Children are natural born stars. When a director who is gifted with sensitive understanding of children puts them before the camera, the result is a winner all the way. Amole Gupte's years of dedicated work with children yields a delightful pay-off that vindicates his contribution to the success of “Taare Zameen Par”; so much of it was appropriated by Aamir Khan, the star-actor-producer donning the director's mantle half-way through the production. “Stanley Ka Dabba” is more than a heart-wrenching, uplifting film about children. It is a good film — one of the best in the past couple of years teeming with outstanding debuts — that goes beyond its perceived limits (by an audience conditioned by mainstream masala) of “a children's film”. Not only is the child the father of man. A brilliant children's film is the mother and father of good cinema.
Some of the best films over the past two decades are ostensibly films with child protagonists but soar above such restrictions to be considered classics of world cinema. Iranian cinema is the pioneer that has set the benchmark of creative excellence with brilliant films where children are both the main actors and metaphors for deeper truths. This cinema's influence is all-pervasive, experienced by anyone exposed to its subtle, sensitive wonders. Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi are the most illustrious names who first made an international mark with films about children.
Iranian films become must-see events at festivals, the result of a quiet revolution for over two decades now. The sheer charm, consistent quality, poetic simplicity and gentle humanity of films made by internationally acclaimed auteurs like Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Darius Mehrjui, Majid Majidi and lesser known directors have made new converts. Outstanding auteurs will always make an individual mark, irrespective of constraints, finding a way of commenting seriously about their society in an oblique but telling manner. The consistent quality that we get to see in Iranian films, the perception of a distinct national ethos, narrative aesthetic and the ability to convey so much with apparently so little is something unique. It forces us to speculate about the relationship between creative expression and national sensibility, the thread of continuum between cinema and the more ancient forms of craftsmanship and visual imagination.
What is so distinctive about Iranian films is their marvellous felicity when it comes to making films about children and with children. These films may be about children but they are not only for children. The common feature is the wonderful way they develop the narrative from an apparently loose accumulation of simple episodes that get magically connected as the film progresses. There is profound art in this cultivated artlessness.
Iranian cinema has found a new way of filming children. They are either marvellous actors being handled by wizards of directors, or they have not lost the innocence of being themselves with utter spontaneity. These lovely, sometimes heartrending, often beguiling and at times disturbing portraits of children as individuals have captivated discerning audiences across the world. Is it any wonder that two Iranian films — “The White Balloon” and “Children of Heaven” — made it to the Best Foreign Film nomination? When even the insular Academy members, who deem it a great favour if they deign to see a subtitled film, vote for such artful artlessness, Iranian cinema has breached the final frontier.
Indian frontiers of the non-mainstream kind are happy to be breached. Amole Gupte screens Iranian films as part of his workshops. Gupte has imbibed the essence of Iranian cinema and fused it with his own acute observation of children in the chaotic competitive life in a metro like Mumbai. The loneliness and liveliness, vulnerability and security that lie beneath Stanley's infectious exuberance are hinted at, for us to unravel. His friends and classmates, teachers — sweethearts like the loving Rosy Miss, the starched correctness of Mrs. Iyer who can't see science beyond the textbook, the rapaciously greedy Khadus (the villain played with disarming frankness by the director himself) — are superbly cast and brought alive. No cameo is too small for Gupte's wizardry. Seamless art introduces characters through a series of loosely linked episodes and unfolds the quirks that drive their behaviour while teasing us with the unexplained mystery of why Stanley doesn't bring a lunch box. The particular — lovingly evoked — flows into the universal as all good cinema should.
Kiarostami's little boy in “Where's the Friend's Home?” mistakenly brings home his classmate's notebook and completes the other boy's homework to spare him the teacher's anger after a futile search for the friend's home. Gupte recreates a similarly haunting child in Stanley (a wonderfully persuasive Partho), with his quick imagination that spins enthralling stories and undaunted spunk that doesn't allow a whiff of self-pity as we weep unashamed tears for him. Here is osmosis at work, absorbing a masterpiece and making it his own.
That is why “Stanley Ka Dabba” is so unique. Santosh Sivan's “Tahaan” came close a couple of years ago, tugging at our hearts with the winsome boy's love for his donkey without masking Kashmir's barbed wired landscape and its tensions. Interaction with other kids was marginal here. But other attempts at drawing upon two perennial favourites — the boy hero takes part in a race to win a desperately needed pair of shoes in “Children of Heaven”, or a little girl trying to find the note that floats away in a gutter in “The White Balloon” — have been awkward borrowings with a sermon attached. A.K. Bir's “Nandan” (Odiya) and “Jhink Chik Jhink” (Marathi) have their child protagonists take part in races to overcome dire situations most unconvincingly. “Jhink Chik Jhink” imposed the implausible race on the cotton farmer's plight where the family contemplates suicide as a way out of debt.
As the song in “Stanley Ka Dabba” goes, “Life bahut simple hai, Gol gol mat bol”, don't impose heavy moralising on the tender tale of a child's travail. You can pack Iranian flavours in Stanley's dabba and come out with authentic palak paneer, not a mish-mash Gobi Manchurian. Much like the evocative, drool-inducing scenes of lunch cooked with frenetic ease in so many homes by loving hands, Gupte makes us taste the heartache of child labour.