Anamika Haksar, 57, was in her twenties when she realised that there was something wrong with theatre that did not respect the regional identities of its performers. Directors of the 1980s were staging plays by the likes of William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, but there was little reflection of the cultural histories of the artistes. Trained in the USSR of the post-Brezhnev era, in which a creative process began with an enquiry about the “self”, Haksar pounded home the message of “respect your background, region, class and yourself”. So, it was strange that, after 40 prolific years in theatre, Haksar suddenly disappeared from the stage. Her last play, in 2008, was Uchakka, an autobiography by Marathi novelist Lakshman Gaekwad. One heard of Haksar sporadically conducting workshops, but no new play was forthcoming.
Away from the performing space, however, she was following her own dictum — introspecting, accepting her identity and creating from there — as she ventured into a different medium, films. In an interview conducted in a hotel room in old Delhi, Haksar reveals this new persona:
Why have you quit theatre?
I have been doing more workshops than productions. The reason is that I have turned into a film director. It was very difficult to leave theatre, even temporarily, but I also realised that if I needed to do this film, I will have to say no to theatre for a while. I went and learnt the basics for eight months at a small academy in Mumbai.
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What is your upcoming film about?
It revolves around the untold dreams, stories and small events of the masses living on the fringes of society, on the brink of life and death but full of humour, dignity and courage. The three protagonists are a pickpocket, a loader and a sweetmeat vendor in old Delhi who sleep on an abandoned roof in the walled city. They are all migrants — the pickpocket from Aligarh who has lived all his life in Delhi, the sweetmeat vendor is also from UP, and the loader is from Kerala, who gets duped and, instead of going to Dubai, lands up on this abandoned rooftop. There is a fourth protagonist: a suave man who speaks chaste Urdu and takes people on heritage walks. This prompts the pickpocket to conduct “alternative walks” in which he wants to show the lives lived in the underbelly. His decision will have a devastating effect on everybody involved.
How did you capture the layers of old Delhi in a single narrative structure?
There is no linear narrative because the film reflects the lives of its subjects. They don’t know for sure if, tomorrow, the police will catch them or they will be shifted from this side of the road to the other, or if, on another day, somebody will spill water on them. They have to keep shifting. The script is fragmented. It moves from documentary to fictional structure and then to something like a dream to imagery, and then back to documentary.
To add to the complexity, the film has a title that doesn’t even work as an acronym.
I had an aunt who used to learn music in old Delhi. She was full of stories. I heard this story when I was 15 or 16 years old. She was going somewhere and somebody asked a ghodewala, “Kahan jaa riye hai tu(Where are you going)?” He answers, “Arrey, ghode ko jalebi khilane le jaa riya hoon (I’m going to feed the horse jalebis).” I guarded it for years as a title that I thought I would use in a play. When I began to write my first film, it had to be called Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon.
Dreams play a big part in your film, to create a surreal atmosphere. How did you research on dreams?
I said that, from the personal, let’s get into the internal. For instance, a person who is pushing the cart, we know he is unemployed; he is from a village, he earns little money. But what is going on inside him? We created a questionnaire based on which Lokesh Jain and his wife Chhavi (Delhi-based theatre directors) and street theatre artiste Sarita Sahi conducted a research. They created relationships with people employed in the hand-composition press, the little lubricant shops, stalls selling tyres, halwai shops, pickpockets and jhilliwallas — to find out about their dreams. It was a process that took more than two years.
Your art stresses on the personal narrative; how does old Delhi feature in your life?
I have a diverse connection with old Delhi. We were Kashmiri migrants and there are Kashmir ki galiyan as well
as a Haksar haveli. It never belonged to any of us but a great-grandfather came and stayed there. I married into old Delhi and I used to live here often. From the window where I stayed in, I could see three people sleeping on the roof. The story came to me long ago, and I wrote it with no plan to make it into a film.
The film also has a large cast, of about 400 people. How did you train them?
The 400 people are from NGOs and different parts of the streets. Except four professional actors, everybody is raw talent. In some places, they have done brilliantly and there are some places, where the rawness comes through. The four trained actors in the film are Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav, Krishna Gopalan and Lokesh Jain.
What is your opinion about contem-porary theatre in the country?
There are lots of promising young people like Abhilash Pillai and Deepan Sivaraman, who are breaking the language barrier and redefining territories. But I feel that we don’t have enough of them. There should be more visionaries among teachers and practitioners. I am also someone who believes that we are a part of a historical process, so I am inspired by seniors such as Ratan Thiyam as well as those in my age group such as Anuradha Kapur and Maya Krishna Rao. The plays should also travel a lot more so that audiences all across can experience the alternative work.