Monday, September 10, 2018


Release date:
September 7, 2018
Nila Madhab Panda

Tathastu, Ranvir Shorey, Pauli Dam, Aryan Preet, Kumud Mishra

Once upon a time in Gurgaon, a little boy did not want to do his daily morning business by the rail tracks with the other residents of his slum. So he lobbied his mother and father for a toilet in their house, and dreamt of a spotlessly clean, neon-coloured room where he could relieve himself each day without turning this intensely private part of his routine into a social exercise. Mom, who worked in an agarbatti factory, supported him, but churlish Dad, a cycle-rickshaw driver, could not see beyond his own ambition to graduate to an autorickshaw. 

The moment Halkaa (Relief) opens, you know of course the answer to the question: will they live happily ever after? This is not necessarily a problem, since the end is not all that counts – the journey matters. You also know from the beginning that the film is not striving for an overly realistic tone. Mirroring the shiny new shauchalay of Pichku’s fantasy and his mother’s perfectly manicured nails at the tips of her long and slender, pretty fingers, the film adopts a beamingly positive tone from the start, offering us a determinedly sanitised, sweetened, cutesefied view of the deprivations the child suffers and the hovel he inhabits.

This approach would have been fair enough if the rest of the narrative had depth. After all, writer-director Nila Madhab Panda is the man who gave us the equally cheery-in-trying-circumstances I Am Kalam (2011), a rewarding saga – insightful in the ultimate analysis – of an impoverished orphan keen to get an education, and last year’s unapologetically dismal, poignant environment film Kadvi Hawa (Bitter Wind). So it makes sense to keep an open mind and invest in Panda since there is no telling where he might take us through Pichku’s story. Sadly, the investment does not pay off this time.

Over and above all its weaknesses, what hampers Halkaa most is its superficial writing. The story is credited jointly to Panda and Nitin Dixit, the screenplay and dialogues to Dixit. The film has a cause, and appears to have assumed that overt messaging supplemented by the tiny leading man’s darling appearance and Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s mildly engaging songs are enough. They are not.

Halkaa starts off reasonably well – Pichku’s attempts to steer clear of the railway line near his colony are funny, and young Tathastu who plays Pichku is nice. As the narrative rolls along though, it becomes clear that the screenplay has no depth, several plot twists feel contrived and too many plot elements seem borrowed from other children’s films, including I Am Kalam (most especially the poorly written rich child who watches Pichku and his gang from a distance, and ultimately befriends the hero). And so, Tathastu ends up relying too much on his innate charm to strike a chord with the audience since the writing does not give him the substance on which to hang his performance. 

Ranvir Shorey, who was so brilliant in Kadvi Hawa, is the best thing about this film, playing with gusto the unlikeable, insensitive father who is utterly impervious to and confused by his son’s concerns. There’s only so much even he can do though with this limited storyline.

Kumud Mishra is wasted in a badly conceptualised role. Pauli Dam as Pichku’s mother is glamourised in the most incongruous fashion for this setting. I am not saying there are no good-looking women in slums, I am pointing out that it is impossible to be a slumdweller and such an industrious factory worker with never a hair out of place or at least a spot of chipped nail polish.

From the Bhoothnath films to Taare Zameen Par, I Am Kalam, Chillar Party, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Dhanak and Dangal, several Hindi films of the past decade have scored big with talented child actors. Casting directors such as Mukesh Chhabra and Honey Trehan have turned the discovery of gifted under-18s into a high art form. Halkaa has not toiled enough on this front. While Tathastu is certainly huggable and may perhaps deliver a better performance in a better film, and Aryan Preet who plays his friend Gopi is a charming fellow handicapped by flimsy writing, there are no excuses for the rest of the kiddy gang. The wealthy boy from a swish school struggles to emote. And not one of the remaining bachcha party in the slum is as arresting as that firecracker called Harsh Mayar from I Am Kalam or that other firecracker called Hetal Gada from Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak.

The simple aspirations of innocent children have been a happy hunting ground for many talented filmmakers in the past. As recently as 2015, Tamil director M. Manikandan turned the longing of two Chennai slumkids for a slice of pizza into the marvellous Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Eggs), which won National Awards at home and accolades abroad. India’s problem of open defecation was the theme of Bollywood director Shree Narayan Singh’s Akshay Kumar-Bhumi Pednekar-starrer Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), which unfortunately became a propaganda vehicle for the ruling party. It is the Tamil film industry a.k.a. Kollywood – again – that should get the credit for making one of the country’s most mature films on the subject: the National Award-winning political satire Joker (2016). Halkaa tries to be a children’s satire, but flounders from the word go.

Great films are born of great screenplays. This one sounds more like an ad advocating the use of toilets stretched to a 114-minutes-long feature and including some of the most blatant product placements ever seen on screen. It means well, but good intentions and a wide-eyed hero are just not enough.

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
114 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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