Unmediated

The cinema child

Print edition : March 20, 2015

The actor Ellar Coltrane at age six in a scene from the film "Boyhood", which was filmed at regular intervals over a 12-year period. Photo: AP/IFC Films

A still from the Iranian film "Children of Heaven" (1997) directed by Majid Majidi. It is not coincidental that some of the best independent Iranian films are carried on the shoulders of the child.

WHEN we are watching a film about a child, we not only suspend disbelief but reflexively invoke psychological mechanisms to defend and protect the boy’s or girl’s vulnerability. Children are the cinema’s natural allies because both they and the medium are into magic making. A slight, a scratch, on the child’s tender sensibility on screen shocks us more and deeper than the gut-wrenching gore of cinematic violence. Of course, whether the subject is childlike or childish makes a difference. The stereotypical, pampered, indulgence-oozing, stutter-patter child of the average Indian film of yesteryear was as irritating as its precocious, sanctimonious counterpart these days (the child gods of the Hindu pantheon in mythologicals included) can be infuriating. Even so, it is fair to say that the child is coming into its own as an organic entity, rather than as a manifestation of adult puerility, as much in Indian as in Western cinema.

There are situations where, one suspects, the child protagonist has allusive allegoric or metaphoric usefulness and becomes a useful decoy in whose person the film-maker can express, rather than plain-speak, truth to power. Independent contemporary Iranian film-makers, who face religious censure and official censorship, exemplify this strategy of oblique critical and creative representation, of truth telling by proxy. It is not coincidental that some of the best independent Iranian films are carried on the shoulders of the child or the boy or the girl actor; among them, Ebrahim Forouzesh’s Kelid ( Key, written by Abbas Kiarostami, 1987), Bahram Beizai’s Bashu, The Little Stranger (1989), Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1991), Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) and The Colour of Paradise (1999), Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998) and Ali Reza Davoudnejad’s Sweet Agony (1999).

There have been some memorable Indian films with the child as the central character, as distinct from children’s films as a genre. Satyajit Ray’s magically haunting Sonar Kella, where the child carries the memory of life in a previous birth, has an allure that grows with time. More recently, there has been quite a variety, including the made-for-Hollywood Slumdog Millionaire; the Amitabh Bachchan-driven Bhoothnath (2008) about a Casper-like but human ghost and its more pedestrian sequel, Bhoothnath Returns (2014), about the ghost who fails to frighten (and failed to click at the box office); and Amole Gupte’s three offerings: Taare Zameen Par (2007, which he scripted and co-directed with Aamir Khan) about a dyslexic child, Stanley ka Dabba (2011) about a boy who does not carry a packed lunch to school for, as it turns out, a poignant reason, and the more recent (last year) and less successful Hawaa Hawai about a boy in indigent circumstances who wants to become a skating champion.

Darker themes embroiling children have been attempted even earlier, like in K.P. Kumaran’s Rugmini (1988), in Malayalam, about a child prostitute still unweaned from her doll; Mahanadi (1994, which Kamal Hassan scripted and acted in), in Tamil, about a father’s desperate search for his daughter who has been abducted by child traffickers and sold into a brothel; and Anjali (1990), again in Tamil, revolving around a mentally challenged girl with a terminal affliction. The problem with many of these films is that the child becomes the passive object of our sympathy or pity rather than an active subject exercising a degree of autonomy and free will and directing the progression of the plot. Inertness passes off as helplessness, the child’s imagination per se gets short shrift and childhood becomes an infantile extension or reproduction of the adult characters.

The discerning observation by Henry James as far back as 1897 in the preface to his novel What Maisie Knew marks the difference between what children know and feel and what they articulate. “Small children,” writes Henry James, “have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary.”

Children cast in cinema, however, are often manipulated to serve the fixed notions and creative urges of their adult authors or the times. In the introduction to her book Childhood and Cinema, Vicky Lebeau draws our attention to a very early, and very disturbing, image from the fag end of the 19th century that shows Charles Jenkins, an early experimenter in the technology of film and television, trying to persuade a very young girl who is naked to face the camera. Her clothes are lying on the floor and she is shielding her face from the lens with her arm. This was how, Vicky Lebeau suggests, images were captured and added to the corpus of “Child Life” pictures, catering to the voyeuristic demand of Victorian society. Flash forward that societal strain by a century and we get Adrian Lyne’s inadequate filmic version of Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1997).

European cinema dealing with children has been more demanding of their, even if evolving, psyche. Even by 1944, the young boy caught in the collapse of his parents’ marriage—his mother’s infidelity and his father’s suicide—in Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us decides at the end to take his cruel destiny into his own hands. Luis Bunuel’s Mexican film, Los Olvidados ( The Young and the Damned, 1950), is unflinching in its treatment of juvenile delinquency. Ingmar Bergman’s five-hour-long Fanny & Alexander (1982) is a masterly perspectivisation of the two children’s gaze at the adults who impinge on their lives. Pedro Almodovar’s reconstruction of his adolescence in the Spanish film Bad Education (2004) is an honest account of deviancies, including drug abuse by the kids themselves and sexual abuse of kids by Catholic priests.

Supernatural forces

In the Hollywood schema, the impressionable mind of the child is also unprotected terrain which demons and ghosts and supernatural forces come to inhabit as—to take a random sampling—the girl who suffers bouts of “possession” in The Exorcist (1973) directed by William Friedkin, the eight-year-old boy to whom the spirits of the dead reveal themselves in Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense (1999), or the telekinetic boy in Rian Johnson’s science fictional Looper (2012) illustrate. The single-parent-child bonding, a la Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or The Pursuit of Happyness (2001), is another Hollywoodian favourite that pits the child performatively, and somewhat more challengingly, opposite the father or mother. The home movie in the larger movie, the camera eye within the camera eye, as a nostalgic self-referential ploy reiterates cinematography’s mnemonic function in creatively re-visualising one’s early years.

In her work cited earlier, Vicky Lebeau points to how “part of the novelty of cinematography is its capacity to bring the end of a man’s life into renewed and mobile contact with its beginning: the infant self, the child self, such an elusive yet such a passionate object of investigation throughout the modern period”. It is one such cinematic exploration that the biggest upset at the just concluded 87th Oscar Awards, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, sets out on.

The film had nominations in six categories and was many critics’ favourite for the best picture but managed only one award, for Patricia Arquette as best supporting actress. The most talked about aspect of the film was that it was shot at regular intervals over a 12-year period so that the boy grows before our eyes, along with his sister, mother and biological father separated from the mother, from an eight-year-old wondrous and rather reticent child through years of awkwardness, uncertainty, fun and pain into an adult more surefooted about his uncertainties.

The transition from one stage to the next, from a younger to an older age, is achieved through neat non-fussy hyphenations that do not interrupt the pace of life. The family passes through the many situations, some tense and difficult but none taken to traumatic limits, that modern, middle-class Americans imaginably have to face, with what seems like due fortitude and diligence and with nothing heroic about any of it.

There is, though, the deceptive surface normalcy of a Woody Allen film, with anecdotal philosophy making the larger existential point —except that here it is delivered straight without the trademark Allen cynicism. Into his late teens and at a party with friends, the protagonist is, far from having a blast, troubled by all that he should be, but is not, doing. He self-examines, in a quiet chat on the sidelines with a girlfriend, his furiousness with people trying to control him even if they do not mean to and is impatient to do whatever he wants, not driven by the ambition to be an achiever but “because it makes me feel alive, as opposed to giving the appearance of normality”. He removes himself from Facebook because he feels like he was “biologically programmed for cyborg update”, thinks of going to college as filling “a preordained slot which has your name and number on it” and, towards the end of the film, weighs “seizing the moment” against “being seized by the moment” and seems to opt for the latter quietist course.

These are, of course, dialogues delivered from the director and writer Linklater’s screenplay, not improvised reflections of the character playing the part. Strung together, they would resemble a sutra of small things. That the protagonist seeks an alternative vision through his photography, his only real passion, reinforces the impression of the camera eye within the camera eye. His mother wants to preserve the first photograph he shot; he wants to get rid of it. The nostalgia of one generation cannot be the future of the next.

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