On October 23, 2020, at the Busan International Film Festival, Matto Ki Saikil (Matto’s Cycle) was premiered under the Asian Window section. It was directed by M. Gani, who has been a theatre director for three decades. Matto ki Saikil is a significant movie because, as we go deeper into the dystopian times of Covid-19 and the realities around it, the plight of migrant labourers is one of the most daunting realities in India.
Think of a poor family whose livelihood is entirely dependent on the everyday wage of one member. In that context, the importance of a bicycle, which is critical to the livelihood of this poor family, becomes the centerpiece of the film’s narrative.
Matto ki Saikil is set on the outskirts of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, the rural heartland of India. This is also Prakash Jha’s acting debut, the famed film director we know from movies like Gangajal, Mrityudand, Apaharan, and Rajneeti, among others. He plays the lead character, Matto, a daily wage labourer, who uses the cycle as a metaphor for a human being. Just like how in a daily wage family, one looks up to the everyday earning of a family member, Matto looks up to his cycle.
Gani’s directorial debut is probably drawn from his and his father’s lives. It is a depiction of the director's memory of how he came to Mathura in the early ’80s and worked with his father, a daily wage labourer, on the construction site. The state of migrant labourers and their children, who do not have a sense of continuum about either their lives or the families they belong to, is an important piece of the film’s narrative. Every detail of what happens to its small characters is attached to Matto and the cycle, which represents so many different idioms of people who live that life. It is about family circumstances, about many dilemmas, and about how migrant labourers also have a community of people who belong to each other and yet, belong nowhere.
Another pertinent part of the film is the tragic times in which we are talking about it. Today, every single daily wage worker is unsure about where he or his family will get their next meal from. This is the overarching reality of a country obsessed with GDP growth figures; it is not able to wake up to the realities of those in times like these who have to work hard every day of their lives to make ends meet for their families. Matto ki Saikil poignantly captures that progress and development are just hollow words, which have no meaning for India’s poor. At various points in the film, in more than two decades of toiling and working hard Matto, like other migrant labourers in India, has achieved very little for himself and the people around him.
Director M. Gani credits his various achievements to the many people he learned his life lessons from, such as his father, and the people who grew up around him. A construction worker’s son who never went to film school, he very poignantly captures the trauma of what the child of a migrant labourer who does not want to become one himself, will potentially face in his or her life. Gani made Matto ki Saikil without any formal/skill training and in that lies the movie’s magic. It feels so close to one’s reality because it is not enveloped by any kind of technical skill. From how he’s used the camera and scripted the film, it is evident that Matto ki Saikil is Gani’s lived-in reality.
The interesting part of the movie is that Prakash Jha shines through as the protagonist. Matto is Prakash and Prakash is Matto. Very seldom do you find film directors doing the kind of characterization Prakash has done? He looks and speaks the part, and the intonation of the language he speaks belongs to both Gani and Prakash himself. The film was screened in various schools and colleges and underprivileged neighbourhoods in Mathura – a deviation from the fantabulous reality of the golden age cinema of our country belongs to. Matto ki Saikil evokes that realism because it deals with the everyday realities of what children of a lesser God go through every day of their lives. Only by the poignancy of the portrayal of the film do you realize how important it is to share these slice-of-life stories alongside fantabulous ones.
Matto ki Saikil also depicts pertinent issues like children's welfare, dowry, and the many caste and class divides. We all know that good cinema always represents an expression and the image of society that we belong to. I think Matto ki Saikil is one of those films that should be celebrated for its honesty and for its sensitive portrayal of those, about whom we seldom think. In times like these, this kind of cinema should be shared, collaboratively celebrated, and should become a part of the mainstream.
(Vani Tripathi is a former national secretary of BJP and an Indian actor who has acted in films like Chalte Chalte and Dushman. She is also a member of CBFC)