After director and occasional actor Prakash Jha read a script about a daily wage labourer and his rusty bicycle, he was “bowled”, “zapped” and transported to his own early filmmaking days (not necessarily in that order).

M Gani’s Matto Ki Saikil took Jha back to the 1980s, when he had started his career with documentaries and the bonded labour-themed film Damul (1985). Gani’s story, with a screenplay by Pulkit Phillip, was “pure cinema, simple cinema”, the kind that we don’t see anymore, Jha said.

“There is absolutely no romanticisation anywhere, and yet, he is able to engage you and tell you a story,” Jha added.

Gani wanted Jha to play Matto. “His face was perfect for the character,” Gani told “When we met, we chatted for 20-25 minutes and spoke about everything the movies.” Gani was later told that not only had be found a lead actor, Jha would produce the film too.

Matto Ki Saikil was premiered at the ongoing Busan International Film Festival. The 95-minute movie centres on the importance of a decrepit bicycle to Matto’s life. Even though it is coming apart, the cycle transports Matto to the construction site that helps him and his family survive. He keeps getting the cycle repaired since he can’t afford a new one, and is as attached to his mode of transport as he is to his wife and two daughters.

Matto Ki Saikil (2020). Courtesy Prakash Jha Productions.

Gani’s debut feature, set in his home town Mathura, skillfully paints an unvarnished portrait of subsistence living. The film is filled with small victories and big disappointments. Matto and his family barely make it from one day to the next. An expressway is being built beyond Matto’s neighbourhood, but the only way in which it impacts his life is that the fields that serve as an open toilet are disappearing. A member of one of the Other Backward Castes, Matto hopes that a local leader who is contesting an election will change his fortunes.

The detailing was among the reasons Prakash Jha decided to produce the movie. “I could see the layers in this simple story of a man and his bicycle, a micro-sample of how promises are made,” Jha observed. “Expressways are built, but life under that expressway moves at a snail’s pace. People make these little negotiations to be happy. There is no revolution, no movement in their lives. I felt that this film had to be made.”

Gani drew on his own experiences in documentary filmmaking and street theatre and the nearly two decades he has spent working with unorganised workers in Mathura. The 45-year-old filmmaker has also shot Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (2015), about communal tensions in the western Uttar Pradesh town.

“I wanted to make a film about an ordinary life,” depict people they way they look in the normal world beyond the screen, Gani said. Jha is the only known face in the cast, and appears alongside local actors, including members of the Covenant theatre group in Mathura.

M Gani.

Matto’s character is based on Gani’s father, Jha said. The filmmaker spent several days in Mathura to understand his character better. This included hanging around at the street corners where unorganised labourers assemble, hoping to find an employer for the day.

“I am able-bodied, so I even got approached for work a couple of times,” said Jha, whose acting credits include his own film Jai Gangaajal (2016) and Saand Ki Aankh (2019). “I had to work to find this character Matto. It took me some time. It wasn’t about getting into the character physically, but about entering his psyche.”

Gani didn’t have to regret his casting decision. “Prakash Jha really made an effort to play Matto – he stayed in the village and with the labourers,” Gani said about Jha. “He exceeded our wildest expectations.”

Jha was so busy getting under Matto’s skin that he had no time to give Gani filmmaking tips. It turns out that Jha didn’t need to, he said – Gani was “absolutely certain in terms of what he wanted, the long shots and the close-ups”. Chandan Kowli’s camera captures the beauty of the landscape as well as the grittiness of Matto’s surroundings.

“This was an extremely competent film, and my only contribution was in terms of getting my collaborator Wayne Sharpe to compose the background score,” Jha said. “Wayne also flipped when he saw the film.” The American composer came up with his score in Los Angeles, adding a final layer of pathos to a moving tale of bare-bones survival.

Matto Ki Saikil.