Director Amole Gupte says he loves to preserve the natural innocence of kids

At New Delhi’s Delite theatre, parents are jostling to get their kids photographed with Amol Gupte, the man who wiped off some of the saccharine dripping from child actors on screen. One of the desperate ones introduced his toddler as the cousin of Harsh Mayer, the talented child actor of I Am Kalam and how he is eager to send him to an acting school. “I find this enthusiasm scary. Let the kid do his own thing. The best way to teach a kid is to learn from him,” says Gupte as the craze gives way to straight talk.

Gupte and his wife Deepa Bhatia have been working with kids for a long time but he emerged on the popular scene as the guy who conceived Taare Zameen Par before Aamir Khan stole some of his well-deserved limelight. Gupte showed his mettle in Stanley Ke Dabba and this week he has come up with Hawaa Hawaai, an inspiring tale of a village boy from Vidarbha who comes to Mumbai after his cotton farmer father dies of the shock of repeated crop failure, and chases his dream to be a skater. Once again, his son Partho Gupte plays the lead role of Arjun Waghmare. Partho’s controlled expression together with his bonding with the four street kids brings the film alive.

Amole says it is an original story and the cotton farmer bit came to his mind when he visited the Vidarbha region as part of the research for Deepa’s documentary Nero’s Guests. He picked skating as it is an expensive sport and is a metaphor for the growing social and economic divide in the society. “Some of the roller skates are more expensive than the bikes.”

Talking about the irritating sweet and precocious labels that emerged over the years in depicting child actors in Bollywood films, Gupte, who is also the chairperson of Children’s Film Society of India, says it has something to do with the inability of filmmakers. “They don’t draw from life. They ape some film that they have watched. I want to preserve the natural innocence of the child. Instead of putting them through the pressure of auditions and training, I engage them in workshops and capture their conversations with a camera held out of their vision.” Together with NGO Aseema, Gupte has been conducting cinema workshops for underprivileged kids at the Pali-Chimbai municipal school in Bandra and the band of boys that feature in the film with Arjun are actually drawn from this school.

In his films, says Gupte, child actors are not treated as labourers toiling away in shifts. “It is they who decide when should I start and pack up. And as they knew the story beforehand and had enacted almost all the scenes in workshops, it was not difficult to capture the emotions. We shot during vacations and Saturdays.”

His upper class friends bring their kids for a day or two but then they don’t return because they find the atmosphere different. “I sent Partho to Akola for a couple of weeks to spend time with the family of a cotton farmer, who committed suicide to understand the milieu.” Gupte affirms unless the two Indias spend time with each other from a young age, the divide will never be filled and the politicians will keep on taking advantage of it.

“Why underprivileged kids are asked to learn only carpentry and sewing? Why not cinema? Isn’t it because you don’t want to share the maal (bounty) with them?” asks Gupte. He cites the example of his student Ashish Gaikwad who at 20 has become a filmmaker. “He came from a slum in Pune and recently his short film Tahaan (thirst), about the scarcity of potable water, was screened at Whistling Woods’ celebration of 100 years of Cinema and Subhash Ghai awarded him with a scholarship. He has already rubbed shoulders with the greats of the cinema and I can say with certainty that those he has rubbed have gained as much from him as he has from them.”

There is an unmistakable similarity between Arjun’s slowing down in the final race and Milkha’s looking back incident in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Both pause and the narrative harks back to their gloomy past. “It is because my script was registered in 2008 and at one point of time Farhan Akhtar was supposed to co-produce and act in the film. The rest you can decipher,” signs off Gupte.

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