Amole Gupte makes movies about children but he doesn’t make children’s movies. Taare Zameen Par (which Gupte was involved in, but did not direct), Stanley Ka Dabba and his latest film, Hawaa Hawaai, are upbeat stories, and they’re suffused with a childlike innocence, but they’re grounded in prickly truths about the way children are and the way we treat them. You wouldn’t want your child to sit through these films, because these aren’t simple escapist fantasies — even if they’re structured like one. Every escapist fantasy has a problem at the centre that needs to be overcome, but in Gupte’s films, the problems outweigh the fantasies. He has, thus, become a unique filmmaker, one who makes movies about children for an older audience. And yet, the adults in his films are almost caricatures, while the empathy he displays towards children is remarkable. In one of the most startling scenes in Hawaa Hawaai, a rich brat – a teenager – who has caused an accident by driving drunk in his BMW is let off with the gentlest of admonitions. The scene has undercurrents – the victim changes his mind about suing the kid because he may be falling for the kid’s sister. But that doesn’t change how, in Gupte’s world, children are holy innocents. Childhood is suffering enough, he seems to say. They need no more punishment.
The world of Hawaa Hawaai is like the world of Stanley Ka Dabba, populated with fresh-faced children from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, and like that earlier film, this one too springs a backstory on us at the end, when we least expect it. But that was a far superior film. It wasn’t tethered to a genre. There was something free-flowing about that story, while almost everything in Hawaa Hawaai feels rigidly engineered and riveted into place. Even the dreams feel manufactured. This is one of those underdog films where a slumdog becomes a millionaire. A Dharavi kid with the impressive name of Arjun Harishchandra Waghmare (Partho Gupte) – we’re never allowed to forget how impressive the name is; it keeps getting trotted out, like a show pony – dreams of becoming a champion skater. Actually, he only dreams of skating, when he sees kids on wheels practicing under the tutelage of Aniket (Saqib Saleem). But when Aniket sees Arjun skate, the dreams get bigger. This isn’t just the story of a boy’s dream but of the coach’s dream as well. Will Arjun win the state championship? Will Aniket get off his set of wheels – he’s the one who came under the BMW; when we first see him, he’s confined to a wheelchair – and inspire his new pupil to success? Do I really need to tell you?
Predictability is, of course, part of the menu in any genre exercise – but the good ones find interesting ways to have these clichés and yet subvert them. For a while, it looks as if Gupte has found the trick. He keeps the stock good-Muslim character (a mechanic), and he shows Arjun reciting a shloka just as his friend utters an Islamic prayer. But he doesn’t rub your nose in Arjun’s poverty. He opens the film with the kind of family prayer that probably hasn’t been seen on screen since Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – penury has rarely looked so beatific. Early on, Arjun – after his father’s death (the father is played by Makrand Deshpande, who remains an impressive presence throughout; the mother, on the other hand, is essentially a repository of reaction shots) – finds work at a tea stall, and the owner is curt. He’s not interested in why Arjun is there. He only needs someone who can serve his customers their glasses of tea. On his first day, Arjun breaks a glass. There’s no reproach, no slap on the cheek, no threats of making the boy pay for the glass. There’s just some mild annoyance – after all, glasses of tea must get broken all the time in this line of work – and Arjun is back at work. It’s not life as a movie. It’s life as life.
This lack of sentimentality makes the early portions very effective. When we see a flashback after Aniket and his New York-based brother discuss their dead parents, we expect some kind of dramatic reveal, something that tells us why Aniket is so content with being a coach, and so determined to coach his kids to success – but the flashback is just of these boys skating (nothing really happens) and when we return to the present, the two men burst out laughing. When Arjun’s rag-picker friend produces a dabba of butter chicken that someone discarded at a five-star hotel, the shot isn’t staged to make us feel anything – we just see five hungry kids eyeing some tasty food, with not nearly enough to go around. These scenes could have had the volume amplified, and they may have still worked – but Gupte is happy to coast along the margins of these emotions instead of diving into them.
But some clichés are there for a reason, and Gupte unwisely steers clear of these as well. There’s a reason these films have those bonding scenes between coach and pupil – here, there’s nothing. Aniket decides Arjun is worth teaching, and that’s it. Gupte refuses to let us into Aniket’s head, even as our questions mount. (Is Aniket really interested in that girl? What does coaching mean to him? With the district and state championships looming large, why does he decide to take off on a vacation to New York?) And we don’t really get into Arjun’s head either. His transition from smiling in his sleep to crying at night should have carried an emotional charge – we feel nothing.
And there’s a reason these films have smug antagonists whom we love to hate. Gupte makes all the privileged kids super-nice. (There’s an interesting idea in the fact that the chauffeurs and the store owners – namely, the people who serve those privileged kids – are nastier to Arjun and his friends than the kids themselves, but nothing comes of this.) There’s no sneering at Arjun, no mocking of the makeshift (and too-cute) skates that this sweat-streaked chai-wallah and his equally grimy friends have assembled using scraps from the junkyard – and that’s a relief. But there’s a difference between avoiding a cliché and abandoning it altogether. These well-off English-speaking kids (Arjun’s schooling was in the Hindi medium) are practically a cheering squad, and we get no sense of them as individuals or opponents. Gupte is after something more dramatic. He wants to show us that Arjun’s battles aren’t with his opponents but – as we saw in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – with the demons haunting him, and the way this is handled turns out to be a bigger cliché. For a film that skirts melodrama so scrupulously in the first half, the high-decibel contrivances in the latter portions come as a rude shock. The day of the big race is when all the anvils drop out of the sky.
And yet, there are powerful moments of grace. Aniket is so used to coaching privileged children that he doesn’t know how to deal with Arjun and his friends. In fact, he knows nothing about them, their lives. (And how could he, in Gupte’s world? He is, after all, an adult.) In a quietly funny scene, he does what armchair liberals usually do and voices aloud his dreams for these boys, and one of them effectively asks him to shut up. One dream at a time, the boy says. Let’s look at making Arjun a champion first. The perspectives – idealist versus realist; the adult who dreams like a child versus the child who thinks practically, like an adult – couldn’t be more different. I can’t recall, offhand, another scene like this in a recent film, where such a well-meaning individual was cut down to size so pitilessly. Better yet is the scene where Aniket asks Arjun to quit his job at the tea stall and train with him. He says he’ll give Arjun the money he was being paid. Arjun replies, quietly, that that was point. He was being paid, for work he was doing. He’s not looking for handouts. In his quieter moments, Partho Gupte has the wise-beyond-his-years look of an apprentice monk, and he makes the words sting. How you wish his performance had found a movie to match it.
* Hawaa Hawaai = this film’s nickname for skates; also see here
* Taare Zameen Par = see here
* Stanley Ka Dabba = see here
* Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham = see here
* chai-wallah = see here
* Bhaag Milkha Bhaag = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.