The child’s gaze: Three movies, each with a child at the centre

Three movies, each with a child at the centre, shine an unforgiving light on society

October 13, 2017 02:36 pm | Updated October 14, 2017 05:01 pm IST

Playing with the dog, dancing on the muddy banks of a river, listening to stories told by a favourite aunt. The only disruptions in the gentle flow of 10-year-old Ishwar Prasad Rabha’s life is waking up early for school on a Monday and dealing with maths.

But there are intimations of trouble ahead. Village folk fighting over a piece of land demarcated by a bamboo fence has Ishu observe that “Adults behave strangely.” He can’t understand them. Shouldn’t they be fighting over marbles and other playthings? Adults get even more inscrutable for him as the rumour of a witch entering the village starts doing the rounds.

Based on Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s novel, critic-turned-filmmaker Utpal Borpujari’s debut Assamese feature film, Ishu, looks at the phenomenon of witch-hunting from the perspective of a child. What starts as fear turns into a nightmare when Ishu’s baby sister dies and his favourite aunt Ambika gets blamed for it. Soon, she is branded a witch, thrown out of the village, and her house burnt down. The extraordinary situation brings out the hero in him. It’s his rationality — and that of a few others — that makes the village face up to its own superstitious ways.

It’s the urgency of the subject that made Borpujari choose it for his debut feature film. He has previously made acclaimed documentaries including Mayong: Myth/Reality (2012), Songs of the Blue Hills (2013) and Memories of a Forgotten War (2016). A report tabled in the State Assembly cited 93 incidents of witch-hunting in Assam between 2010 and 2015. As many as 77 people were killed including 35 women. The State Assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015.

 

The script of the film was the only Asian entry at the 2012 Junior Co-Production Market of Cinekid Festival in Amsterdam. The freshest of Children’s Film Society of India productions, Ishu was shot near Goalpara in Western Assam. It’s a straightforward film without stylistic flourishes, its rootedness and its organic and unschooled texture shining through the frugal frames.

Much of the unvarnished beauty lies in the off-the-cuff performance of young Kapil Garo as Ishu. He is a resident of a small village near Sonapur in the outskirts of Guwahati, his father an autorickshaw driver. ‘What is jealousy?’ ‘Who is a hero?’ Ishu asks. His guilelessness and humanity stand in stark contrast to the brutality of the adults around him. Redemption and resurrection lie with the child.

Another summer

The discrepancy between the world of adults and children as seen in Ishu finds an echo in another new film, also by a first-time feature filmmaker, Prasanth Vijay. The Malayalam film Athisayangalude Venal (The Summer of Miracles), has been selected for the India Story segment of the ongoing 19th Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI).

Here, too, the budget is negligible and the narrative minimalist while the emotional arc remains strong. And again, it’s the child actor who steals the show. Chandra Kiran, who has no prior acting experience, plays the oddball nine-year-old Anu.

However, unlike Ishu’s innocence, Anu’s ingenuousness has been sullied by his father’s death. It’s the unresolved grief, the demons that he has internalised, that make him behave strangely.

He is obsessed with invisibility, because in his head, his father, his hero, has gone out of sight. Playing dangerously with potions, concoctions, even electricity, talking of refractive index and shape shifting, he is even willing to read scriptures and practice meditation if it gets him closer to becoming invisible. The adults around him are never cruel but can’t understand him. It makes him plunge deeper into his fantasies. As if this isn’t enough, he faces another challenge, a cousin, with secrets and powers of her own.

 

The film offers a series of vignettes of a troubled young mind, one that can’t understand why god should be offered prayers if he can’t get his father back, one that thinks he is good-for-nothing because he has no powers. Despite the boundless loneliness of the child, there is no overt desolation; an implicit grace permeates the frames.

The child is the fulcrum of Devashish Makhija’s sophomore feature Ajji (Granny) as well, one of the most awaited films at MAMI, competing in the India Gold section. The film starts off horrifyingly, laying bare the precarious life of a girl living on the margins of society, in a slum. The humiliation is endless, the brutal sexual violence just the beginning.

Makhija is clinical in the portrayal of rape — the fact that she is left to die in a garbage dump, the heartless questioning and investigation by the cop, the sense of entitlement of the politically influential perpetrator. But the family must carry on with life — the mother has to sell poha-sheera , the grandmother has to stitch blouses, even as the grievously hurt Manda waits for the doctor. It’s the seeming normalcy that is heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Makhija’s camera moves with empathy from one aggrieved face to another.

But it’s in the portrayal of villainy (however perverse and warped it might be) that the film falls into the usual trap. Be it the inspector or the rapist and his gang — we have seen them all. But then again another interesting cinematic touch shows up — the granny’s interaction with her butcher friend, her sessions with his knife, cutting the kapoora (goat testicles) and feeding the dogs.

The race to revenge revels in the Korean horror tradition; it’s a compelling build up to veebhatsa rasa (disgust) in the audience.

But it made me wonder — why does a film about rape always have to be about revenge, a gory and bloody one at that? Does the experiment in style absolve the film of the similitude in content?

Days after watching Ajji I am still deeply conflicted about its intent and the impact on me.

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