Reality and dreams

Print edition : November 07, 2008

Tahaan with Birbal, his donkey and best friend.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Two films that trace the lives of two children one face to face with terror and the other in the world of her dreams.

ONLY a closed mind is immune to observing film cultures and telling stories that may not be commercially viable. In an industry where box-office figures rule, most departures from the formula try to find their own niche and this gives rise to a new formula. Santosh Sivan is a film-maker who straddles both commercial cinema and the art-house film, not always with the same kind of success. His films, from Halo to Tahaan, describe an absorbing journey.

The gifted cinematographer has grown to become a director whose films are each different in style or substance. This continuous quest has sometimes led to flawed films, but the work is always engaging in terms of the narration and the new subjects used. Tahaan is perhaps the most satisfying film he has made so far. Navarasa (in Tamil), his last commercially released film, explored the world of transvestites, often victims of prejudice and ignorance, and their subculture. The attempt to fuse fiction and documentary was awkward and veered suspiciously close to catering to exotica, while decrying unhealthy media voyeurism when portraying the lives of marginalised people. Navarasa was not much of a success on the film-festival circuit unlike The Terrorist, Santhosh Sivans most noteworthy film hitherto, which John Malkovich promoted with great zeal in the West. It grapples with a terrorists dilemma: Can a woman who discovers she is pregnant carry out a suicide-bombing mission? Santosh Sivan the cinematographer hijacked the film from Santosh Sivan the director, with self-indulgent images of raindrops trickling down a windowpane or trembling for an eternity on an eyelash.

In Tahaan, he has almost found the perfect balance between style and theme, where a starkly beautiful land is haunted by violence by militants and the army, which terrorises local people with midnight raids. The endearing innocence of a child is the films emotional focus and offers the director an easy way out of a political impasse. In that sense, Tahaan falls short of its own ambition and our expectations.

Santosh Sivan has found the right inspiration in the masters of Iranian cinema, especially the work of Majid Majidi and the pioneer Abbas Kiarostami. Along with Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, these auteurs brought international acclaim to the refreshing spontaneity and seeming artlessness of their national cinema. The best Iranian films conceal artistry and oblique political comment under the apparently unstructured lives of ordinary people. Santosh Sivan has imbibed the essentials of this school where the landscape and picaresque journeys are both plot and metaphor.

Tahaan works its charm because the director has found the most apt background for the fable of a young boy and his beloved donkey. A boy and an animal are a sure-fire combination for a heart-warmer, Hollywood style. But that would be minus the unspoken political comment that is inherent to film set in Kashmir. Tahaan describes itself as a fable of fictitious people and non-fictitious events.

The non-fictitious events are the barbed wire, sound of gunfire, ubiquitous checkpoints, missing people, abandoned houses, grinding poverty and the overwhelming presence of the Indian Army. The eponymous boy heros world is not the Kashmir of pony rides, shikaras, flowers in riotous bloom and inviting ski slopes. It is a grey world amid the blinding white of snow and bare mountains looming almost black. People are swathed in depressing grey wool, and shabby hamlets are dotted with aged wooden houses and decrepit stables.

Eight-year-old Tahaan (Purav Bhandare) lives with his wise grandfather (Victor Banerjee), mute mother (Sarika) and sprightly older sister, Zoya (Sana Shaikh, a young actor with an uncanny resemblance to Sarika). And, of course, Birbal, Tahaans donkey and best friend. The father strayed into unsafe territory years ago and has not come back.

There are poignant scenes of a grieving Sarika, along with a host of local people, whose faces are seamed with uncertain waiting, standing at a fence, clutching photographs of missing people. They clamour not in anger and impatience but with forlorn hope for a word from the impassive army men. The endemic violence that has seeped into their lives is best captured by a group of kids, holding sticks and toy guns, playing militants and army jawans. In a scary version of ring-a-ring-a-roses, they all fall down in simulated death.

Death is a daily presence. Santosh Sivan does not belabour this point. It is almost a glancing comment but it registers strongly as we follow Tahaan on his fruitless mission to get back his donkey, which was sold to Lalaji a busy man talking incessantly on his cellphone, making deals and buying stuff cheap after his grandfathers death. His mother has no recourse other than to sell everything she can to pay off the debt incurred over the years.

The donkey is now sold to Subhan Daar (Anupam Kher), who transports apples and other merchandise across the bridge. Tahaan attaches himself to Subhan Chachas small convoy, made up of packhorses tended by the slow-witted Zafar (Rahul Bose), who is far too easily distracted by girls.

Subhan Chacha is an intriguing character, brusque on the outside and tender inside. He has lost everyone in his family except his little grandson, but that has made him quirky, not bitter. He religiously leaves food, sometimes just an apple, at the door of an abandoned house set amidst other, crumbling, deserted houses. They belonged to Kashmiri Pandits, and now an unseen old man lives there alone with his memories, preferring it to the life of a refugee in a camp.

Santosh Sivan says a lot without underlining anything be it the fate of the Pandits, the presence of the army, the search for missing people, or the teenaged Idrees, who runs errands for a nameless militant outfit. Tahaan is given a grenade to throw at the army camp with the promise that he will get back his donkey from Subhan. The conflict on the lads face when the moment comes wrings ones heart. But the outcome is optimistic, if not exactly a cop-out, despite the build-up.

Tahaans mother, played by Sarika, with a photograph of her missing husband.-

Santosh Sivan is effective when he uses the technique of documentary realism to present the local people. His is not so successful when it comes to the soundtrack. A group of Sufi singers enhance the ambience of Kashmiriyat with its strong Sufi tradition, connecting it culturally and musically to Iranian cinema. But the soundtrack is abruptly reduced to a punctuation mark, disconnected to the narrative. It is as if the director was in a hurry to pack in as much as he could into an already eloquent narrative. Actually, he does not need such props when he has an actor as winsome as Purav, whose wide-eyed stare, so full of curiosity and precociously purposeful, can light up the screen. The ensemble cast is brilliantly low-key.

And yet, with so much going for it, Tahaan leaves one with a nagging sense of incompletion. Santosh Sivan has made the best Iranian film in India, and that is high praise indeed. But unlike the best of Iranian cinema, the profundity that lingers long after one has seen the film is missing. Tahaans brilliantly evocative cinematography tells an uncomplicated yet fully contextualised story, and the acting is uniformly good, with a winner for a hero. But it misses the multilayered complexity that one expects from a film inspired by Iranian cinema. Tahaan is years ahead of the simple pleasures of Halo and the strained magic realism of Malli the two notable childrens films Santosh Sivan has made.

Tahaan may have a child for its protagonist but it goes beyond being a childrens film. It is a film for adults as Taare Zameen Par was in the mainstream format. One takes away something concrete not just the preachy message from Taare Zameen Par. What one gets from Tahaan is more insubstantial. The charm of simplicity and persuasive images does not yield the lyrical beauty and profound insights one is primed for. That is why a childrens film that is content to be a childrens film succeeds beyond expectations.

In "MAHEK MIRZA", Kranti Kanade is skilful in showing the child's dreams,however outlandish or tantalisingly within reach.-

Kranti Kanades Mahek Mirza is a delightful film, which has done the international film circuit to much acclaim. It premiered at the London festival last year. This unpretentious charmer has been included in the university syllabus of Otterbein College, Ohio, in the company of films such as Gandhi and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, books such as Jhumpa Lahiris Namesake, and Shashi Tharoors Essays.

The impression of India this film gives is one of contemporary urban family life: it eschews the exotic and makes a political comment without underlining it with a heavy hand. The young directors feature film debut is assured as it enters the daydreaming world of 12-year-old Mahek Mirza with humour, understanding and insight.

Mahek (Shreya Sharma), the only child of middle-class parents an architect father and a homemaker mother given to culinary experiments wants to be the best: be it in class elections, science experiments for an exhibition or as a lifesaver on a trekking expedition. In short, there is no end to her aspirations she daydreams of being Indias first woman President. Unfortunately, dreams do not translate into reality. Maheks two best friends, Rucha and Amit, are the only ones who believe in her even as she exasperates them. She is faced with disappointment after disappointment, be it at chess with her father or in getting the better of the nerdy teachers pet, Rahul. Kanade is skilful in showing Maheks dreams, however outlandish or tantalisingly within reach.

The introduction of a whimsical catalyst into Maheks life takes this Walter Mittyish world to another level. An unpredictable, teasing middle-aged woman, claiming to be an angel, keeps appearing only to Mahek. As a schoolgirl weaned on Harry Potter, Mahek is sceptical and asks her for concrete proof of magic. The woman, who wears nice saris and fashionable sandals, pooh-poohs such mundane things as the magic wand and seems to know what Mahek wants: the puzzling poster in her room, the precise eccentricities of her mother (who is forever trying out a recipe for Indo-Mexican biryani, to the resigned consternation of her husband and daughter) and her fathers sterling qualities. She vanishes with the advice: Find your own strength and do not imitate others.

The rest of the well-paced film, with a nice blend of suspense and drama, takes one along Maheks route of self-discovery after the disheartened girl succumbs to depression. Kanade gives but a feather-light touch to the delicate world of a childs dreams. In Maheks world, the transition between reality and daydream is seamless, with no laboured stylistic flourishes. When Mahek finds her strength, the outcome is satisfyingly in character. The director handles the theme of the centrality of imagination with a rare combination of sensitivity and gentle humour.

Kanade has a charming actor for his heroine, and the rest of the cast the school kids and the teacher in particular inhabit a very real world. Another point that comes across unobtrusively is the fact that Mahek is a Muslim, part of the educated middle class. The Mirzas are integrated into a well-off colony in Pune. Kanades nice easy touch sends home the secular message. It makes one wish that it could be true all over the country.

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