18 February 2015

Picture This: The Wide-Eyed Angle

My BLink column this month: 

What is it about seeing through the child’s eye that makes for such sensitive films? Recent Marathi cinema, like de Sica and Ray, seems to have taken childhood as its favoured locale.

This past week, I finally watched Killa, one of those Marathi films that won a loyal viewership last year. I wasn’t disappointed. Avinash Arun’s coming-of-age tale is full of understated charm. For one, it is beautifully shot, capturing the magic of a Konkan seaside village, without ever making it seem too unbelievably lush. Torrential monsoon rain punctuates the film, producing both momentousness and foreboding whilst steering clear of both the high drama and romance that rain now signals in popular Indian cinema. Alongside the ruined fort of the film’s title, the rough palm-fringed beach with its few fishing boats and a vast calm sea stretching into the distance, the rain is also integral to creating Killa’s exceptionally vivid sense of place.

It helps that we’re seeing this world through a fresh pair of eyes: those of an 11-year-old called Chinmay (Chinu for short), who has just moved to the village. Chinu is a city boy from Pune, and even as he finds his new schoolwork unchallenging and his new classmates rough and unimpressive, we watch him delight in the undeniable quiet beauty of his altered surroundings: the forded stream, the mincing walk of crabs on the beach. Arun zooms in on those small things that seemed so large when we were kids: a gift, a letter, a promise, a visit. Here, too, place and time are made constantly relevant, positioning the film within a precise pre-liberalisation social geography — the cycle that impresses the boys is from Mumbai, the new-fangled pencil box is from Dubai, while the simple Konkani fare seems rustic to the Pune-bred boy.

What is it about seeing through the child’s eye that makes for such sensitive, observant cinema? Richard Tapper, in a 2002 book on the ‘new Iranian cinema’, makes the interesting observation that “children liberate plots by introducing non-essential actions — generally loafing around on a street or in a rural area”.

The Iranians, of course, specialise in translating the harsh, unseeing reality of the adult universe into a cinematic world where children can, for once, be the pivot of events. Over the last two decades, several talented Iranian directors, like Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), Abbas Kiarostami (Where is My Friend’s Home?) and Samira Makhmalbaf (The Apple), have chosen to focus on children’s worlds, working in the gentle Neorealist style associated with Vittoro de Sica’s Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves. Certainly, Bicycle Thieves is a model for a fluid, more spontaneous cinema, for a camera genuinely interested in its surroundings. The French film critic Andre Bazin had noted early on that Ladri de Biciclette was the quintessential Neorealist film because “not one scene [is] shot in the studio, everything is shot in the streets”. There were no highly paid professional actors, no real ‘plot’, no expensively produced setting. “No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema,” wrote Bazin.

Indian cinema had Satyajit Ray, who famously stated his artistic debt to Bicycle Thieves, and placed children at the heart of his own first feature. Though Ray’s film most certainly had a plot, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel, he did cast non-professional actors — and the brother-sister pair Apu and Durga, lithe of limb and fleet of foot, were what made Pather Panchali unforgettable. As they stole fruit from neighbours, ran after the sweet-seller, listened for the train and got memorably drenched in a downpour, they produced a startlingly lovely visual and aural record of life in the Bengali village. And yet Ray’s coming-of-age tale was hardly romantic: the rural idyll killed off one child; the stricken family was forced to migrate to the city.

Recent Marathi cinema, following de Sica and Ray in its understated realism, seems also to have taken childhood as its favoured locale. Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s Vihir (The Well, 2009) turned the lively friendship between two adolescent boys as a take-off point for a meditation on identity, life and death. Rajesh Pinjani’s moving Baboo Band Baaja (2011), set in a family of traditional musicians who must play at the houses of village grandees, made its child protagonist the subject of a painful tussle between his aspirational mother and his less hopeful father. The shackles of caste were very much the unstated subject here. Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) spoke more clearly and stridently of the same issue, with the school and the village forming the grim setting for a layered, heartbreaking film about the humiliations of caste and the dreams of transcending it. Manjule has spoken openly of the film’s autobiographical origins. Sujay Dahake’s Shala (School, 2011), about adolescent romance and yearnings across the boundaries of class, reveals the clearly nostalgic gaze of the young filmmaker.

On the heels of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) also came a few small-budget Hindi films reminiscing about ’80s childhoods: Shashi Sudigala’s Cycle Kick (2011) made a cycle the pivot of a tale about two not-well-off brothers — it even gets stolen, a la Bicycle Thieves — while Sanjivan Lal’s refreshing Bubble Gum (2011) dealt with the dynamics of an ’80s housing colony.

But for some reason, Marathi filmmakers appear to be the ones overwhelmingly interested in childhood. And these coming-of-age narratives seem, more often than not, to be adaptations of their own experience.

Perhaps what is surprising is not that there are so many such films, but that there aren’t more of them. After all, even if the necessary 15-minute bachpan sequence has practically disappeared from our popular films, memories of childhood are the most cinematic thing we all have in our heads.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

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