'Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Life's rich tapestry.

In Shahjahanabad, a city within New Delhi, locals' own experiences make up a mass self-portrait directed by Anamika Haksar.

Experimental feature Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis (which premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival) comes impressively close, or as close as a cinematic work can, to evoking one of those theatrical experiences where the action unfolds at multiple sites simultaneously as spectators explore the venue, choosing their own path through the environment. In this case, the venue is Shahjahanabad, also known as Old Delhi, a bustling, picturesque but also poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhood at the center of New Delhi. Theater director Anamika Haksar, making her feature debut here, draws from the lives and stories of Shahjahanabad residents and casts scores of them as onscreen actors in this highly imaginative panoramic portrait of the community, threaded together with a few key narratives, some animation and visual effects. The result is by turns delightful and moving, sometimes enervating and exhausting, but never dull.

Although Haksar takes a screenwriting credit here with one of the film’s co-stars, Lokesh Jain, opening titles point out that the film is “culled from interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small-scale factory workers, daily wager earners, domestic workers, loaders, rickshaw pullers and many others laboring” in the city where it was shot.

Indeed, the film’s two-hour running time contains multitudes of characters, all with stories to tell. Some are longer-arc narratives, like the material that tracks Patru (Ravindra Sahu), a pickpocket and sometime trumpeter who decides to start offering insider-led walking tours of the area to wealthy visitors. Some are micro-narratives, as short as a few short tragic sentences. “My son used to live with my grandparents,” explains one seemingly random woman at one point to a haughty European tourist, who has come seeking quaint folk stories. “There was a well near the house. He fell in it and died, so then I came to Delhi.” That’s not the kind of story the tourist is looking for, nor is the one from loader Lali (K Gopalan) about how his brother was beaten to death in jail working for the rights of the poor.

The sequence offers a pointed, blackly comic jab at how Westerners long for picturesque tales from the East, but not if they’re about real suffering or anything that might make the listener feel bad, let alone complicit or guilty of supporting exploitative economics. It’s perhaps to the film’s credit that it’s not afraid of this particular moral wound, even as the pic itself serves up exoticism for the consumption of foreign filmgoers. Elsewhere, Haksar delivers more whimsical sequences, where characters fly or float, animated kites battle each other in the sky or folk-art-style cartoon serpents slither through the city streets.

Special commendation is due to editor Paresh Kamdar, along with sound designer Gautam Nair and the various musical contributors, for creating a sense of flow as one episode gives way to another. That cascading onslaught of imagery may leave some viewers feeling washed out and exhausted, but others will find in this a thrilling, endlessly mutable tribute to one of the oldest, most vibrant parts of one of the world’s great cities.

Production companies: Anamika Haksar, Gutterati Productions
Cast: Ravindra Sahu, Raghuvir Yadav, Gopalan, Lokesh Jain

Director-producer: Anamika Haksar
Screenwriters: Anamika Haksar, Lokesh Jain
Executive producers: Gurudas Pai
Director of photography: Saumyananda Sahi
Production designer: Archana Shastri
Costume designer: Sneha Kumar
Editor: Paresh Kamdar
Music: Tyrax Ventura, Ustad Daud Kahn Sadozai, Utsav Nanda
Sound designer: Gautam Nair
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (New Frontier Films and Performances)

Sales: Gutterati Productions

121 minutes