Friday, August 30, 2013

OBSTRUCTION 3/5: A Copy-Paste-Review

Sensing a pattern in my posts for the 5 Obstructions Blogathon? At least I'm still in time.

There are huge, lavishly told stories that hardly touch you. And then there are little stories that go straight to your heart. Just like the rather unglamorously named Stanley Ka Dabba. Can a little child’s life revolve around whether or not he gets tiffin to school? More importantly, can a full-length feature film revolve around that? Stanley ka Dabba does and Amole Gupte, the writer, director and producer shows us how touching and enjoyable a ride it can be at the same time.
A plain story line with some plain scenes written aorund it; Stanley is as loveable as a child can be. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s bright without being precocious, he fibs without malice when he’s in trouble or when a concerned teacher asks why his face is covered with bruises, and he’d rather fill his empty stomach with litres of water from the cooler than admit to his classmates why he can’t afford to bring a tiffin box to school. However one of the teachers is constantly annoyed with Stanley. Varmaji eyes every kid’s dabba in his classroom, staff room. He never ever brings his own lunch box. And he is thus deeply bothered upon realizing one of the students never brings any food to school – Stanley.

For what it is, Stanley ka Dabba is perfectly enjoyable because of its simplicity and how relatable it is. A very short movie by Bollywood standards, you couldn't help falling in love with Stanley and all his friends. You know where this story is headed, and sort of why Stanley can’t quite afford a dabba. You unfortunately learn very little (or nothing) about why the dictatorial, dabba-less Varmaji is a stuffy dabba himself. The narrative then remains tonally flat. But you don’t care. Partho Gupte is perfect as Stanley and the other kids who play his friends are equally endearing and at ease in front of the camera - almost as if they aren't acting at all. Maybe thats because children were not 'forced' to act; Writer-director Amole Gupte did not tell the students of Mumbai’s Holy Family that he was making a film. When he started a year-and-a-half’s workshop with them, even he wasn’t sure what the result would be. So he told the kids: the camera you see is just meant as a reminder that you are part of an acting workshop. The dialogues were improvised, the light was natural, the shooting was done on an unobtrusive Canon EOS 7D still camera. And in the lead role of Stanley he cast a guileless, artless little fellow called Partho who seems like he was born into the part. The result: performances so natural that you’ll come away from the film wondering if it was a film at all. Stanley ka Dabba is a film by, of and from this innocent, simple, real world of children and adults. It doesn’t have to try to be sensitive, hence remains true and honest to this world till the end. The realism gently, warmly sucks you in. You sit back, sometimes reminisce, mostly observe. The take-home for the viewer is entirely experiential. As with all good experimental films.

What bothers me about this film though is the somewhat simplistic, rose-tinted representation of children. Amole Gupte had completely wished away the real world where loving, thoughtful, sensitive kids - I'm pretty sure you are made of stone if you don't melt at least once or twice in the presence of these - co-exist with so many who are not; where bullies and peer pressure are as much a reality as child-like kindness. But still, my reservations about Stanley ka Dabba don’t take away from the fact that it’s a major  step forward in an otherwise dreary children’s film scenario in Bollywood. 

Watch it for the we've-seen-this-a-zillion-times-before but powerful "triumph of the human spirit" aspect if nothing else. Do not treat it as film for kids, DO NOT go with Taare Zameen Par in your mind. But trust me, if you miss this, you'll miss 90 minutes of sheer joy, happiness and honest efforts. 

Reviews quoted

2011 • India • Hindi/ English

dir. Amole Gupte
authors Amole Gupte, Rutvik Oza
★ Partho A. Gupte, Numaan Sheikh, Abhishek Reddy, Divya Dutta

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