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Flirting with adolescence

THERE AREN'T many good coming-of-age Indian films out there, are there? Offhand, I can only think of: Satyajit Ray's "Aparajito", Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Anantharam", Balu Mahendra's "Azhiyadha Kolangal", Monsoor Khan's "Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander" and Nagesh Kukunoor's "Rockford". I'm sure I'm missing several small, beautifully scripted and directed Malayalam films with adolescence as the theme. (There's this terrific one, for instance, about a school kid seducing a very sexy Jayabharathi (she plays a seamstress in a small town whose name I just can't recall now).

A lovely, strange and interesting parallel that seems to go unnoticed is between Ray's Apu Trilogy and R. K. Narayan's first three (not counting "The Dark Room") books. They form a trilogy of sorts (even though Narayan didn't mean them to be) and even resemble The Apu trilogy. "Pather Panchali"/"Swami and Friends" — childhood; "Aparajito"/"The Bachelor of Arts" — adolescence; "Apur Sansar"/"The English Teacher" — adulthood. And as in "Apur Sansar", the just married English teacher's wife dies young. And in both cases, it is the middle one about adolescence that is underrated — "Aparajito" and "The Bachelor of Arts". (I am thrilled that Adoor Gopalakrishnan cited "Aparajito" as his favourite Ray film).

Ray and Narayan instinctively knew the importance (and the fun) of chronicling adolescence. (Someone is yet to do a girl's version of the Apu Trilogy — or what could have been the Durga Trilogy?). The recent and rather surprising clutch of Indian movies (mainly Tamil and Telugu) about teenagers has blown the only chance we had of seeing good Indian movies about adolescence — a rare and often clumsily handled subject in our movies.

These teen movies begin like coming-of-age movies and then slyly revert to formula. For a moment there when one teen movie followed the other, it looked like we were going to see a real rites of passage movie about adolescence and school life — classroom scenes, making new friends, suddenly becoming aware of the opposite sex, the ritual of the first cigarette, discovering pornography, cutting classes, stumbling on some new passion — books, cricket, music, whatever — crushes on teachers, first love, etc — but instead, all this is dealt with fleetingly and inaccurately, and the movie quickly moves on to a romance. As though, all along, that was the heart of the film. ("Ek Choti Si Love Story" is another movie about adolescent sexuality that blew it).

"Five Star", for instance, began so promisingly: just when you thought to yourself that here at last was a wholehearted movie about college life, it turned out to be another romance. It starts out as a movie about friendship — and then forgets to be that. The college/hostel scenes last for just half an hour or so, after which the movie sneaks out into the real world — the world of jobs and marriages and family.

While "Five Star" is still a cut above most recent Tamil movies, it disappoints on another score too: the stories of the two girls are never told. I thought the movie was supposed to be about all the five friends — not just the three men. We watch the lives of these three guys unfold and the next time we see those two girls, they are married and have a house and everything. What about their story? The best thing about "Five Star" was its notion of an idealistic friendship where all five friends — no matter if they were married or their paths went different ways — would find a way to live in one big house forever.

Let me now come to my all time favourite movie about school life — "Flirting". Currently on HBO, this is the best film on boarding school life that I know flawlessly evokes boarding school life and everything about it: insensitive, philistine hostel mates, boorish prefects, boring hostel food, strict, kind and eccentric teachers, tyrannical headmasters, football, hockey, cricket, debates, amateur theatre productions, best friends, girls and first love.

Duigan, who wrote and directed it (it's the sequel to "The Year My Voice Broke"), transcends all the teen stuff we know by making it both intensely personal and recognisably universal. Noah Taylor continues his role here as Danny Embling, playing the witty, bookish, stuttering outcast in a strict boy's boarding school.

The film opens with Danny telling us what he remembers most about boarding school: ``I remember the smells most, stale lockers with fruitcake rotting into the wood, crusty shoe polish, damp towels, Quink ink from fountain pens, disinfectant on the shower block, mouldy oranges blue with mildew and on a rainy day, the rank, wild smells of discarded football boots.''

Just across the boy's school is the girl's school, which receives a new student from England, an African, Thandiwe Adjewa, (Thandie Newton) who grew up in England and who is `arty' with a razor-sharp wit.

Thandiwe has a philosophical and literary sensibility that matches Dannys'. They read Camus and Sartre and become outcasts together. The script is intelligent, witty, literary. The characters feel real, like the kids we knew at school.

Nicole Kidman in a bit part as the head prefect is superb, and the two central characters, played by Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton (both simply, simply terrific) are unforgettable, original creations.

In the midst of all the pettiness, brutality, stupidity, philistinism and phoniness, Danny and Thandiwe, who are the opposite of everything and everyone around them — miraculously find each other. Among many standout scenes, my favourite is the annual school debate. Not only does Duigan stage it accurately (we know this from the countless debating competitions we have attended in school) but also brilliantly and hilariously. There should be a place for the small masterpiece and that's what John Duigan's flawless little film is.

What Indian cinema badly needs in order to get out of the masala formula rut is to make several small but good genre films. The only genre that seems to have made a small breakthrough is the gangster film. If only our filmmakers would look beyond gangster films to another genre... like the Coming Of Age genre. Movies about childhood and growing up. What we need is Mani Ratnam to make one really brilliant movie about growing up to set off the trend and get the others cracking. PRADEEP SEBASTIAN



Visuals by Netra Shyam

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