Kitaab and The Blue Umbrella, two films that appreciate the spirit of childhood - one by a master, the other by his student.
Two films. One by a master, one by his protege. Both about the spirit of childhood, about keeping the child in us alive. About creative investment required to keep the child inside us alive. About how enjoyable life itself proves to be if we keep the child inside us alive.
Gulzar, the master, made Kitaab, which released in 1977 while Vishal Bharadwaj, his protege got The Blue Umbrella released in 2007, 30 years later. The two have collaborated on quite a few child-centric projects - both for the big screen and for the small screen. How can we forget the evergreen jungle-jungle pataa chalaa hai from the animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle book or guchcha hai bhai guchcha hai from guchche? Or for that matter, the title song of Sinbad adaptation - one which showed Sinbad as a nine-year-old - agar magar dole naiyaa?
Kitaab is a glimpse into a child’s mind, the world around him seen through his eyes while The Blue umbrella is a glimpse into the psyche of a child-hearted village shopkeeper. Baabla, the child protagonist in Kitaab, flees home due to lack of sensitivity of people towards him. While he is away, we want him to enjoy his escapades but we also wish he goes back home.
Though that is what happens, had circumstances forced Baabla to stay away, he would perhaps have grown up to be someone like Nandakishore Khatri (Pankaj Kapur), the shopkeeper in The blue umbrella. An irritable, penniless old man living in a nondescript but scenic town of Himachal Pradesh, he is one who knows how to keep himself happy. One who is content in his own little universe of tea, biscuits, toffees, cycle, trinkets and computer astrology which predicts, with unfailing nonchalance, that he would, one day, become a Bill Gates.
If Kitaab is about a child trying to assume the role of an adult by running away, The blue umbrella is about an adult. in his 60s, otherwise not having much to make out of life, making an earnest attempt to connect with his child ego. And in both cases, after extreme turbulence, they succeed in keeping their child ego untarnished.
Railroom rendezvous, classroom connivances
Kitaab begins in a train. It’s about to be sunrise. We see a fast-moving train. In the background, we hear a child, possibly in his pre-teens, restlessly uttering a refrain. His voice – pleasant in its monotony, as if memorising a multiplication table – is juxtaposed on rhythmic sound of a fast-running train. We hear the refrain:
“Chika chik chika chik chika chik
Bhag chala bhag chala bhag chala
Kidhar chala kidhar chala kidhar chala”
We realise that the child is trying to create a pattern out of the train’s monotonous night-swagger. We realise that he is running away from home, uncertain of his destination.
The rhythmic wave created by the running train mixes with RD Burman’s flanger music to warm the viewer up for the scene.
The child’s voice continues:
“Maa ke paas maa ke paas maa ke paas”
We see his cherubic face. He must have seen no more than nine birthdays. We realise that the kid is going to visit his mother – who perhaps lives in a nondescript village. But why does he choose to abscond from his city “home”?
He sits cuddled on the train floor in a sleeper-class compartment, competing for space with the heavy baggage around. He has two plump middle-aged passengers, sleeping, for company on the lower berths on either side. The train is about to be greeted by the morning sun
The child annoys two teenagers – trying desperately to catch some sleep on either sides of the upper berth – by ‘stealing’ water from their pot.
Unable to chide him, they frown from above and exchange notes, using a notebook, for communication. The notebook slips and lands up in the child’s hands.
At this point, the first scene effortlessly segues into the second one, with Kitaab (a notebook) as the connecting joint. The second scene is that of a fourth/fifth standard classroom. The child is reminded of his past, his clasroom experiences.
Kitaab (referring to notebook or book), Gulzar’s tribute to the spirit of childhood, is in essence an expressive diary entry - in its raw, unblemished, unedited form - delving deep into the equally raw, unkempt mind of a nine/ten year old child. It could well be called a novella or poetry told as novella. We, stepping into school children's shoes would enjoy peeling it off, layer by layer; savouring it, one bite at a time.
The classroom in the second scene is a typical fourth standard one with the students bubbling with creative restlessness. Right from the way they find epithets for their teachers (the English teacher for instance being called shaturmurgh or Ostrich) to the way they play pranks on each other and the teachers, various facets of the students’ inquisitiveness is displayed in all its truancies.
The students are well-represented in their diversity – a chubby brat, a bespectacled monitor, burdened by the weight of his thick-rimmed glasses. And of course, our central character, the contemplative Baabla (Master Raju Shreshtha, who was a regular in Gulzar’s films) and his friend Pappu - both of whom like dreaming about their future while being on the run from their literature classes (which they call guthli maarna).
The movie, as a whole, is told through the eyes of Baabla. One almost feels that Gulzar, with the help of some magic potion, has transformed himself into a nine-year old and studied fourth standard with the students for one whole year before failing in the annual exams!
Baabla shows lack of interest in studies, trying to escape going to school. His weakness in geography shows when he gets lost while searching for his mother while on the run. However, the experience he obtains - from the likes of train drivers, beggars, even from the dead body of an old woman - proves to give him a mini-epiphany for him, teaching him the meaning of life.
Graduating from reading Devdas in the first part of the movie to Chandamama in the final part, Baabla grows up from an artful dodger to a worldly-wise child.
A taste for mango pickle, an eye for toy binoculars
In The Blue Umbrella, a good example of how to make an unassuming movie out of a novella - something Vishal Bharadwaj could not repeat with Saat khoon maaf - Nandkishore Khatri (Pankaj Kapur), though feared and loathed in the village, is a delightful aesthete. He sets his eyes on the delectable blue umbrella, one the young lady Bindiya (Shreya Sharma in a role reminiscent of Shweta Pandit in Makdee) has acquired from some Japanese tourists. She finds it abandoned, picks it up but returns it when the tourists come back to claim it. However, later, as one tourist craves for the clawchain on her neck, she sympathises with her and trades it for the umbrella.
Khatri wants it, not because of its monetary value - though he realises it might be priced at as much as Rs. 2,500, a princely sum - but because of the aesthetic pleasure it would bring him. He is an artist, not an auctioner. Just like Bindiya is shown spending some joyful moments wearing the umbrella on her head - with the song neelee aasmaani chatree endearing the viewer as much as it endears her - Khatri, once he gets it, is shown not taking the umbrella off for a moment, so much so that he never even closes it.
In many ways, he proves to be more childlike than Bindiya and her friends. His love for aam ka achaar (mango pickle) is perhaps even stronger than the liking he takes toward the umbrella. The way he savours the achaar with a gentle stroke of self appreciation to his half-bald head and a slight cow-like tilt of head is a pleasure to watch.
Even after he gets banished by the villagemen, he is shown trying to derive happiness out of what is left, unmindful of the humiliation suffered, though quite hurt by it. He even goes on to dance for a neighbour’s son’s wedding baaraat, uninvited.
Later, when Bindiya is shown subtly gifting him the umbrella, he attempts to - in a gesture displaying naivete more than frustration - burn it. Here, we see the kind of empathy in them that perhaps only a delicate childhood, uncorrupted by city air and adult connivances, can bring.
Even earlier, when the tourists refused to hand her over the umbrella, then plead before her to give them her clawchain, it is the humble little village girl shown to be having genuine empathy. Having embraced the spirit to give, she doesn’t mind doing an encore later.
A book in one film, opening up the vast, curious universe of a child’s psyche; a blue umbrella in another, opening up the childlike curiosity, the aesthetic sense in a grumpy old man. While Baabla and his friend savour the little moments of pleasure - nursing the rather modest aspirations of wanting to become a halwai (a small-time sweet vendor) or a madaari (a street entertainer) - I cannot but recall Swami from Swami and friends. Didn’t he aspire to be a bus conductor?
Khatri of The blue umbrella, is a frustrated loner.Nevertheless, he likes to savour his mango pickle, listen to astrological predictions given by a computer and snatch away children’s trinkets - like, say, their binoculars - for unpaid debts. He is surely an aesthete. One who is in a good position to appreciate art for art’s sake, rather than adulterating by ascribing to it monetary value to it.
When he sets his eyes on the umbrella, we know that he is going to steal it in the most amateurish form. We know that he is going to get caught and admonished. Yet our heart goes out to him in a way it doesn’t go out to perhaps even Bindiya. The reason? Perhaps it is Vishal Bharadwaj’s liking for the character. Perhaps it is the way Ruskin Bond presented his character his novella The Blue umbrella. Or perhaps it is the method acting by Pankaj Kapur. Or perhaps it is all the three.
Either way, we know that the child inside them has made them attach themselves to the person.
A book and an umbrella, the most delectable motifs to use to gain a sepia-tinted glimpse into the psyche of a child. Both bring out the truant in the schoolchild in us. A schoolbook gives a child reason to skip classes while an umbrella gives him reason to get wet. In both cases, truancies bring a certain pleasure, which perhaps the bubble reputation (to quote Shakespeare) of an adult ego cannot fathom.
However, as a paradox, the kitaab in Kitaab is Baabla’s best friend, his companion, his philosopher, who gives him an introduction to his true self while the umbrella in The blue umbrella, makes the aesthete in Khatri covet for it. In both cases, the motifs act as catalysts in their truancies rather than source.
Talking of childhood motifs, there couldn't be better ones than the ones mentioned in that Jagjit Singh song: "vo kaagaz ki kashti, vo baarish ka paani" [a little paperboat, some tiny droplets of rain].