Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Gurvinder Singh's Alms for a Blind Horse (2011) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.
The story goes that the demon Svarbhanu stood in a line of Hindu gods and tricked Mohini, the female manifestation of Lord Vishnu, to feed him the elixir of life. The sun and the moon gods noticed his deviance and informed Vishnu, who promptly cut off Svarbhanu’s head with a spinning disc. But by then, it was too late. Svarbhanu had already become immortal and his dismembered head and the rest of his body became separate living entities: Rahu and Ketu. Mythology says that every solar and lunar eclipse, Rahu comes riding his blind horses, seeking revenge against the sun and the moon. The Hindu caste system, in its classic act of othering, has always deemed the so-called untouchables or the lower castes to be progenitors of demons. One such community is Punjab’s Mazhabi Sikhs, which is at the center of Gurdial Singh’s book, Anhe Ghode Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse), that later was made into the 2011 film of the same name by Gurvinder Singh.
The Mazhabi Sikhs are believed to be descendants of three men belonging to lower castes, who carried the dismembered body of the Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, to his son, Guru Gobind Singh. Overwhelmed by their action, the son welcomed the men and their kin into the Sikh order. While Sikhism does not practice a caste system, the Mazhabi Sikhs are often relegated to segregated ghettos and separate places of worship. Every eclipse, members of the community collect alms in the name of Rahu’s blind horses as the demon sets off to settle scores. This practice inspires the name of the book and the film.
The book was written in 1976, emerging out of an India that was the graveyard of Nehru’s socialist and democratic ideals, smack in the middle of an emergency engineered by his daughter, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. When the Sikhs opposed the emergency, around 40,000 of them were arrested. Therefore, the Punjab we see in Alms for a Blind Horse is far from the land of the 1960s’ Green Revolution-fed agricultural prosperity. It is a land where the rich, seemingly upper caste landlords, force their poor Mazhabi Sikh tenants out of their homes and raze their huts to the ground in the middle of the night. The film opens amidst the deafening sound of bulldozers, while a faraway beggar walks in the dark seeking alms for blind horses. An eclipse is imminent.
The film, in Punjabi, paints a picture of Punjab that is alien to mainstream Indian cinema. Punjab, in Hindi films, is the picture of agricultural prosperity (portrayed through acres of yellow mustard fields where lovers meet) and Punjabis are cheerful, garrulous people singing and dancing without much care. Alms for the Blind Horse not only introduces the complexities of caste within its depiction of Punjab and Punjabis but also moves its gaze to a community that reels under abject poverty and survives on the arbitrary kindness of the richer landlords, much like the asuras at the mercy of the powerful Hindu gods. Fast-paced drums and dancing accompany portrayals of Punjab but Gurvinder Singh’s film, set in the outskirts of the city of Bhatinda, is sometimes slow and tedious to the point where one feels the passage of every minute. It is reminiscent of the style of Indian New Wave filmmaker Mani Kaul, to whom the film is dedicated.
“Cinema is not a visual medium, he [Kaul] insisted, it is a temporal medium. It is like music, it is time. It may unfold in space, but it is time,” Gurvinder Singh says in an interview. Kaul’s influence is evident when Satya Rai Nagpaul’s camera lingers on in a scene long after the action has taken place and to begin with, none of these actions are big disruptive acts. Alms for a Blind Horse is not an easy watch, primarily because the pivotal actions take place off-screen; we don’t quite know what caused them but we go on watching the results and because Singh gives us ample time to think, we end up imagining plausible causes and effects of what we see on screen. Singh, on his part, neither affirms nor dismisses these thoughts. He is not a filmmaker whose camera investigates a world into opening up. Instead, he creates a world that lies outside of the frame and tells the audience that this world exists, that an off-screen world always exists. He plays with sound: we hear things happen but do not necessarily see them happening.
The film opens with a man called Dharma and his house being razed to the ground, but the protagonists of the film are the members of his neighbor’s family, most of whom remain nameless; at once no one and a stand-in for every man. Their son, Melu Singh (Samuel John), is a rickshaw puller in the city leading a life that is as full of drudgery as theirs is in the village. The promise that big cities like Calcutta offer in films like Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) is dead and the laboring human life is doomed to a long-drawn existence of drudgery in the city and the village alike. In a heartbreaking scene, against a cityscape enveloped in factory smoke, Melu Singh sits on a rooftop drinking and smoking with his friends. “People say that the soul does not die. If the soul does not die, then what is death, anyway? Isn’t that life too?” one of them asks in a drunken stupor. In the world of Melu and his family, there is no closure; a day of labor melts into a night of unrest with a foreboding fear that something is about to go wrong. In their helpless efforts at escaping the endless grind, Melu travels home, while his father (Mal Singh) sets out for the city. People move along in circles towards a resolution that never takes shape.
There is an ever-present rage in Alms for a Blind Horse that finds expression only in the outbursts of Melu’s mother (Dharminder Kaur) who has to beg for a few stalks of mustard plant from the very farm she tends to with her sweat and blood. The dialogues are stilted and the faces the camera rests on have opaque eyes and stoic lips. We see hands, legs, and faces in isolation (another Mani Kaul homage, perhaps) like they don’t add up to make a cognitive human being. Melu’s friend can only let his rage get to his face when he is drunk. He smashes a bottle and shouts out, “I’d burn this city down, if I could.” But this subsides soon.
On the night of the lunar eclipse, when no one is supposed to step out, a sense of doom gets so claustrophobic that Melu’s sister (Sarbjeet Kaur) decides to take a walk through the pitch dark night. One wonders if her little act of transgression will transform into a bigger resistance of the poor farmers finally seeking revenge against their oppressors. But the night is dark and they’re all betting on blind horses. Is there a point to laying hopes? Melu’s voice calls out to his sister amidst the stillness. Her name is Dayalo, the kind one. The only hand that holds a flashlight in a dark night.
Melu and Dayalo walk towards home. Maybe there is some hope still.