Bullet-point Report: Stanley Ka Dabba

Posted on June 2, 2011

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  • Ambition is announced at the outset: It’s not Amole Gupte Productions or Amole Gupte Entertainment or even Amole Gupte Films but Amole Gupte Cinema.
  • The stretch of animation over the opening credits is Pixar-worthy in its wit, its succinct storytelling, and its touchingly handmade quality that seeks not to dazzle us with production values but instill in our heads and hearts that this is a story about children and that the rough edges are part of the experience.
  • So, yes, there are rough edges in the film that follows — a kid directed to perform (at times, like when making faces at a mirror) with a little too much cuteness; a monumentally manipulative music score that doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as reach into your rib cage and rattle them — but you’ll have to have a heart harder than mine to consider them deal-breakers. And afterwards, you can drop-kick a mewling kitten in the stomach and toss it off a cliff.
  • Science class, Maths class, English class, Hindi class — it was like being back in school for a couple of hours, only this time we were on the outside, looking in at our selves in the distant (or not-so-distant) past.
  • The first half shows dabba after lunch dabba being opened. The second half opens with mothers preparing food that will go into these dabbas. Do not see this film on an empty stomach.
  • And thus the world of this film is established as one of haves and have-nots – those who have happy families and smiling mothers who send to their faraway children a reminder of home in these dabbas, and those like Khadoos and Stanley who have not this slice of sunshine in their lives. Is it any surprise that Khadoos is a malcontent? Imagine his irritation when even the newly sprouted History teacher brings along with him a reminder of his home and his family-love, in a daily dabba. Khadoos is what Stanley might grow up to be in a parallel, loveless universe.
  • Throughout the film I kept thinking how brave of Gupte, the person who may or may not have been responsible for Taare Zameen Par, to completely dispense with Stanley’s backstory. But when that was revealed in the end, I realised that there had been hints all along – clues, rather – that there would be a backstory.
  • These clues are what make the film – which originally appears to bear a classical fairy-tale structure, of a young prince who has to slay the demon and solve his problems (and in the last shot we see the demon, he literally vanishes into thin air, vanquished by the young prince’s magic; even the way Gupte sniffs out food is like a monster from a fairy tale — he could almost be crying out, “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell a vada pav in this room”) – something of a detective story as well.
      • The case: Who is Stanley and why doesn’t he have a dabba like the rest of his class?
      • The clues: the shots of Stanley finding solace in another Christian family (mummy Mary, daddy Joseph, and son Jesus); the mysterious bruises on Stanley’s person that he explains away very unconvincingly; the shabbiness of his uniform; the battered, multi-storeyed aluminium tiffin carrier he brings to school later; the strange companion named Akram, the sating of lunchtime hunger with tap water…
  • By banishing the backstory to the end– the solution of the mystery, so to speak – Gupte envelops us in the same, sunny illusions as Stanley. The fantasy façade that Stanley presents to the world – to Rosie Miss when she asks if she can drop him home and he says his mother is waiting outside; to his classmates when he says he’s calling his mother to request football-playing permission – is the one he presents to us too, especially if you, like me, weren’t really expecting a big reveal in the closing portions.
  • Why wasn’t I expecting a big reveal? After seeing the film, it seems logical enough that there’d be a big-fat why to Stanley’s story. But, till then, it unfolds so beautifully, so aimlessly – an impromptu football match here; an out-of-the-blue stage performance there; and all tucked in between the most mundane of life-events, the tearing of dates on a calendar, the opening of lunchboxes at school, the casual spying on Rosie Miss and her fiance, the drone of unsympathetic teachers – that Gupte could have maintained this mood of nothingness and still come away with a movie that scraped greatness. Or to use his phraseology, with great cinema, our version of (a more sweet-natured and sentimental) The 400 Blows, with a misfit-though-not-delinquent kid at the centre.
  • This is a film that extends sympathy even to these unsympathetic teachers, who are the way they are not because they want to be that way but because they are reduced to being that way. When the principal announces a function, a teacher who is already grappling with extra hours and is forced to care for her child in school, asks, “Who will take them for rehearsal – parents or teachers?” In other words, will she burdened with more work?
  • It’s very funny that Khadoos hums Jaag dard-e-ishq jaag, dil ko beqaraar kar (from Anarkali) in anticipation of lunch hour – and also slightly pathetic. The closest he comes to love is in his attitude towards food. That’s the only relationship he’s left with. Again, a potential caricature is elevated to a character.
  • Like many near-messagey tracts in this film, like how Stanley’s left-handed “problem” is raised and then resolved matter-of-factly, that point about overworked teachers is made and then we move on. Even after the big reveal, there’s no let’s-all-sniffle-and-feel-sorry-for-Stanley stretch. In other words, there’s very of that we’ll-linger-on-this-for-five-minutes-until-every-moron-in-the-audience-gets-the-Significance-of-this-Scene-failing-which-we’ll-resort-to-metaphors-about-trees-in-the-Solomon-Islands that we had to endure in the latter half of Taare Zameen Par.
  • And yet, the Anglo-Indian teacher is still the free spirit with the free hair and the South Indian is still the one with the hair in a chignon as tight as her temperament? Aiyaiyo, Gupte saar.
  • Like a wildlife photographer who sets up his tripod in the jungle and waits for days on end for a found moment, Gupte leaves us with the impression that he didn’t structure his story between cries of “action” and “cut” but instead stumbled on what he wanted to say by instructing his cameraman to focus on faces. The outstanding first half, especially, is awash in a sea of heart-warming faces, the shy face of Stanley with a tongue stuck out as Rosie Miss compliments his essay, the thundercloud-face of Aman Mehra as he realises his lunch is about to be poached by the Hindi teacher, the exasperated face of the teacher in the staff room who never utters a word about Gupte’s mooching but makes her disdain hilariously evident…
  • The scene with Stanley singing Dhan te nan rang false. It had none of the letting-it-rip spontaneity of, say, A Aa E Ee from Kitaab, where the students riffed on letters from which tumbled out cats and cheetahs and at the end of which was a pop-culture shout-out to the jingle for VIP undergarments. Yes, it’s true that we live in a less innocent age and, yes, it’s likely that today’s children are more likely to launch into age-inappropriate lyrics from an age-inappropriate film – but this stretch was the odd “manufactured moment” in a film full of found moments.
  • The end (spoiler ahead) is quietly brilliant. Stanley serves his teachers and classmates like he serves the customers at his ratty restaurant. (Irony alert: Stanley is surrounded by food at work, yet he longs for food from home.) Then as now, service with a smile. Life doesn’t always leave us with epiphanies. Sometimes it just goes on.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.