Mithai Mane (Kannada)

Director: Aarathi

Cast: Aditi, Surabhi J. Herur and Hanumantha Raju

WHAT WOULD happen if Gretel got lost in today's urban jungle - all alone, without Hansel's shoulders to cry on? Witches might come with many deceptively benign faces and the return home might be without the "happily ever after" finishing line.

Yesteryear Kannada actor Aarathi's directorial debut, Mithai Mane, tells the story of 11-year-old Putti who is sent off from a drought-hit village to an urban middle-class home to work as a domestic help. With the original Grimm Brothers' tale weaving in and out of the movie as a voiceover, Mithai Mane (based on a short story by Aarathi's daughter Yashaswini) tells a subtle and excellently layered tale of crushed dreams and deprivation, contrasted with hedonistic plenty and middle-class insensitivity to anything other than itself. While the skeletal storyline offers many possibilities for the film to slip into a sentimental tearjerker, Mithai Mane is remarkable for the way it firmly refuses to take that easy route. Even incisive comments on the two contrasting worlds - the rain-starved village where people queue up for hours for a pot of water and an urban toilet where twice as much water goes down the drain with every flush - come laced with humour. Even the "witches" here are more products of a myopic system rather than "evil" by themselves.

The film is peppered with motifs that represent the contrary the worlds of Putti and the urban kids: for instance, the treasure of pebbles collected in an old candy box by Putti as opposed to the expensive music box.

With most actors (drawn from theatre) doing an excellent job (especially Aditi as Ganga, Surabhi J. Herur as the mother and Hanumantha Raju as the father) and Aarathi keeping the narrative taut, Mithai Mane turns out to be poignant, poetic tale. There may be minor irritants in the film - such as the voiceover seeming intrusive on many occasions or some scenes in the urban household turning out a little too theatrical.

But one tends to overlook these, particularly in the light of a denouement that's so wonderfully understated and does a good job of tying up the main narrative with the allegorical fairytale.

The pebbles do lead Putti back to the village, just as in the old tale, but on a course dramatically and tragically different.

Watch this film at PVR for its sensitivity and earnestness. We haven't seen one like this on the Kannada screen in a long time.