Halo (1996), cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s directorial debut, produced by Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), is a little-known film. But it is a fine example of what children’s cinema should be — entertaining, empathetic and educative without being sermonising. It tells the story of Sasha, a seven-year-old girl without a mother, who will stop at nothing to find her missing puppy, Halo. During her search through the streets of Mumbai, Sasha encounters a variety of people.
The inspiration for Halo is Raakh (1989) — the cinematographer’s first Hindi feature. It so happened that director Aditya Bhattacharya’s younger sister, Anwesha’s dog went missing during the filming. “Here was this young girl trying to find where her dog had disappeared. I thought it was a very interesting story from her point of view,” says Sivan. Most of the characters in his film are inspired by people he met during that period.
The genre was a natural choice for Sivan’s first feature film. He had previously directed Story of Tiblu (1988), a short for the Films Division, about a child going to school in Arunachal Pradesh.
Sivan’s other two films, Malli (1998) and Tahaan (2008), too are globally acclaimed and widely screened. Children, he says are easy to work with. “I like to observe them, and make it as easy, natural and casual as they are.” During the making of Halo, he had the kids clap, shout ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
Sivan feels children’s films do not really do well in the Indian market, though they may win awards at foreign film festivals. Halo, for instance, got a theatre release five years after it was made. “This too was thanks to distributor, Shringar Films. And I had people like Sanjana Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan promoting it initially with the preview.” Sivan explains that there’s little funding for such films and plenty of interference.
An endearing story about human-animal companionship, Halo is also an ode to the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) and its pluralism. The megapolis is captured with all its exquisite contrasts — sea-splashed rocks and concrete columns, cosy little parks nestled between jammed roads. “As an outsider I thought it was interesting to observe these contrasts. I guess that reflected in the movie.” Shot during the monsoon, Sivan’s masterful camerawork makes the city look almost bucolic.
Sivan uses his camera angles meticulously in Halo. A low-angle shot of adults talking into the camera portrays a child’s perspective, or how they view an authority figure; wide-angle shots of Mumbai signal the daunting task that lies ahead of Sasha.
What really works for Halo is a thoughtful story and its array of quirky characters. There’s a bald and bespectacled father-son duo discussing the state of affairs, a local ‘talk show host’ kid eagerly capturing the ongoings in his video camera, two bumbling luckless cops, a mute smuggler with a penchant for Mickey Mouse print ties, and a Gabbar Singh-inspired urchin operating a network of street kids.
And then, there’s Sasha’s inner world: her upright criminal lawyer father who deals with goons with unusual calm but is a basket case around the little mutt, her love-smitten cousin, and a food-crazy house help doling out advice and ditties in equal measure. The dialogues are simple and witty. Humour is well-used to address poignancy. Sample this:
“Riots man-made hote hain ya god-made?”
“Man made, but for god.”
A cherubic Benaf Dadachanji as Sasha is brilliant. Her scenes with the little puppy, especially their first meeting, bring unbridled joy. Their camaraderie moves you even more when Sivan reveals the young actress was scared of dogs. Benaf’s performance is the emotional core of the movie, and she keeps you invested in her vulnerability and resolve.
The standout is filmmaker Rajkumar Santoshi as Sasha’s father. Speaking about this unusual choice of actor Sivan says, “I always felt he is a very good actor. It’s interesting the way he would enact a scene before a shot.”
Halo is made of many charming moments and images. Sivan does employ the usual children’s cinema tropes and sentimentality, but helmed by some heartwarming performances and a bittersweet ending, Halo is ultimately an intimate coming-of-age tale.
PS: Halo‘s credits boast some interesting names — promising talents that were still in focus at the turn of the millennium. The lyricist and dialogue writer Sanjay Chhel went on to direct Sanjay Dutt-Urmila Matondkar starrer Khoobsurat (1999) and continues with screenplay and dialogue writing to date. Govind Menon handled Halo’s production design and played the smuggling gang’s top henchman. He would later be known for directing Khwahish (2003) – the film that shot Mallika Sherawat to fame.