By Saibal Chatterjee
NEW DELHI: As debutant director Gurvinder Singh’s critically acclaimed Punjabi film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan(Alms for the Blind Horse) opens in five Indian cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Jalandhar, the Delhi-born writer-director tells
Saibal Chatterjee that “I am really keen to see how audiences in Punjab relate to the film.”
Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan is an experimental film based on a 1970s novel of the same name by Jnanpith Award-winning writer Gurdial Singh.
Set in an impoverished and perennially oppressed Dalit village in Punjab, the film eschews the melodrama and music-driven narrative methodology of run-of-the-mill entertainers.
It has none of the feel-good delirium that is usually whipped up in Hindi films by robust, colourfully attired dancers doing their orchestrated number in mustard fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Being released as part of PVR Cinemas’ alternative programming initiative, Director’s Rare, Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year before travelling to London, Busan, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Munich and Abu Dhabi.
Produced by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), the film was screened in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and won awards at film festivals in Abu Dhabi and Rotterdam. ‘Film Comment’ magazine named Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan among the best films of 2011.
The film won three National Awards earlier this year – Best Punjabi Film, Best Direction and Best Cinematography for first-time director of photography Satya Rai Nagpaul. All the awards and accolades that have been heaped on Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan are richly deserved.
Its evolved cinematic craft and idiom elevate the film way above anything Punjabi cinema has seen before. The debutant director employs a calibrated mix of images, sound design, gestures, facial expressions and words to articulate the depressed state of the village and the sense of resignation of its hapless denizens, battered into stupor by years of suppression and exploitation.
The stark yet lyrical Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan homes in on a desperately indigent rural family – a wizened old man, his irritable wife, their only daughter and a sickly young son – through the course of a single day, from the hours before dawn to midnight.
The elderly couple’s first-born, Melu Singh, a symbol of displacement, has been away in the the city for seven years, and, as the audience subsequently learns, is still struggling to make ends meet as a cycle rickshaw-puller.
The film opens at the break of a cold and misty dawn as news filters in of the demolition of a house on the outskirts of the village. On the soundtrack, a bulldozer can be heard. It disturbs the calm of a winter morning.
The rattle is followed by the clatter of a passing train, the intermittent sparks of a loose electrical wiring, a barking dog, a bleating goat – all evoking the stifling atmosphere of a space where all verve has ebbed out of the lives of the people and only faint reverberations remain.
We hear a voice ask: “Is anyone left alive here?” A little later, another voice laments: “They have hardly left us alive.” Able-bodied men are migrating to the city and a life of continuing deprivation, a thermal power plant is coming up in town, village homes are being demolished to make way for factories, and the down-trodden have been robbed of their voice.
Words have little meaning here. Only the weather-beaten faces of the men and women, grief writ large on them and all vestiges of hope drained out of the veins, tell a dead-end tale of despair. The Director’s Note provides an explanation for the funereal air that hangs over the village. “The human face is a landscape,” writes Delhi-born Gurvinder Singh, who graduated from the direction course of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, in 2001. “The lived reality of the face reflects time endured, lived and suffered.”
Gurvinder Singh reveals that his film has been “pretty faithful” to the literary text authored by Gurdial Singh. “He was initially closely involved with the scripting process,” says the director. “But he then allowed me to do pretty much my own thing.”
“Most of the actors in the film are actual villagers,” says Gurvinder Singh. Especially interesting is the casting of Mal Singh, a 60-year-old fertilizer factory worker-turned-contract farmer, as the old man.
The role of Melu Singh is played by Patiala-based street theatre activist Samuel Sikandar John, who has for 20 years been staging plays on street corners of Punjab’s towns and villages.