“There are no innocent bystanders... What were they doing there in the first place?”
— William S Burroughs, Exterminator!
That’s how the story begins. He won’t be the bystander. And that’s why he scans the monitors that stream the happenings through a set of surveillance cameras he has put up in the dense neighbourhood in his dark hideout.
Once, the loner cuts his hand and then calmly sits on a stool in his grimy bathroom and takes out a spool of black thread. He stitches his wound with a strange detachment. In his self-inflictment, he is only trying to feel in touch with reality. That’s how desperation works.
In his childhood, he took the beatings from his father without crying. Pain is a familiar space. He has become immune to it.
Khuddoos, in an ancient house, walks around in a daze, opens old almirahs, puts his ears to the walls and watches with a morbid fascination the various monitors that live-stream the happenings in the neighbourhood where buildings jostle with each other for breathing space and overhead wires form a mesh. All of these are metaphors for the trapped being who wanders in the maze of the lanes desperately searching for a boy he feels he must rescue. He has lost his way. But all of this can’t be understood without understanding despair. And the theatrical quality of this despair is manifest when the person suffers dislocation, an acute fear of abandonment, the origins of which perhaps lie on a lost map.
Gali Guleiyan (In the Shadows) is the name of a narrow lane in Delhi’s old quarters where entrapment is a palpable truth. Both physically and mentally. Even the sunlight here gets trapped in the dangling wires. And therefore, it is a clever setting for a film that relies on metaphors and light and shadow and the gaze of a man who has lost track of time. It isn’t an easy film to watch.
The much-palpable truth: Gali Guleiyan is the name of a narrow lane in Delhi’s old quarters. (Credit: Screenshot/YouTube)
It is dystopia. Khuddoos is trapped in his past and in a house, which is like a prison with its dark grimy walls. It is a windowless house. From the roof, he watches the box-like houses cramped together without any relief. There are no flowers, there are no playgrounds. For decades, madness has been knocking on the doors of this house, which is where he hides. It is an exercise in vertiginous surreality where the past mixes with dream sequences and memories and the only way out of the maze of these alleys is to follow the trials of Khuddoos, a man trapped in his childhood with a hope he can rescue himself. But then, the past is lost. He wants to desperately edit his past. Future isn’t here yet. In some ways, you are reminded of Joseph K, the man in Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
“From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
— Franz Kafka, The Trial
From that point where he bleeds and doesn’t even respond to the pain, you know there is no turning back.
The search for the boy is getting intense.
Manoj Bajpayee, who plays Khuddoos, says the pain is only reflected as a minute expression in his eyes.
A world of his own: Manoj Bajpayee in a shot from Gali Guleiyan. (Credit: Credit: Screenshot/YouTube)
“He is lost in his imaginary world. I wasn’t approaching Khuddoos as an insane person. For me, it was about looking into his mind. When he is trying to solve the puzzle, I am with him. I am not judging the character and therefore I never spoke to any psychiatrist to help me with the portrayal,” he says.
Perhaps his toughest role so far, the film pushed him to the edge.
“I can’t believed I did it. I feel that some spirit entered me while I played this character,” he says.
Los Angeles-based director Dipesh Jain said the film isn’t about morality issues but about unresolved things in the protagonist’s mind and his descent into paranoia.
At one point in the film, Khuddoos follows two boys through the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, past the butcher shop, past the shut doors, etc.
And he reaches the threshold. He had once crossed over. And he had promised he would never leave. He sees the main road.
“One honk and chaos of the main road and he withdraws. That’s the crux of this character.
When he on the verge of getting out, he turns back,” Jain says.
And although he dwells in a dark space with unhappy memories, the redemption of Khuddoos is his innocence. And yet he suffers. It is an affirmation of our worst fears - there is no justice at the end of it. Some of us are meant to suffer. That’s how brutal the film is.
“There is no place holder for some people.
The power of the character is that he doesn’t get perverted. He never gets corrupted.
Khuddoos is an innocent character who is looking for himself and he can’t go beyond the road because the boy disappears in the sunlight,” Jain says. “In a way, the film is also about the growth of a person who beats the disease within the diseased space.”
Each frame is a powerful window into the mind of a man who wants to help the boy from committing a crime. And that’s why Khuddoos can hear him when nobody else can. That’s how beautiful his mind is. That’s how innocent his paranoia is.
There is the story of the boy that intersects with the narrative of Khuddoos’ obsessive search.
Only twice the two share the frame. Once Khuddoos sees the boy with his friend and asks them to help him find his way to his house. The boys disappear into an alley. They don’t see him. They aren’t there.
The young boy played by Om Singh from Salaam Baalak, a shelter home for runaway children, watches his father in an intimate moment with another woman. He comes home and keeps throwing the ball at the wall. His anger is manifested in the force with which the ball keeps hitting the wall.
He hears his mother tell his father she is lonely and sees his father enter his mother through the crack in the door. He wants to get out. He steals money from his father so he can get out. He wants to take his pregnant mother and his younger brother along with him.
Lost in the dark alleys: Child actor Om Singh as Idris in Gali Guleiyan. (Credit: Credit: Screenshot/YouTube)
The two narratives run parallel to each other. There is a boy trapped in the same world as the man trying to rescue him. His body is in beleaguered emergency and there is no association with anyone except a friend who helps him with food, etc. At one point, the friend takes him to see a doctor. The doctor asks Khuddoos if he remembers what day it is. He doesn’t know. He asks him why is he searching for a boy. Khuddoos says in these dark lanes, nobody cares about the other. The apathy of others is what drives him to help the boy he heard getting thrashed by his father one night.
The boy is desperate to leave. When his mother has a miscarriage, he blames his father. That’s when he runs away for the first and the last time. He sits at the station and is brought back home. The mother tells him a story about herself. She says she grew up in a big house with a garden and how her brothers loved her. Then she got married and came to this house and it didn’t have any sunlight. It didn’t have a garden. Sometimes she would go to the roof to see the expanse of her own imprisonment.
He promises his mother he would never leave her.
And then he kills his father. The muffled cries are heard by Khuddoos, who breaks the wall in order to stop Idu, the young boy. But then, the wall crumbles to reveal a dark night outside.
That’s when Khuddoos knows he has been chasing shadows.
“I was making a film on a guy’s mental decline and it is all about dreams vs. reality vs. memories vs. past. The sequence is real or unreal but that’s what is going in Khuddoos’ mind,” Jain says.
The film ends with a frame mosaic of box-like houses.
Bajpayee says he had to lose a lot of weight in an unhealthy way to start looking like Khuddoos. It wasn’t easy and he was close to having a nervous breakdown.
“My wife said you are talking to yourself and in my mind I said I got the character right,” he says. “It is the curse of being an actor. I cut myself completely from everyone. Nobody knew I was shooting. I had blackouts. I was losing touch with reality and that was the warning sign and I told the director that he should wrap up.”
Om Singh, the child actor, comes from an abusive family and the director said he gained his trust before narrating the script. In fact, the young actor told him how he would not cry when he got beaten up by his father because his tears would invite more violence. That’s how the director used real life experiences into the narrative.
As an actor, Bajpayee says the role challenged him to understand the workings of the mind of someone who could be tagged as a madman.
“I didn’t go a psychiatrist to seek tips. I tried to look into his trauma. I wanted to be with him in his journey. I didn’t want to treat him as a sick person. To the outsiders he was sick. Nobody wanted to hold his hand and that’s why he shut his doors. When I see people who are shabby by the road and now I am no longer suspicious of the person,” he says. “With Aligarh I came out as an improved person and with this I came out as an improved actor.”
A shopkeeper tells the boy his wife didn’t die in an accident. The boy tells his friend the mother killed the child and then committed suicide because she felt trapped and perhaps that was the only way out of this world.
Perhaps Khuddoos killed himself after he broke down the wall. Perhaps he knew then he could not help himself and the boy is lost forever. Perhaps he remembered the shopkeeper’s wife and how she ended her entrapment. That was his trial and his punishment. Or maybe it was his redemption. He wasn’t a bystander. He tried.
That is up to us to figure out. And for a long time afterwards, you can see the man stitching up his wound, a boy throwing the ball against the wall. And you are shaken out of your denial. There is no explanation for suffering. You suffer because that’s your destiny. You can’t break free unless you decide to kill yourself. And who knows if that can set you free.
It is sheer courage to make this film. To act in it. And even to watch it. It kills hope. But somebody said that hope is our biggest enemy. And all delusions collapse at last and that’s when you feel all alone. Maybe I can identify with Khuddoos. We are all fascinated with darkness. It is another thing to live in it. And as the quote at the beginning of the script said “there are no innocent bystanders”, Khuddoos is a hero because it takes courage to not be a bystander even if you are chasing shadows in dark alleys.
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