By Shreehari H
“There are no innocent bystanders … what are they doing there in the first place?” This quote is attributed to William S Burroughs, the famous postmodernist author who gave twentieth-century American literature a distinctly subversive voice of its own, but it also deftly captures one of the many themes that lie at the heart of Gali Guleiyan. Directed by Dipesh Jain, the film is a psychological thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of the dusty, narrow bylanes of Old Delhi – a decrepit, claustrophobic universe, the existence of whose denizens is characterized by penury and hardship.
Khuddoos, played by Manoj Bajpayee, is a man who spends his waking hours inspecting CCTV footage. His eyes are perpetually bleary, his hair is a thick, matted, dishevelled mess, and when he sniffs a solitary, half-eaten slice of bread before deciding whether to eat it or not, we immediately empathise with this character. Like the barred window that lets just the occasional ray of sunlight sneak into his house, Khuddoos is a man who seems to live within a close-set world of his own – a drowning man in pursuit of anything resembling a straw that would lend his seemingly purposeless existence something to latch onto.
On the other side of the divide – in this film’s case, a wall – lives a butcher (and part-time adulterer), Liakat, played by Neeraj Kabi (in top form, as always). He is a hypocrite, a nonchalant executioner of poultry and cattle alike, and the unwitting victim of his mansplaining is Saira, played by Shahana Goswami, the pregnant Ammi of the household who strives to tone down the discord that tears apart this family on a daily basis. In one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes, their little boy, Idris (played by a superlative Om Singh) is forced to help his mother in labour, for Liakat – a man who doesn’t even deign to make eye-contact when slapping and kicking his kid around – is conspicuously absent. When Khuddoos hears the first of many muffled screams, his conscience doesn’t permit him to let this matter remain unattended to, and his alcohol-fueled stupor drives him to scary lengths. As it turns out, this entire track is as much an examination of obsession as it is of altruism.
Authenticity is this film’s biggest strength. The streets are littered, paan-stained and festooned with mildew, the roads overflowing with sewage that has seeped out from underneath a gutter, even as stray dogs navigate their way around parked scooters and half-torn, defiled posters (of Anil Sharma’s Bandhan Kuchchey Dhaagon Ka and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, no less) make their presence felt inside a video rental store. The background score is virtually non-existent, and the unhurried pace of the film occasionally feels like a deterrent and comes in the way of the storytelling. However, there is something wonderfully honest about the beads of sweat that dot Idris’ face after he has killed a chicken for the first time, and in the way, he indulges in shadow-play while his dictator of a father offers namaz. A scene in which he questions his mother about the underlying motivation behind her marriage is an absolute standout, and the painfully interminable silence at the end speaks volumes about the kind of familial dynamic they have been forced – or rather, sledge-hammered – into accepting.
At the centre of this all, expectedly, lies a tour-de-force performance by Manoj Bajpayee. From playing the ‘king of Mumbai’ in Ram Gopal Varma’s unforgettable Satya to the coach of the world’s youngest marathon runner in Budhia Singh – Born to Run, this self-confessed exponent of the Stanislavski school of acting continues to dazzle, not just in the way he internalizes the angst of his characters but also in the manner in which his subtle, almost indiscernible shifts in body language speak louder than any words would. A scene in which he stitches his own lacerated hand, for instance, is so masterfully executed by him that the expression on his face then is one that alternates between a grimace and a smirk. One wouldn’t expect anything less from him. This is a man born to act.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.
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