Amole Gupte's film “Stanley ka Dabba”, to be released on May 13, evolved spontaneously out of weekend interactions with the children of Holy Family School, Mumbai. Path-breaking and refreshingly original, it sets new rules for media interaction with kids, says MEENA MENON.

When director Amole Gupte starts talking about his latest venture “Stanley Ka Dabba”, you get the feeling that he is just as surprised as you are by the outcome of what started out as a series of cinema and theatre sessions with children. “There was no promise of a film here,” he grins. They were meant to be very free and open ended sessions for kids at Holy Family School (a suburban school where Gupte studied till Standard VII).

Creative director of “Taare Zameen Par”, Gupte did write a script of sorts in 2008 and he wanted to test it out in a workshop form. The idea was to interact with children, mostly nine or 10 years old, over four-and-a-half hours with two recesses every Saturday, when the school is closed. The ubiquitous dabba becomes the focal point in those recesses. The children bring their own for one recess and Gupte and his team provide them a matching lunch in the next.

New paradigm

The over 90 minute feature film that resulted from these sessions, spread over a year and a half, resets the paradigm for the media of being with children, says Gupte. “They didn't miss their education unlike in the mainstream where they are pulled out of school for a month at least and you are working like an adult. You have animal welfare boards advising on norms but for children there is nothing,” he points out.

Using a light, unobtrusive camera without the usual technical gimmicks, and a four member unit, the story revolves around the boy Stanley. All the children are committed to what came to be known as the Stanley class and it was so free and based on the children's convenience that when one of the boys, Walter, wanted to go to Goa for a vacation, Gupte changed the story a bit to accommodate that. The boy was Stanley's bench-mate and critical for the film.

Even the dialogues are not pre-planned. “I throw ideas at them and I put the dialogues in their mouths. There is nothing on paper.

I thought it's a workshop and even more than halfway down we didn't realise it was a film. The actors had become my friends and the centre of activity was the children. Nothing was staged in the film and everything is real,” he smiles.

Even the songs started emerging from the sessions and here too he didn't have to spend much. “It's not about spending, it's about cinema,” he quips. The film was shot on Saturdays, much like Satyajit Ray, Gupte says, who filmed on weekends.

The scenes are done in an informal manner — you create an atmosphere of a classroom and even the teachers, played by young actors, have to prove themselves. This was the experiment, with the feeling that the children will own their words but at the same time you pull out what you want. Everyone around was an idiot except for the children, and the story and the screenplay belong to them, Gupte emphasises.

“We really didn't have a budget at all; all we gave the kids was a good lunch in the recess — the dabba.” His experiment drew a lot of goodwill from everyone. “Few get so lucky. Everyone — actors, singers, crew —they have rallied around for me. All Shankar Mahadevan wanted was a pot of mutton!” he guffaws.

A metaphor

Even losing a tooth becomes part of the story line — something that naturally happened to one of the boys. For Gupte, the film is a metaphor for hunger involving children. But he has a more important lesson for others. “I wanted to set the rules on how to be with children and create a model which could set an example,” he says.

It's a child-friendly prototype for new laws for the media on how to be with kids. Most parents push their children into being cash cows, make them work hard but all this can change and things can be done differently. You can get results in a non-commercial environment, he feels.

Appealing innocence

Deepa Bhatia, editor and co-producer of the film, adds that the children brought in an innocence that is so pure, it's unadulterated. “I am so proud of Amole. I hadn't seen a single frame till six months ago and being so much in the mainstream, for me this film is path-breaking. You have to break the rules to do something. The grammar is totally new,” she says.

For her it's a very tactile film and it requires someone who can surrender to the children. “When Walter went for a vacation, Amole worked out a beautiful moment in the film. It is difficult to put yourself second and someone else first and Amol was working with a new young crew and they all surrendered to his vision,” she says.

The film has taken her back to her roots. “When we start out we all want to do something different and here we did it. We did not let the kids miss their exams and there was no dictatorship, that's something that made the children comfortable.”

Even the film-makers had no idea where this was going. It was all about the experience. It was participation, not work. Not a single scene was reshot, says Gupte. When you practise cinema it's a philosophical thing, Celebration of the self is not part of the gig, he avers.

The tag line of the film says it's a little story with a big heart and Gupte's film is likely to win a lot of them when it releases on May 13.