‘I have tried to see India in a village’

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M. Gani is trying to bring back the poor who have gone missing from our cinematic universe

Cinema is a dream that most Indians watch with eyes wide open. M. Gani was no different. But instead of stars, the son of a daily wager was besotted with the craft. As a teenager reading the Screen magazine, he was more interested in knowing Anil Mehta, Lawrence D’Souza and Baba Azmi than Anil Kapoor and Shabana Azmi.

With no formal education, the Mathura boy was crazy about the camera but it was beyond his means. He wished escaping to Mumbai but family responsibilities forced him to learn tailoring and make a living. Married at 16, Gani, however, didn’t give up his passion.

Recently, at 45, Gani’s directorial venture Matto Ki Saikil premiered at the Busan International Festival and has evoked widespread interest. “I have tried to see India in a village,” he says.

After making a name in the progressive theatre circuit, Gani started a school with his two brothers to uplift his neighbourhood from the socio-cultural morass. As the digital revolution took root, he decided to pursue his love for cinematography. A tip from director Amol Gupte and a stint with friend Nakul Singh Sawhney helped him negotiate technical limitations.

Inspired by his father, who migrated from an Etah village to Mathura with the hope of providing a better life to his children, the slice-of-life film brings back the poor who have gone missing from our cinematic universe. Gani’s Matto is a Dalit daily wager in a Mathura village who has accepted socio-political discrimination and the growing economic divide as a part of his everyday life.

Gani’s early memories are of his father working on Krishna Janmabhoomi temple and the character of Matto is an amalgamation of his father and uncles.

From Do Bigha Zamin and Naya Daur to Deewar and Mazdoor, there was a time when the workforce used to drive cinematic narratives. “The Naya Daur kind of cinema was very important for that generation, but I don’t know whether it is a relevant event today. We should respect it for what it was,” notes Gani.

Life of struggle

He could relate to Anusha Rizvi's Peepli Live, a satire on village life. “There is a farmer character in the film who keeps digging through the film. If you follow the life of that farmer, it might lead you to Matto’s life,” says Gani.

When you utter the word mazdoor (labourer), he adds, people think it is going to be a tragic story. “Like everybody, a labourer also goes through sukh-dukh (happiness and sadness). My protagonist has a life of struggle. I have tried to observe his life and the people around him without wearing any shades. There is a local pradhan election, the role of Internet in village life and the promise of development at the cost of selling farmlands... it is society as it is. I have not tried to make an effort to make people laugh or cry.”

The title role is played by Prakash Jha. When one of Gani’s friends took the script to Jha, the director-producer-actor took no time in approaching Gani. “He found it layered and agreed to hand over the creative control to me in the very first meeting,” says Gani.

Having said that, he admits, when the shoot started, it took them four-five days to find a common laya (tune).

“Brij Bhasha was new for Prakash. Also, coming from a zamindar family, his body language carried a ‘status’ which perhaps he didn’t recognise. We worked on it and I guess the results are good. Having made socially relevant films like Damul, Prakash understood where I was coming from. He spent a lot of time under the Mathura sun and would carry 10-11 bricks on his head.”

Having lived with ‘isms’ and ideologies, Gani’s life has been a cauldron of bitter-sweet experiences and lends a fertile ground for many a potent story. In the early 1990s, at the height of Ram Janmabhoomi movement, when Gani moved towards the Mathura chapter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association movement, he found a distinct influence of the right-wing ideology on the Leftist theatre group. “We were made to don saffron stoles because the people who were mounting street plays were the same who were conducting Ramlilas and Krishnalilas,” he remembers.

Gani had a strong sense of right and wrong and a desire to be different. “I won’t even spare my father. He had a taken loan from a local rich man. When that man would do any wrong in society, my father, who was otherwise not interested in local politics, would have to support his wrongs. I could not stand it.”

These days journalists ask him about the references to World Cinema. “I like to watch international films dubbed in Hindi but they don’t dub those that I want to watch,” he chuckles, but adds that from Anton Chekov to Nikolai Gogol, he has devoured Hindi translations of the best of world literature. “I have set out to make my kind of cinema,” he says.

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