long lenses for close-ups. It is a forced perspective. We used certain motifs – extreme close-ups only for the eyes, for instance, We wanted a particular kind of mise-en-scene, so the film is classically shot. We used handheld only to contrast the fixed world of the CCTV cameras and the chaos of the real world.

Much of ‘Gali Guleiyan’ unfolds indoors. What were the challenges of making interior scenes look interesting?
It was a challenge for Manoj – 23 out of the 40 shooting days were indoors, and these were mostly at night.

My DoP did shot breakdowns, and everything was exceptionally planned. We also did storyboarding to figure out the ways to shoot a single room.

We needed to have a graph. The visuals needed to progress with the story. We keep going back to the monitor room with the CCTvs, but there was an arc to that. We are behind Khuddus at one point, and then we are behind the monitors. It was tricky. My script supervisor came up to me and said she was concerned that the film would look very flat.

We also used sophisticated technology to capture location sound. We didn’t resort to a sound library – everything is authentic in the film.

I did the location scouting along with a sound designer from Los Angeles. The thing about the area is that it is very quiet when you go inside. It becomes like a vacuum. In the film, the outside world is the loudest, the second layer comprises the inner alleys, and the third layer is in Khuddus’s mind.

How did the local residents react to the shoot?
They were a huge support. I kind of knew them because of my family, and that helped. It was expecting a lot. It is unrealistic for people to stop their lives just because you have to take a shot.

Dipesh Jain.