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An old Delhi mesh

'Gali Guleiyan' is one of the best Indian stories ever to be told about schizophrenia

Manoj Bajpayee plays a man with schizophrenia in ‘Gali Guleiyan’.
Manoj Bajpayee plays a man with schizophrenia in ‘Gali Guleiyan’.

The eloquent conceit in Dipesh Jain’s first feature film is meshed wires—dusty, jagged electric wires above and around Khuddoos, the tormented vigilante-voyeur protagonist played by Manoj Bajpayee. The setting of an Old Delhi neighbourhood articulates this mesh. The Walled City is claustrophobic, not exotically saturated in colour and chaos, and a way out of it is impossible.

Look in, and Khuddoos’ mind is a mesh too—of fear, anguish, and forgetfulness about mundane things like eating, cutting his nails and sustaining a decrepit business of repairing electronic devices. He has a gnawing need to save an adolescent whose cries he hears every day from beyond the walls of his home. Bajpayee’s Khuddoos is a monotone, and intensely so—the actor pulls you into his dark hole and never lets you go. Cast-members Ranvir Shorey, Neeraj Kabi, Shahana Goswami and debutant actor Om Singh, Kai Meidendorp’s brilliant use of shadows in his cinematography and Sujeta Sharma Virk’s production design, free of the pretty and the exotic, make Jain’s lean writing and direction fly.

Gali Guleiyan is one of the best Indian stories ever to be told about schizophrenia. There is no moral lens to it, about the need for therapy and medicine, like most American films about mental illness tend to have; and the word “schizophrenia" doesn’t even crop up. The most literal Jain gets is while describing the “bhool bhulaiyya"—the inner city of the mind—in which Khuddoos is lost.

Schizophrenia can be riveting in fiction because it takes you to mental realms that are disruptive, and challenging to engage with and understand. How does a storyteller extract empathy for a character who cannot distinguish between the real and the imaginary? Mental illness also lends itself easily to the thriller genre. But Jain’s film has a perfunctory commitment to form. It is not a thriller in the sense of how the plot unfolds. His writing and visual treatment are more interested in the character, his mind and its inarticulate maze—the closest Khuddoos comes to expressing his mental state is by saying how his sets of grainy monitors just aren’t able to capture what he knows is happening outside his house. He feverishly scans the monitors every day, and he gets nothing.

The other Indian story saturated in the perils and cataclysms of schizophrenia is Jerry Pinto’s novel Em And The Big Hoom. In Hindi films, mental illness is never subdued. It always involves high-decibel physical antics. The character is jailed or is in an asylum, often forcibly so. Pathos, not danger or morbidity, is the emotion that drive most screenplays that tackle mental illness—anterograde amnesia in A.R. Murugadoss’s Ghajini (2005) and dissociative identity disorder in Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), schizophrenia again in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue (2005) and Vijay Lalwani’s Karthik Calling Karthik (2010). Mahesh Bhatt famously derived from his intimacy with Parveen Babi, a schizophrenic like Khuddoos, and made saleable pop-memoirs like Woh Lamhe (2006), in which Kangana Ranaut played the hysterical, troubled protagonist. Madhur Bhandarkar attempted the same in Heroine (2012) with Kareena Kapoor, but with more disastrous schlock. The psychiatrist made a lead appearance, albeit with quinquagenarian sex appeal, in Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2016), redefining the shrink’s couch for easy consumption along with popcorn.

Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) and Black Swan (2010), both films about genius and mental illness, Gali Guleiyan has a spooky visual style and sound design. It keeps us on the edge of Khuddoos’ imminent psychological disintegration, and, at the same time, rooted to the awareness that the disintegration has already happened.

Gali Guleiyan released in theatres on 7 September.

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