Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Neeraj Kabi, Sahana Goswani, Ranvir Shorey
Rating: 3.5 stars
In his short story, The Last Leaf, O. Henry had written thus of the Greenwich Village: "One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!"
A dingier version of this description, if imported to the godowns of Old Delhi, might truely befit its maze-like streets. It's easy to lose oneself in Purani Dilli -- where walls back into walls and commercial backlanes bustle under top-floor barsatis. A musty labyrinth where angles have no respect for edge, where sounds assult sights, where the drawl of azaan blends into the cangle of arti, and where long-fused street-lamps soften the gnarliest of crimes. In this world lives Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee), a retiring electrician coming undone in his crumbling house, a lonily man who spies on neighbours with CCTV cameras but ironically, doesn't intrude. The character offers itself up to Bajpayee, who came off a similar mindspace in Aligarh -- another film which, for different reasons, was just as soaked in solitude. Shirt untucked, hair unkempt, eyes red from the smoke of beeris, Bajpayee plays Khuddoos with an unerving stillness of craft, grimacing at the face of simple instructions such as 'Go, get some air' or 'Eat your food on time', as though confronted by alien ramblings.
Khuddoos, one day, perked up against a wall, hears the muffled cries of a child. Parallel scenes depict a butcher father (Neeraj Kabi) beating up his older son (a boy named Idris, played by Om Singh). Irdis's ammi (a lived-in Sahana Goswami) is positioned as a meek onlooker, resigned to raising a second child while pregnant with a third. The domestic violence in Gali Guleiyan doesn't seem instantly cruel, which says a lot about how normalized the menace is in our society. Director Dipesh Jain, who studied filmmaking from USC and is based out of LA, is cautious about not amping up the brutality; instead, he hinges on silences and terse exposition to capture the mute horrors of oppression.
In all, it's mood that catches the director's fancy. He shoots the spiral alleyways of Delhi as evil layouts of synaptic clefts, the dark nooks and crannies coiling up to resemble Khuddoos's mental state. The sound design is immersive, full of resounding footsteps and gasping shudders, meant to distract from the diabolical give-aways planted by editor Chris Witt. The supporting actors (especially Ranvir Shorey as Khuddoos's best friend) understand the fragility of the plot -- which is about a man's journey to lead a child to freedom -- and thus lend searing human depth to their limited scenes.
Gali Guleiyan has the familiarity of an arthouse thriller, but also has moments of raw delight. In its tenderest moment, the film finds Khuddoos refusing to be ousted from a local eatery. He has been drinking at his table, which is not allowed, and the manager tries to drag him out. Clinging vehemently to his table, as though grappling at the last shred of sanity, Khuddoos wimpers like a mellowed dog... "Maine nahi jayunga, main nahi jayunga..." Nothing delights like a homecoming by Manoj Bajpayee.