Film: 101 Chodyangal (Malayalam)

Director: Sidhartha Siva

Cast: Minon, Indrajith, Murugan, Lena

Standing on a hillock, gazing upon a beautiful twilight and stretches of greenery that lie down below, his teacher asks: Why does a blue sky turn reddish at dusk? Little Anilkumar Bokaro repeats the question. But as is the case with most of his questions, he receives no answer. In the distance, slogans of labour rights resound as workers take out a rally. Often, the answers lie nearby, within our grasp, but somehow tend to remain elusive.

Anilkumar Bokaro (Minon), named so by his father who dreams of his son becoming an industrialist, is so full of wonder and curiosity in a way children often are. His inquisitiveness is met with vague answers, reprimands, and most often, silences. When his teacher at school (Indrajith) seeks Anil’s help to frame 101 questions (101 Chodyangal of the title), it turns an obsession for the child. He grips his notebook, and goes about the verdant countryside of Kaviyoor, searching for questions.

Questions also stare at Anil’s father (Murugan) who has recently lost his job at a sugar factory and is at a loss to make ends meet. While the child embarks on his journey to find questions, his father is on a quest to find answers.

Actor-turned-director Sidhartha Siva blends soulfully the parallel quests, scripting to near perfection a simple tale with deep echoes. (The National Award for Best First Film of a Director was, no doubt, well-earned.) 

In a scene, the little boy is seated near the kerosene stove at home, watching the water boil in a pot. Hungry, he is waiting for his father to bring rice. Out of curiosity he moves the lids and watches the bubbles rise. He then opens his notebook, and writes, “Why do bubbles appear when water boils?” Each question he painstakingly gathers is, in fact, his very life.

101 Chodyangal is full of such instances, straight out of life, simple yet profound.  No, this is not just a children’s film. It is, instead, one of growing up, of the bond between parents and children, of teachers who take learning beyond classrooms, of fathers who have no worldly possessions but are their children’s heroes, of mothers who hide their tears to gift their children a smile, of children who are devoid of questions, of a struggling working class, of poverty that exists despite our best efforts to sweep it under the carpet, of all the little joys and pains of childhood. The film is also one of a world so sure of its answers, and a world that is full of questions, and the merging of the two. It is no feel-good movie, not all dollops of innocence and characters without a flaw. As the child realizes, it is not an ideal world out there.

Minon who won the National Award for Best Child Artiste for his portrayal of Anilkumar Bokaro had set expectations high and effortlessly lives up to it. Murugan as the man who quietly resigns to his circumstances puts up a stellar performance. So does Lena in another remarkable role as Anil’s mother. And long after you have walked out of the theatre, Prabhath E.K.’s fresh frames and Bijibal’s background score lingers in the mind.

After compiling more than half the questions, Anil realises that he might know a few answers but chooses not to know them. Does he manage to frame the remaining questions? Does he find answers to those? Where does his father’s quest take him? Will his mentally-retarded little sister be cured? Will the family manage to shift to a new house? In a world that has no easy answers, some questions are also best left unanswered. 

This is one movie you owe your children before they outgrow the wonder in them. But most of all, this is one movie you owe to the child in you.