July 12, 2013
Wamiqa Gabbi, Izabelle Leite, Mehak Manwani, Highphill Mathews, Keith Sequeira, Zakir Husain, Varun Jhamb, Rohan Mehra
English and Hindi
Sixteen is the sweet surprise of the week… The film is set in a public school in Delhi where 16-year-olds Tanisha, Anu, Nidhi and Ashwin study. Tanisha – oblivious to the fact, as most teenagers are, that she’s not very old – is convinced she’s unlucky in relationships, not just of the romantic kind. A parentless child, she lives with her young and single aunt in South Extension. Anu is a brazenly self-assured aspiring model who stubs out relationships as ruthlessly as cigarettes that have run out. She is soon to discover that her idyllic family is not quite what it seems to be. Nidhi is confident in her own way, keen to please her boyfriend yet determined to lose her virginity only when she feels the time is right. As is the case with so many families, she’s doted on by her father and resents her vigilant mother who in turn feels Dad is trying to win a popularity contest with his daughter. Ashwin, the quiet one of the lot, is not as well-off as the three girls. He is tormented by his unrequited love for Tanisha and his physically abusive father who is determined to make him an IAS officer.
When we meet the four at the start of the film, one of them is about to slit a wrist, the other is propositioning a man twice her age, the third is lying distraught in a hospital bed and the fourth has a gun aimed at someone. The film then retraces its steps, taking us through the events of the previous months that brought them to this pass.
Sixteen’s effectiveness comes from its no-nonsense storytelling style – no fuss, no frills, no judgments passed while dealing with issues of teen sex, alcohol and cigarette consumption, career planning, porn watching, peer pressure, family pressure and love. While it does not indulge in preachy moralising (name one kid who would listen if it did), make no mistake about this: it’s not glorifying irresponsible behaviour. If you have sex, guess what? You could get pregnant. An abortion is no cakewalk, honey. Parents are human. That mother you consider irritating is your well-wisher… All this is woven into the story sans sermons. To top it all, it’s entertaining. Striking that balance is not easy, but writer-director Raj Purohit – also the film’s editor and lyricist – pulls it off with the aid of his co-scriptwriter Pawan Sony. There’s an occasional stilted English dialogue here and there, but for the most part the characters switch from English to Hindi and back using a vocabulary that urban Indians naturally do.
The casting of Sixteen is impeccable. In fact, the actors feel more like real people than actors. Brazilian model Izabelle Leite lends spunk and glamour to Anu’s role (honestly, if I hadn’t googled her I wouldn’t have guessed she’s a foreigner, nor known that her voice has been dubbed). Mehak Manwani as Nidhi delivers her lines with such a trademark rich-English-speaking-Delhi-kid accent and tone that you’ve got to wonder whether she forgot there’s a camera around and is simply being herself. Wamiqa Gabbi as the wise-beyond-her-years Tanisha gets the most lines and screen space, and lives up to the challenge. Highphill Mathews’ broodingly unhappy Ashwin is the least feisty of the characters and barely has any lines. He too rises to the challenge. The foursome get able support from their adult co-stars including veteran character actor Zakir Husain playing Ashwin’s father; pretty television actress Prabhleen Sandhu as Tanisha’s bua, and VJ-cum-model Keith Sequeira who enters their lives as Vikram Kapoor, a 32-year-old writer from London who wants to soak in Delhi for his next novel and so takes up residence with them as a paying guest.
I specify Vikram’s age because it’s a reminder of how un-Bollywood-ish this film is. In an industry where men in their mid-40s are prone to playing teenaged IIT students and same-age lovers to actresses half their age, you do stop for a moment when a 32-year-old male character actually looks 32. In an industry where a gap of 20 years between heroes and heroines is routine, and a film is not considered an older-man-younger-woman romance until the hero is 45 years older (like Bachchan with Jiah Khan in Nishabd), it’s amusing to hear a 16-year-old girl tell a 32-year-old man that she wants to know his age to be sure he’s not a paedophile. Keith gets the tenor of his Vikram just right. He could have ended up looking sleazy, but does not. He’s precisely what a cheeky teen might describe to her friends as a “hot uncle”.
Sixteen is also imbued with a feel of Delhi without unimaginatively thrusting architectural landmarks in our faces. So while we do get scenes at India Gate and CP, and St Columba’s School is a strong presence, the scent of the city wafts around elsewhere too. Delhi Metro trains drown out a harsh father, and at some point it sinks in that Tanisha’s parents must have died in a major fire this city is yet to forget.
The technical departments of the film (costumes, lighting, makeup, cinematography, editing) all step up to give Sixteen what it’s clearly aiming at: a very real feel. It’s also a clever ploy to give the background score a thriller edge when Vikram is around. If there’s one thing I’d wish away, it would be the philosophising about teenagers through a TV show with Vikram in the end. That passage doesn’t match the film’s otherwise non-speechy tone. If you watch Sixteen, don’t go looking for a massive epic and what you’ll get is what it is: NOT a nostalgia ride harking back to your own youth, but an insightful slice of urban, upper-crust teen life precisely as it is today.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
138 minutes (as per pvrcinemas.com)
Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/SixteenTheFilm