31 August 2012

"Did you know there were people in the world who hate girls?"

My piece about Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid on Firstpost.com:

Jalpari, which releases in theatres today, is a rather unusual sort of creature. At one level, it’s a beautifully executed children’s film, with a feel of holiday adventure that could compare with your favourite Enid Blyton memories. But it’s also a film that sets out to deal with a subject that couldn’t be more serious and ‘adult’ – the sex-selective abortion of female foetuses.

Director Nila Madhab Panda, whose I Am Kalam (2011) tackled the subject of education and the class divide with a enviable lightness of touch, brings a similar buoyancy to his second film. “All cinema is a reflection of society, [so] I believe that each film deals with some social issue,” says Panda. “But I thought that instead of a dark, adult, preachy film, I should address this issue through children’s eyes. Because whether you like it or not, children ask questions, and that changes things.”

Panda, who has earlier made two television soaps – called Aatmaja and Chiraag – on similar subjects, was clear from the start that he wanted to tell this story as a young girl’s journey of discovery. Jalpari’s plot revolves around a Delhi girl whose much-awaited trip to her father’s ancestral village turns out to be an eye-opener for her – and potentially also for the village. “In the beginning, she doesn’t understand what’s happening,” says Panda. “But when a child comes to that perception, it’s very powerful.”

Panda clearly knows his way around children, and extracts great performances from his child actors. If the sparkle of I Am Kalam had a great deal to do with the infectious enthusiasm of Chhotu the dhaba boy (the wonderful Harsh Mayar), much of Jalpari’s charm lies in Lehar Khan’s winsome performance as the tomboyish, fearless, ever-curious Shreya Singh. Brought up by a father (Parvin Dabas) who’s left his Jat roots so far behind that he’s taught his children to call him by his first name, the motherless Shreya is the rare – and lucky – sort of girl who has no sense that she ought to behave differently from the boys. Constantly leaping full-tilt into new experiences, ever willing to step into the ring and compete, and fiercely protective of her younger brother, she is the sort of girl the boys in the village have never imagined.

As it turns out, the boys in the village would need to have used their imagination to think up any sort of girl at all – because there aren’t any real ones around. “I could have shot anywhere, including South Delhi, where the sex ratio is among the lowest in the country – but there [the effect] isn’t visible yet. I wanted to show a place where the girl [Shreya] could ask: where are the girls?” Panda’s research led him to Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, whose child sex ratio is among the worst in the country. According the 2011 census, the number of females born per 1000 males in Mahendragarh has dropped to an abysmal 778 over the last decade.

In such a scenario, the surprise, even bafflement, with which Shreya is greeted by the villagers makes perfect sense. The local boy gang, led by tough guy Ajite (Harsh Mayar) first assumes the short-haired, feisty creature who insists on being their equal must be a boy. When they find out she’s a girl, they fluctuate between grudging admiration and knee-jerk dismissal. “That’s what they have been taught: girls are stupid, girls don’t know anything, we don’t play with girls,” says Panda. “Yehi soch humko barbaad kar rahi hai (This thinking is what is destroying us) – the attitude men in this country have towards women.”

Working with scriptwriter Deepak Venkateshan, Panda gives us a vivid glimpse of the nightmarish world slowly being brought into being by the skewedness of the sex ratio. There is, for instance, the character of Shabari (a well-cast Tannishtha Chatterjee), an ‘imported bride’ brought in as a wife from New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, because there simply aren’t enough local girls of marriageable age. The film doesn’t dwell on it, but Shabari’s fear of her husband and mother-in-law point to the dangers of exploitation inherent in bringing in poor young women who have no local ties and don’t speak the language. Meanwhile, there are no little girls in the village who can be part of the Navaratri ritual of Kanchak, when virgin girls are worshipped as incarnations of Durga: the visiting Shreya is the only one.

Jalpari also links the idea of a world without women to the idea of ecological imbalance on an even wider scale, proposing a tenuous but somehow affecting link between girls and water – a suggestion that stretches from Shreya’s fascination with learning to swim and wanting to be a mermaid to the fact that the girl-less village is also a waterless one. “Banjar soch, banjar zameen, banjar gaanv (Infertile thinking, infertile land, infertile village)” pronounces Dev in frustration at one point in the film. “I’m talking of the massive issue of the ecosystem of humanity, which we are wrecking,” says Panda. “ ‘Banjar’ is the subtext of the story.”

There are things about Jalpari that might have been dealt with in less simplistic fashion: for example, the fact that the village comes out looking like a den of ignorance, with a vaid (traditional healer) who is the root of evil and who must be conquered by the good doctor and the force of modern medicine. After all, the crazily skewed sex ratios we are now seeing are as much the result of modern technology and an ostensibly rational economism taken to its logical conclusion.

But these are quibbles. Panda’s thoughtful, lively film spans various terrains with admirable surefootedness. How often do you see a film that captures the urban child’s excitement at the rural magic of peacock-studded mornings – but also gives her something unutterably important to think about? “Dear Imran,” Shreya writes at the end to her Pakistani pen friend, “Did you know there were people in the world who hate girls?”

You can also read this piece here.

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