Halo (1996)

Halo

The article was originally published in The Hindu on May 26, 2018.

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.

Watch: Halo

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.

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Paari (2000)

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Language: Manipuri / Meitei
Starring: RK Surchandra, Salam Birendra
Director: Aribam Syam Sharma

When young Sanathoi plays the role of of a Sangai fawn in a dance drama, he discovers the world of this rare, endemic deer species in Manipur.

Manipur’s Keibul Lamjao National Park is truly unique. It is the only natural floating park in the world, and it is home to the famed Sangai — the once endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer endemic to the state.

A medium-sized deer with great antlers, the Sangai walks deftly on the marshy wetlands, earning the appellation ‘the Dancing Deer’. It is intrinsic to Manipuri culture and folklore and is considered the hallowed connection between man and nature. In its more than 200 years of known history, Sangai was assumed to be almost extinct by 1950. In 1953, six deers were spotted in its natural habitat and since then the state government, wildlife bodies and locals have taken extraordinary measures for its conservation. In the 2016 census, the Sangai population stands at 260. Wildlife filmmaker George Thengummoottil’s short documentary The Return of Sangai gives an excellent rundown on the issue.

A unique combination of aquatic, marshland and terrestrial, Keibul Lamjao is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Even as the authorities work aggressively to sustain this fragile ecosystem, they are constantly presented with threats — both natural and man-made — against their conservation efforts. The park is facing twin challenges of poaching and habitat degradation. The constant flooding of the Loktak river on which the national park stands, caused due to the artificial reservoir, results in steady habitat degeneration. With Paari, veteran filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma highlights these threats and their repercussions for Keibul Lamjao’s inhabitants, especially the Sangai.

In Syam Sharma’s story, to prepare for a dance drama on the wildlife of Keibul Lamjao, Sanathoi (Surchandra) and his friends join their teacher on a trip to the park. The young boy is deeply impacted when they come across an injured Sangai fawn, and later shares his concern with his grandfather (Birendra). With Idhou’s (grandfather) fascinating stories about Sangai and new learnings about the species, Sanathoi starts imagining himself as Paari, the fawn he plays in the drama.

As a filmmaker, Aribam Syam Sharma has continuously focused on Manipur’s environmental issues. In Paari, he uses a young boy’s heartwarming guilelessness to make a passionate appeal against man’s interference in nature’s balance. As Sanathoi believes the Sangai he plays in the drama is the same injured fawn who was separated from his parents, he sets out for an audience with the Sangai king in the jungle. The film captures the interplay of imagination and consciousness in a child’s mind beautifully. How folklore and bedtime stories inspire the young to empathise with other beings. For example,when Sanathoi hears the story of the ancient connection between Sangai and Keibul Lamjao, the gravity of their habitat displacement hits him harder.

Aribam Syam Sharma is a pioneering figure of Manipuri cinema credited for placing this fledgling film industry on the world map. Manipuri cinema began in the Seventies and Syam Sharma is one of its founding fathers. His directorial debut Lamja Parshuram (1974) is considered a classic. In a career spanning four decades, this octogenarian has directed 13 features films and several shorts and documentaries. He shot into international recognition with his 1981 film Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) that received the grand prix at Festival des Trios Continents, Nantes, France. The biggest highlight of his career would be Ishanou (The Chosen One) screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. A son of the soil, Syam Sharma’s films are evocative, deeply embedded in the Manipuri socio-cultural milieu and emotionally rich. Most of his non features (Indigenous Games of Manipur/1990, Meitei Pung/ 1991) are based on subjects inherent to the hill state but have remained largely undiscovered in the mainstream.

Having studied at Santiniketan in his youth, Syam Sharma would have a lifelong association with classical music, theatre and dance. It influenced his career trajectory as a filmmaker, actor and music composer. Paari is a story largely dependent on music and dance forms, and under Syam Sharma’s expert understanding of the subject, it soars. The message — children as the sentinels of nature — is neither didactic nor does it require sloganeering. A simple collaborative art form does the trick.

 

Watch: Paari (in Manipuri) | Paari (In Hindi)

 

 

 

Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke (1957)

Hum Panchhi Ek Dal Ke

Language: Hindi
Starring: Master Romi, Daisy Irani, Jagdeep, Mohan Choti, Murad, Maruti
Director: PL Santoshi

Rajan, son of a wealthy aristocrat, wishes to experience life without the privileges he was born into. His overbearing father doesn’t like him mingling with his working-class school friends. But separating this tenacious bunch of kids isn’t going to be easy.

The Fifties was a remarkable period for Indian cinema. For a newly liberated country committed to self reliance and nation building, themes like idealism, secularism and democracy permeated in its cinema as well. Rightly called the Golden Age, the decade produced some of the greatest reformist films in Hindi cinema history: Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Jagriti (1954), Shri 420 (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), Mother India (1957) and Dhool Ka Phool (1959).

In Hindi cinema, the year 1957 stands out for its distinct depiction of emerging India. Along with the empowering troika of Naya Daur, Do Aankhen Barah Haath and Mother India, there was Guru Dutt’s subversive Pyaasa, RK Films’ Ab Dilli Dur Nahin questioning injustice, and writer-director PL Santoshi’s Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke that espoused the Nehruvian philosophy of socialism and unity.

In 1954, the I&B Ministry established the National Film Award for Best Children’s Film. Three years later, Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke became the first Hindi film winner of the Best Children’s Film.

The film celebrates the spirit of unity through the story about a group of school-goers determined to stick together, come what may. Rajan, the only child of a wealthy aristocrat, is influenced by his school friends’ freedom and self sufficiency. However, his elitist father Rai Bahadur Kailashnath is still entrenched in their erstwhile nobility. He doesn’t appreciate Rajan’s fraternizing with working-class boys. The young boy draws his father’s ire when he secretly goes on an excursion with his friends. A furious Kailashnath decides to put an end to this association, but separating these tenacious kids isn’t going to be easy.

Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke is in no way monumental, especially when pitted against trailblazers like Pyaasa, Mother India and Naya Daur. Unlike these films, it isn’t as arresting or technically sharp. The narration too is ordinary. But what worked for the film, and still does, is the endearing story at the centre of it and some delightful performances steering it. The film reminds you of a time, not so long ago, when the enthusiasm for hard work and social responsibility was infectious. For example, when the boys discuss their excursion itinerary, it includes a stopover at a nearby village for shram-daan (voluntary labour). To watch an era when the children and youth of the country was fired up with optimism and hopeful of endless possibilities is refreshing.

Director PL Santoshi’s stint in the industry began with dialogue and screenplay writing. He was also an accomplished lyricist and tasted success early on with hits like Jhoola (1941), Shehnai (1947) and Sargam (1950). His biggest outing would be the 1960 musical hit Barsaat Ki Raat starring Madhubala and Bharat Bhusan. All the songs of Hum Panchhi are written by Santoshi. With N Dutta’s well-matched music, it has some fine outcomes like the leisurely lullaby Bahe Hawa Mand Mand, the peppy road trip number Ek se bhale do — both by Asha Bhosle, and Rafi’s upbeat title track.

The mainstream cinema of the Fifties offered tremendous scope to child artists. They headlined several big banner films like RK Films’ Boot Polish (1954) and Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957), Filmistan’s Jagriti (1954), V Shantaram’s Toofan Aur Deeya (1956) and Silver Wings’s Do Phool (1958). Similarly, Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke has some of the most notable child actors of the era — Mater Romi, Satish Vyas, Daisy Irani — leading the pack. The ensemble cast also includes veterans like Murad, Maruti (actress Guddi Maruti’s father), David Abraham and Achala Sachdev.

Young actor Satish Vyas, who had previously won accolades as the protagonist in Toofan Aur Deeya, plays Nandu —  the conscientious head of the group. Master Romi of the Ab Dilli Dur Nahin and Yahudi (1958) fame stars as Rajan. As the rich scion eager to prove his mettle, Romi is both amiable and sincere. The cherubic actor had broken out with the titular role in KA Abbas’ Munna (1954). The film also features and a very young Jagdeep and Mohan Choti. The duo’s spirited acting is a precursor of the great entertainers they would evolve into. Interestingly, Jagdeep frequently features in Santoshi’s son, Rajkumar Santoshi’s films such as Andaz Apna Apna (1994), China Gate (1998) and Ajab Prem Ki Gazab Kahani (2009).

With the presence of industry stalwarts and promising talent, the highlight of Hum Panchhi… however is Daisy Irani. One of the most sought-after child actors and a star in her own right, Irani was famous for enacting little boy roles and billed as Roop Kumar. As Chatpat, the precocious prankster and the youngest of the pack, Irani is a riot. With a wildly expressive face and natural charm, it’s hard to pay attention to anyone else when she is on screen. Watching this lovely, uninhibited performance now, in the light of Irani’s recent revelation that she was raped (she was just six) by her guardian during the film’s outdoor shoot, is just heartbreaking.

One is just left with the odd poignancy about a film that speaks of everything fair and noble but has such a dark history — that too for its youngest and brightest star.

Watch: Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anokha Aspatal (1989)

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Language: Hindi
Starring: Shammi, Master Ankur, Paintal
Director: Mukesh Sharma

Gagan loves visiting Amma, his conservationist grandmother who also runs a veterinary hospital. What sets her establishment apart is that over the years, animals have familiarized themselves with the hospital, and when sick or injured, they would often check in on their own.

Anokha Aspatal’s opening credits are most delightful. A series of cartoons serve as a curtain-raiser to this charming little story. There’s a rabbit in a wheelchair admitting himself into the hospital, a crocodile, an elephant and a lion recovering in a ward, and a deer’s watching eagerly as its cast is being taken off. Based on Hindi writer Saroj Mukherjee’s short story by the same name, Anokha Aspatal sensitizes young viewers to the idea of coexistence and rallies for preservation of nature and wildlife.

Amma lives in a village by the forest.  The film begins in lush wilderness with the majestic sights and sounds of inhabiting birds and beasts. And here at the end of the jungle nestled in a leafy canopy stands Amma’s quaint bungalow. Its premises: a sanctuary for the sick and wounded creatures where Amma along with her helper Ramdhani run a hands-on little hospital. They feed the birds, nurse the injured and provide basic healthcare to the village’s livestock. For serious medical issues, Amma seeks her doctor son’s help who lives in the nearby city with his family.

Amma’s dedication to her hospital doesn’t allow her to travel often. She misses her grandson Gagan and sends for him during summer vacation. The young boy, too like his granny, is greatly inspired by nature. During his stay, he helps in tending a wounded sheep called Raja and befriends a rabbit named Bhola. Gagan also learns the importance of animals thriving in their natural habitat and conserving the same.

The peace of the jungle is threatened with the arrival of a group of poachers. Gun shots are heard, trapping pits are discovered and injured animals are found. It is now for Amma to find a way to defend her forest friends.

Playing Gagan is Master Ankur — one of the most recognizable faces of 80’s telly scene (Buniyaad, Mahabharat). In another two years, he would star in the famed TV show Stone Boy and would henceforth be known as that. Shammi aunty’s casting as the sage sentinel of nature is perfect. With her child-like eagerness and effortless ease around animals she embodies Amma — the mainstay of the story. And as her trusted helper Ramdhani, Paintal’s skillful interaction with the four-footed compeers is a delight to watch.

Anokha Aspatal works well in its conversations about empathy, coexistence and animal rights, and brings attention to the horrors of hunting. It is, however, the latter whose treatment looks shallow. The poachers, projected in the most facile manner, are toothless and theatrical. A film for children doesn’t have to be childish, and that’s where Anokha Aspatal borders in its climax. While it’s understandable for a children’s film to be not stark or graphic, offering a little depth to an issue as grave as poaching would have added to an otherwise decent film’s weight.

 

Lilkee (2006)

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Language: Hindi
Starring: Aiman Mukhtiar, Anushka Panvala, Manoj Goyal
Director: Batul Mukhtiar

Lilkee, a poor girl from the hills, moves to Mumbai to care for a working couple’s infant son. Reticent and homesick, she eventually becomes friends with some kids in her building. However, they cast her out when they learn about Lilkee’s house worker status.

The issue of class prejudice makes Indian middle class squeamish. Earlier this year the social media sizzled over a viral photo that depicted urban India’s apparent class inequality. While the veracity of the story was debated and justifiably so, the bigger issue of class divide and ensuing discrimination is an uncomfortable truth staring the priggish Indian society in its face.

Lilkee is a heartwarming story of a poor immigrant domestic worker with the subject of class prejudice at its centre. The titular character is a bright young girl living with her mother and younger sister in Nainital. Like many children who are forced to join the domestic workforce owing to their impoverished backgrounds, Lilkee’s academic pursuit is cut short, and she is packed off to Mumbai to babysit for a working couple’s infant son.

A reticent and homesick Lilkee struggles to embrace her new life in the city. A life where she misses the freedom and familiarity of her old world. The one where people know so little about her that being served brinjal — something Lilkee strongly dislikes — in her first meal brims her eyes with tears. Her owners are kind, conscientious folks who know her family and feel Lilkee is too young for the job. The film uses meaningful conversations and actions to establish the wretched cycle of poverty and child labour, and how even the well-meaning people end up abetting it — even in the most benign manner. So while Lilkee’s employer, Bela (played by a luminous Anushka Panvala) has a strict policy of not engaging the minor in any other domestic chore, she is constantly troubled by Lilkee’s situation.

As filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar’s debut venture, Lilkee is admirable in both intent and execution. The lead character is played by Mukhtiar’s pleasant-faced daughter, Aiman. The film has one of the most empathetic employer-domestic worker relationship portrayed in Hindi cinema — notorious for its stereotypical and tone deaf representation of domestic helps.

In our burgeoning cities awash with massive residential complexes and townships, the upper (middle) class residents thrive on a well-oiled network of manpower for their survival. Every housing society, big or small, has a system in place with maids, drivers, cooks, security guards, nannies keeping the domestic lives up and running. Lilkee looks at the workers of these gated communities with fresh eyes and perspective. The ubiquitous faces shunting from one tower to another, spending significant time in the premises and running households, and yet as one character in the film succinctly puts, “you have no rights here.”

Lilkee‘s biggest win is in the analysis of class bias and peer pressure through the eyes of children. Some of the prejudices that the young minds grow up with are ingrained, and others adopted from the kind of environment they are raised in. So a casual comment from an adult like servants are dirty, low-witted and shouldn’t be socialized with, percolates into the community of children and clouds their judgement. As Chimamanda Adichie says, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”
So when Lilkee’s friends in the building discover her for who she really is — a fair, compassion and intelligent girl — they are forced to question the biases fed to them, and learn the essential lesson of looking beyond the stereotype.

Watch: Lilkee

 

 

 

 

 

Foto (2007)

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Language: Hindi
Starring: Arjun Jaykrishna, Naseeruddin Shah, Tom Alter
Director: Virendra Saini

Foto, an introverted 11-year-old boy, prefers to dwell in his world of imagination. When a film crew arrives in town, Foto’s creativity takes wings.

In her now legendary TED talk, The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks about the dominant culture predisposed to undervalue introverts. Our principal establishments like offices, educational and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Cain recalled her time at a school summer camp where her not being chatty and outgoing was considered NOT okay. Introversion is often misconstrued as a personality disorder, and introverts are made to feel inadequate and prompted to come out of their shells.

In Virendra Saini’s Foto, the eponymous character (Krishna) is a soft-spoken, reserved boy with a vivid imagination, who struggles with studies and at making friends. Amidst  admonitions and snickers, the young boy finds encouragement from his mother, Shefali (played graciously by Geeta Agarwal Sharma), who has the prudence to identify with his creativity. In fact, the boy is named so for his penchant for imagery.

Support and positive reinforcement and essentials of good parenting. In his maiden venture Kabhi Paas, Kabhi Fail (2009), too, Saini had greatly emphasized it. In Foto, when Foto’s teachers raise concern about something being “wrong” with him, Shefali shuts it down politely. Instead she has an interesting conversation with her son about his ideas and suggests a pragmatic way to channel his creativity.

When a film crew arrives in his town for a shoot, Foto’s imagination finds a footing. He is dazzled by the world of props, colors, sets, sound and music, and the miracle workers who could make it thunder and rain in a jiffy.

Armed with a copy of  David Robinson’s The History of World Cinema and guidance from his ‘magician’ friend, Foto learns about cinema history, landmarks films and the various aspects of film-making. Foto’s flight of fantasy is often disrupted by a skeptic from the Imagination Detection & Prevention Squad, but the young learner chugs along.

As the shy, inventive Foto, Arjun Jaykrishna is a natural. The twinkle in his eyes and sweet-sounding voice reminds one of the cherubic Jugal Hansraj. Interestingly, Foto’s magician friend is played by Naseeruddin Shah. Ambling around in the idyllic splendour of Ranikhet, his delightful conversations with Arjun are strangely reminiscent of the ones in Masoom (1983). The warmth and the charming unhurried pace Shah brings to his unnamed character is a reminder of the gifted actor he is. The film is also peppered with cameos from several familiar faces, with a special mention to theatre veteran Uday Chandra as the skeptic.

Foto in essence is an ode to cinema and the dreamers who dared to create the magical world of motion picture, and would resonate with anyone who has a love affair with the movies.

Awards

National Film Award for Best Children’s Film (Year 2007)

Watch: Foto

Ek Ajooba (2000)

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Language: Hindi
Starring: Meghana Erande, Harsh Lunia, Omkar Kapoor
Director: Sunil Advani

When Ratan’s studious sister receives some holy ash from a wise old man to help her in securing first rank in class, his slacker friend incites Ratan to steal this ‘magical’ blessing.

Ek Ajooba is ad and documentary filmmaker Sunil Advani’s first feature film. Through the story of a few schoolkids, the film communicates the age-old adage: there is no short cut to success. No magical charms, chants or totems have the power to give you desired result. The the only path to success is through hard work and self-confidence.

Chitra (Erande) is a studious girl, who despite all her efforts, is unable to secure first position in her class. Her younger brother Ratan (Lunia) is a mediocre student who repeatedly gets hauled up by his teachers for poor performance. And being friends with slacker Baakya (Kapoor) isn’t doing him any good. When Chitra shares her concern with Guruji, a wise old family friend, he hands her some holy ash promising desired result. Baakya incites Ratan to steal the ash in order to pass in the exams. A reluctant Ratan is torn between the prospect of excelling in exams and getting out of teachers’ bad books, and stealing from his loving sister.

In a key moment in the much-adored movie, Kung Fu Panda, Po disappointed with his inability to be the promised Dragon Warrior, has an epiphany when his chef father reveals that his coveted “secret ingredient soup” has no secret ingredient. “To make something special you just believe it’s special,” says Mr Ping. As the silver haired, white clad Guruji in Ek Ajooba, Amrish Puri inspires the same sentiment that it’s the belief that will take you places.

Advani’s intention of maintaining suspense around the exam results and the film’s moral message right up to the climax is understandable, but the unfolding of the final events falters in execution looking rather ill-conceived.

Ek Ajooba has an interesting cast. It stars two popular child artistes from the late Nineties. Harsh Lunia — better-known as Just Mohabbat‘s Jai — plays the guilt-ridden Ratan, and Master Omkar of the Chhota bachcha jaan ke (Masoom, 1996) fame is the wily Baakya. As Chitra is the sweet-sounding Meghana Erande, who has gone on to become one of country’s leading voice artistes. Having voiced several cartoon characters like Noddy, Dexter’s Laboratory’s Dee Dee, Ninja Hattori and Bob The Builder’s Dizzy, she is now a part of another generation’s childhood.

Watch: Ek Ajooba