May 13, 2011
Partho, Amole Gupte, Numaan Sheikh, Abhishek Reddy, Divya Dutta, Divya Jagdale, Rahul Singh
Stanley is as loveable as a child can be. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s bright without being precocious, he fibs without malice when he’s in trouble or when a concerned teacher asks why his face is covered with bruises, and he’d rather fill his empty stomach with litres of water from the cooler than admit to his classmates why he can’t afford to bring a tiffin box to school.
And yet, this student of Class IV in Holy Family High School, Mumbai, earns the wrath of his Hindi teacher. The old man thinks nothing of polishing off food from his colleagues and students at lunch time, but picks on Stanley for not bringing a dabba from home. When the irritated boys gang up and trick him out of a chance to swipe their khana but insist on sharing it with Stanley, this oily gent vents his frustration on Stan. Why would a grown man do this to a child?
Stanley ka Dabba asks precisely the question that should be asked in numerous schools across our country where there are just too many adults who forget to treat children like children. And what better way to ask that question than through a film starring child actors who seem to have forgotten the camera in their midst?
Well, they probably did forget. Because writer-director Amole Gupte did not tell the students of Mumbai’s Holy Family that he was making a film. When he started a year-and-a-half’s workshop with them, even he wasn’t sure what the result would be. So he told the kids: the camera you see is just meant as a reminder that you are part of an acting workshop. The dialogues were improvised, the light was natural, the shooting was done on an unobtrusive Canon EOS 7D still camera. And in the lead role of Stanley he cast a guileless, artless little fellow called Partho who seems like he was born into the part. The result: performances so natural that you’ll come away from the film wondering if it was a film at all. For that, more than anything else, Stanley ka Dabba is worth your time.
What bothers me about this film though is the somewhat simplistic, rose-tinted representation of children. In any regular school anywhere in the world, a child with a bruised face, mysterious family background and no tiffin to share with his classmates, would be the target of school bullies. I’m willing to swallow the fact that in this particular school, in this particular class, more children are favourably inclined towards this particular boy because he is talented and such a ray of sunshine. But we all know that gifted, popular kids attract envy in at least some measure. We also know that not every youngster is gentle with others who are less privileged. Yet neither Stanley’s murky home situation nor his remarkable talents attract any nasty classmates. Not one kid snubs him for not bringing food from home. And all the children are uniformly good. I’m afraid that doesn’t seem plausible, especially in a film that otherwise feels so realistic and real.
As I watched Stanley ka Dabba, it seemed to me that in a bid to show us the innocence and goodness in children, and their bonding when faced with an inconsiderate adult, Amole Gupte had completely wished away the real world where loving, thoughtful, sensitive kids co-exist with so many who are not; where bullies and peer pressure are as much a reality as child-like kindness. At the risk of being slaughtered by Taare Zameen Par acolytes, I must point out that this I-must-prove-my-point-at-any-cost approach is the one problem I had with TZP too. Gupte was the writer and creative director of that film, and was originally meant to direct it till Aamir Khan took over the job. In TZP, in order to convince us about the failure of adults to notice the struggles of that unhappy dyslexic boy, the film portrayed EVERY SINGLE ADULT ever encountered by Darsheel Safary’s Ishaan Awasthi as either cruel or competitive or at best, indifferent, UNTIL a major Bollywood superstar turned up as his salvation. Not as bothersome, yet worth mentioning here is the fact that towards the end of Stanley ka Dabba, the film seems to be deliberately stretching itself, almost as if trying to build up a thriller-like suspense over the truth about Stanley’s background. Completely unnecessary since the charm of the film until then is the easy, unforced storytelling style.
But still, my reservations about Stanley ka Dabba don’t take away from the fact that it’s a major step forward in an otherwise dreary children’s film scenario in Bollywood. 2011 has been a relatively good year for children in Hindi films. Disney’s Zokkomon may have been too juvenile for its own good, but it was still a pleasant reminder that Darsheel Safary is a talent to reckon with. Before that, Bheja Fry director Sagar Ballary served us Kaccha Limboo that was filled with achingly natural performances. And now comes Stanley, a beautiful little boy who will, I suspect, touch your hearts like he did mine despite the incompleteness of his story.
Gupte’s revolutionary approach to making a film with children should make our exploitative, un-vigilant system sit up and take notice: he says he conducted his workshop every Saturday, in four-hour sessions in the morning with two recesses; that the children didn’t miss a single day of school for the film. Clearly, he’s also brilliant in the art of just letting children be. The adult actors are perfect for their parts: Gupte himself as the callous teacher, Divya Dutta as the compassionate one that Stanley has a crush on, Divya Jagdale as the unimaginative science Miss, Rahul Singh who looks distractingly handsome as the kind principal in the priestly black cassock ... As for the child actors: Numaan Sheikh and Abhishek Reddy, you are utterly lovely! All the kids who I am not naming in this review, yes every single one of you: you are lovely too!
And what do I say about Gupte’s son, 10-year-old Partho’s screen presence? Watch out Ranveer Singh! Eight years from now, this guy could well be your competition!
Rating (out of five): ***
CBFC Rating: U without cuts
Running time: 92 MinutesLanguage: Hindi and English