The men are sleeping in rows after a hard day’s work. One is dreaming about marigold flowers dropping from the lap of the goddess Lakshmi. Another sees the red Communist flag flutter over the landscape. A flying carpet sails above the night. Sometimes, one man’s dreams intrude into another’s.

It’s no less picaresque in the waking world in Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon. The independently produced film weaves a tapestry of Old Delhi threaded with visions both real and fantastical. “This film is culled from interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small scale factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, loaders, rickshaw pullers and many others labouring in the city of Shahjanabad, Old Delhi,” the opening text declares.

Among the hard-working and hard-dreaming characters played by professionals and first-timer actors are a pickpocket, an Urdu-spouting tour guide, a loader and a street food hawker. As she follows their daily hustle through the maze of lanes in Old Delhi, Haksar uses animated tablueax to depict the dreams and throws in excerpts from conversations with the area’s residents to create a bustling collage that is non-linear as well as magic realist.

Fifty nine-year-old Haksar, a well-known theatre director, is possibly the oldest debutante director at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1), where Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon will be screened in the India Story section. To equip herself better for her film, Haksar did a seven-month course a few years ago at the Digital Academy in Mumbai, where she lives. “I was this big aunty among the 20-year-olds,” Haksar told Here is the edited text of her interview.

Sweat and smiles in Old Delhi

“I owe the film’s title to an aunt of mine. She told me an anecdote about hailing a tonga seller who had an emaciated horse. He refused to come, saying he had to feed his horse jalebis. I loved the humour of it.

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon (2018).

I have a sense of engagement with Old Delhi. Our family descended from Kashmir and has settled in Old Delhi, so there is that nostalgic, upper middle-class connection. Also, I used to do acupressure for women and children there, and I would meet women from working-class and underprivileged sections of society who would tell me about their illnesses.

I am a theatre person, and we have done a lot of work with the unorganised sector. For instance, in Wazirpur [in Old Delhi], I got a lot of data and information about the economics of the place, combined with social aspects of what the women were remembering. It awakened this understanding of the multiplicity of lives in the city.

I had a fictional structure in mind. I wrote a questionnaire. I asked, what are your dreams, what are your memories of your village, what images come to your mind, what irks you. We didn’t want to understand the dreams, but figure out the emotional moments. We interviewed between 60 and 70 people. We didn’t record on camera. We transcribed the interviews, and I started adding fictional dialogue to the transcripts.

Anamika Haksar.

We were given the dreams in cryptic form. Some were more descriptive. The women sometimes had sexual, taboo dreams. Some descriptions would run into four or five lines, without any images. Some were based on real images, like the pickpocket who had a dream of Mickey Mouse in a remand home.

We initially thought that we would use paintings to illustrate the dreams. My production designer is Archana Shastri, a painter from Baroda. We used paintings based on the folk imagination, as well as animation. The animation was a difficult process. Although animator Soumitra Ranade’s team is very gifted, they are used to a kind of commercial, Western animation. It took some time to get across our ideas.

There is a craziness to the existence of people there, where you don’t know what is going to happen next. Of course, there is always humour. That is why the script moves the way it does, from one moment to the next. The film doesn’t try and build a traditional structure. It cannot get into a climax because the climax happens in seconds – something can end and then begin again. This is what I sensed from my experience of going into that part of the city for many, many years.

One never tried for a top-angle view. We tried to get as close as possible to the people, to their stories and their humour and dignity. Of course, you can never get really close because class separates you.

Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon (2018). Courtesy Gutterati Productions.

Like in the film’s structure, there is no linearity in the performances either. The structure has come from the experience of meeting and interacting with people on the road. If the non-actors were illiterate, we would give the dialogue to the literate person in the group.

We used eight-to nine actors from Delhi theatre, including Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav and K Gopalan. The rest of them were from the neighbourhood. We took the help of Indu Singh, who works with night shelters and street people’s unions. He gave us access to many people, Lokesh Jain, who plays tour guide Akash Jain in the film, also works in an NGO, so he got some people from the Jama Masjid area.

We did a very small workshop for about 10 days, in which we gave the key characters their scenes. It was important for me to understand the different styles, since each actor is stylistically different. Ravindra Sahu, for instance, has done a lot of physical theatre and has an intense, psychological interior. He has used movements and psychological gestures and movements in his performance as the pickpocket.

Ravindra Sahu in Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon (2018). Courtesy Gutterati Productions.

We have multiple perspectives on Old Delhi. The gaze shifts from one reality to another to the third within minutes. Here is this 103-year-old resident giving me an oral history, and then you see a syntax tank. The film was revelatory in many ways. For every poor person who is depicted as a thug or a peddler or a drug addict in the movies, I have met enough people to say that there is dignity, honesty and hard-core labour.

I completed the film in January. Every minute was a challenge. I have largely funded it myself, along with contributions from relatives and friends.”

As told to Nandini Ramnath.