No child’s play, this

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Children’s cinema is a rather neglected area in India, so we should be grateful for the handful of really good ones which have been made in the past, as well as in recent times. Shoma A. Chatterji reviews the scene.

Children’s cinema” is a dicey term. Does it mean cinema targeted at a child audience? Or, does it indicate films where children are central characters, but it is aimed at both parents and children? Let us take a look at these two kinds of films. The genre called ‘children’s films’ or ‘films for children’ is too broad a label to understand what these films stand for. Featuring a child as the protagonist does not necessarily imply attracting a child audience. In fact, most of these films raise questions about the adult world’s understanding and mistaken perceptions about the needs, desires and problems of children.

Children’s films and films on children occupy very little space within the larger world of feature films in India, which produces around 1,000 feature films per annum. Why? Because a film for children or about children demands special directorial skills and effort, as it is not very easy to place the child’s mind in proper perspective on celluloid. This does not mean that films for children and about children are not being made. If quantity has been a drawback, it is perhaps more than made up by quality.

Children’s films of the past

Shyamchi Aai, in Marathi made in 1953 is one of the most memorable films in the history of children’s cinema in the country. The film is a fictionalised account of the childhood years of Sane Guruji (1899-1950), narrated in a long flashback. A nationalist, influenced by Vinoba Bhave and Gandhiji, he was imprisoned repeatedly for his work among the peasantry, and participation in the Quit India movement. Shyamchi Aai, written in jail, has 45 episodes in which Shyam, a youth living in poverty in Konkan, recalls the teachings of his mother, a devoutly religious person with an earthy and practical philosophy. It is a literary classic in Marathi authored by Pandurang Sadashiv Sane, better known as Sane Guruji(1899-1950). He wrote this book in five days while he was detained in jail for participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement. He was a sensitive man with a creative imagination, and a prolific writer. Several generations of Maharashtrians have grown up with this book and the landmark film based on the book.

Jaldeep (1956) directed by the late Kedar Sharma and produced by the Children’s Film Society of India, is said to be the first Indian film for children and about children to have won the first international award at the Venice International Film Festival in 1957. On hindsight, it appears to have been quite an amateurish direction from a stalwart filmmaker like Kedar Sharma, but it also won an All-India Certificate of Merit at the State Awards for films, in 1960. It was an adventure film in which a teenage boy takes two friends on a boat ride to reach his father, who is the keeper of the lighthouse into the sea. Schools in India organised special screenings for students, and the theatres spilled over with kids who enjoyed the film.

Since Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954) became a box office hit, films featuring children in central roles have addressed the adults in the audience. They are for the entertainment of the children while for parents, teachers, social workers etc., they offer education and information. Boot Polish treated the plight of children as social problems. The two orphaned kids are forced to confront the harsh realities of poverty within the slum environment in a merciless city like Bombay. The film closes on a note of empathy and a positive resolution for the two orphans. Boot Polish, (Visual Anthropology, 23, 44-59, 2010) represents social realism, in a society that still holds on to some ideals and, instead of taking the agency away from the children, the film strongly emphasises that children should move away from begging or other crimes, and start earning their livelihood through honest hard work. The entertainment factor, like any RK film, was sustained through brilliant songs and a prize-winning musical score.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is one of Satyajit Ray’s few films with an abundance of musical numbers. According to Ray, the film was made as a request from his son who had encouraged him to make a film specifically for a younger audience. Adapting the story ‘Goopy Bagha’, which was written by his grandfather Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury, Ray wrote the screenplay and also composed the songs and music for the film. Working with source material already familiar to audiences, especially in Bengal, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne has become one of Ray’s most well-known and successful films in India, but remains one of his least-seen or known films elsewhere in the world. The hall of Nandan II did not draw a packed house filled with children mainly due to a lack of pre-publicity about the festival.

The films of today

Gul Bahar Singh’s Goal (1999) is about a football match between two rival teams to gain the much venerated challenge trophy, Goal is a multi-layered film which has several strands of meaning interwoven into the main script. With Gul Bahar’s gift for the subtle and the understated, the super-sized egos of small town sports clubs for whom, the trophy is more important than the game, the film goes on to underscore how winning becomes a metaphor for the adult ego, rather than a reward for excellence. The snobbery of the rich and the highly born of a small town comes across, when the parents object to the entry of a slum boy into the team on the flimsy ground that his father is a thief.

Ranu (2001) in Bengali is directed by Shyamal Karmakar. Ranu is set against the backdrop of a fictitious village in the dry and arid Birbhum district in West Bengal. Ranu is a beautiful girl who tops the district at the school final examinations. But her father, Ram Chatterjee, does not send her for higher education because he cannot afford to. The film explores, through a straightforward narrative simply told, how Ranu overcomes the handicaps of her birth and her family background to educate herself. Raja Sen’s Damu (1996) bagged the Best Children’s Film Award at the Nation- al Awards. It is about the little orphan Damu whose sole dream is to ride on the back of an elephant to his adoptive parent Panchanan’s house, to fulfill a reckless promise he made to Runku, Panchanan’s granddaughter. How he realises this impossible dream makes the story of the film.

In the recent past, children as major characters really aimed at adults came across in Taare Zameen Par, an incisive comment on ignorance among parents about little-known disabilities their children suffer from. Taare Zameen Par was a no-holds barred commercial film designed to tug at the hearts of the audience and rake in the big bucks. But the film introduced the Indian masses to a new term adding to their limited vocabulary of learning disabilities – dyslexia. The nation woke up to Ishaan Asthana’s pain that began with the basic ignorance of his parents and teachers about this little-known learning disorder called dyslexia.

I Am Kalam is optimistic, happy and full of cheer. Chhotu is a spirited, cheerful boy, who has a spring in his walk and has the ability to bond equally with Bhatti Mama’s female camel Lakshmi, and the French tourist Lucie Aunty, who wants to take him to Delhi and put him in a school. The cheerful smile on Chhotu’s face touches the hearts of the audience. The little boy who played Kalam walked away with the National Award for Best Child Actor. It was a lesson to adults that children, if left free to make their choices, can bond with other children and the socio-economic background does not matter.

Chillar Party (2011), directed by Nitesh Tiwari and Vikas Behl, takes the same argument a bit further. It is about a batch of boys who are brats in different guises. They unite to teach a lesson to adults about equality between and among children, never mind if one is poor and illiterate, and the other is not. It won the National Award for the Best Children’s Film and the batch of boys bagged the Best Child Actor Award in a group! It was hilarious, entertaining and with meaningful messages directed at adults. There is a wonderful scene of a procession by the boys of a housing complex clad in chaddis to protest the giving away of a stray dog owned by their ‘friend’ Fatka to the dog pound, because the dog is considered a menace to the residents and Fatka is a very poor boy who cleans their parents’ cars! Sheila Ki Jawani directed by Zoya Akhtar in Bombay Talkies comes across as a sharp indictment on parents who seek vicarious satisfaction through their children by forcing them to pick things that are against the children’s nature and desires. The little boy loves to dance. His dream is to perform Sheila Ki Jawani, while his dominating father wants him to excel in team sports.

Stanley Ka Dabba was written, directed and produced by Amol Gupte. His son Partha Gupte plays Stanley, the protagonist. It takes one back to one’s school days where the daily dabba the boys bring from home becomes a focal point in childhood gluttony during tiffin time. Stanley is the only boy who does not bring his dabba and is roundly rebuked by the Hindi teacher who himself laps up the children’s dabbas. Why does this loveable, friendly and cheerful boy come to school everyday without his dabba? There lies the interesting twist in the tale that unveils a positive message.

Amol Gupte’s Hawa Hawai with his son Partho Gupte playing Arjun, the central character will release any time now. It is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, of friendship and about enjoying the journey of making one’s dream come true. Arjun moves to the big city along with his mother and little sister. He discovers a hidden world of inline skating through coach Lucky, who mentors kids to become skating champions. While Arjun nurtures his dream to learn skating, his four friends get together to make this dream come true. In this endearing story of hope and aspirations, will Arjun’s dreams take flight?

Vishal Bharadwaj’s Blue Umbrella is yet another film that adds to the bank of recent meaningful and entertain- ing films for children. Based on Ruskin Bond’s famous novel of the same name, the film presents the constant conflict between a young girl named Biniya and Khatri, a shopkeeper over a blue umbrella she got from a Japanese tourist in exchange for her lucky charm; two bear claws necklace. The mesmerising and entertaining storyline gives it the surrealistic aura of a fairy tale. Bharadwaj also made Makdee, which unfolds a rather unusual story with twin sisters, Chunni and Munni, who take it upon themselves to wipe out the myth of a witch who, according to the village community, can transform humans to animals. This was his personal agenda to fight the superstition of witchcraft.
Rajan Khosa’s Gattu is a delightful film. Gattu is a growing boy who is irritated by the way a black kite dominates the skies. He christens the kite Kali, and focusses his entire attention to overtake it in the sky with his own kites. He pretends to be a student of a school which he does not go to, only to occupy the school terrace as a vantage point to cut down Kali to size.

Good children’s films, even when they reach the big screen, have a rather short life, because adults are not interested in taking their children to watch these films. They prefer that their kids of the digital age keep hooked to their tabs and mobiles and other technical gizmos, rather than go to a multiplex that would make a generous dent in their pocket expenses. In this rather grim scenario, where blood, sex and violence, loud music and sizzling item songs fill the theatres, a festival of films for children is like that bright rainbow at the end of a dark tunnel.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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