Satyajit Ray’s Pikoo’s Diary was about a young boy named Pikoo who peeps into his mother’s rather complicated world and even espies her with her lover. While the protagonist of this miniature masterpiece was a child, in no way did Pikoo’s Diary qualify as a children’s film.
This brings up an interesting point about the culture of children’s cinema. Does a film with a child in the central role qualify as a children’s film? In that case, Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom qualifies as the best children’s film in the country with the adorable trio of the then-children Urmila Matondkar, Jugal Hansraj and baby Aradhana stealing the show to the sound of Gulzar’s Lakdi ki kaathi kaathi pe ghoda… A true kiddies’ song by a poet who visits the child’s mind and heart regularly.
Playground of ideas
How many songs and films in Hindi actually penetrate the mind of the child to comprehend what lies in that restless playground of ideas? Not too many! Santosh Sivan’s Halo (1996) comes to mind immediately as one of the few that succeeded.
Sivan is known for putting animals and kids together in his films. While Halo narrated the story of a girl Sasha (Benaf Dadachandji) and her search for her lost puppy on the streets of Mumbai and the variety of people she encounters, Tahaan, set in Kashmir, revolved around a young boy (Purav Bhandare) and his quest across the mountains to find his donkey friend, Birbal.
So is it tough directing children and animals together? Says Sivan, “Believe me, it wasn’t hard directing Benaf and the dog or Purav and the donkey. There are no donkeys in Kashmir except in one village called Sirhome. Once we got this observant donkey, I handed it over to Purav. Children love to take their responsibilities seriously. Have you seen how little girls mother their dolls?”
Such insight into the mind of a child is rare in our cinema. We recently had co-directors Vikas Bahl and Nitesh Tiwari’s Chillar Party about a bunch of sassy children from a housing colony, campaigning to save a street boy and his dog from eviction. Now that was a film seen from the child’s perspective.
Otherwise the so-called children’s films in our country leave Vikas Bahl confused. He says, “I don’t understand whether children’s films are made for children or are they films featuring children but targeted at adult audiences?”
Lost its way
One lingering rarity that did the genre of children’s cinema proud was Taare Zameen Par (TZP). This 2008 film penetrated a dyslexic child Ishaan’s (Darsheel Safari) mind and heart, melting the misgivings that we have harboured regarding children’s cinema in India, at least for a while.
There have been significant films from India that look at a child’s world from inside, like Halo and Pikoo’s Diary. But if you look at TZP, its director Aamir Khan’s deceptively simple narration – the double vision whereby we see the sensitive child’s cloistered and chaotic world from his perspective, as well as from an adult’s – actually has its roots in Ray’s Pather Panchali.
Writer and creative-director Amol Gupte brought Pather Panchali into the same range of vision as Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. Ishaan could be Ray’s Apu from Pather Panchali transposed from the rural idyll of Bengal, to the harsh stifling nightmare of Mumbai where the school bus uploads him like a perishable commodity.
Gupte, who was closely associated with Taare Zameen Par, later directed the equally brilliant Stanley Ka Dabba, a look-see at the quirky, capricious comical and heartbreaking world of a child Stanley (played brilliantly by Gupte’s son Partho).
Gupte feels somewhere, children’s cinema has lost its way. “Our cinema, as too society at large, shows scant respect for children. Therefore there is a continuous downsizing of children’s intellect, which is a mere adult perception of children. Hence, dumbed-down and simplistic material is created in the name of children’s entertainment. Also, I feel there is no education on cinema at the school level. We are producing cinema illiterate generations.”
A changing mindset
Shekhar Kapoor, who made the truly enchanting children’s film, Mr India, feels the mindset of the average child has changed over the years. And so must the tone of children’s films. Says Kapoor, “We often mistake children’s films for childish films forgetting that kids today are far more mature and aware than we used to be at that age. The Internet has increased their level of sophistication. Ten is the new teenage. My daughter Kaveri at 12 had conversations with me that I did not have with my parents till 16. It’s a new world out there.”
Mahesh Bhatt and Shabana Azmi feel the Children’s Films Society Of India (CFSI) has not been able to serve its purpose. Says Azmi, “The fault lies with us. It is really sad that we don’t make any effort towards high quality entertainment for children. CFSI has not served its purpose but why should it be the Government’s duty at all? Surely, mainstream producers realise that there is a huge benefit from appealing to a captive audience! Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr India and Masoom – even though the latter was an adult subject – were loved by kids. After I played a witch in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee, I had almost as many kids walk into my home in appreciation as women after Arth! One must not talk down to children or give sermons. It has to be high quality cinema because today’s kids have access to the world. But why Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck? Why can’t our Panchatantra tales and their characters become the idiom for the world? Why can’t they be made into merchandise and we create a hunger for them in our kids? After all, it is a case of indoctrination and what advertisers create as value for us! We must invest in children’s entertainment because it is crucial and also makes perfect business sense.”
Strong in content
Nandita Das, who served a long and fruitful tenure as the chairperson of the CFSI, feels a scarcity of funds is a drawback. “Unfortunately, here economics gets in the way of everything, and therefore art suffers. It is no different in films. Because of that, people don’t want to take a chance and explore this genre. Moreover, general entertainment has further marginalised films specifically meant for children. There is a real dearth of quality content in India. It is possible though, to make low or medium budget films that are strong in content and form, and are neither preachy and boring, nor mindless and violent. The first challenge is to attract good writers and directors to make films for us. But I am glad that the quality of submissions have hugely improved and we are soon going to come out with a string of wonderful films in both, live action and animation.”
Is Nandita worried about children being more entertained by masala entertainers and not children’s films per se? “We’ll first have to make better children’s films and then give them a level playing field by marketing them adequately. Going by my experience where we showed many films to children, we were amazed how much they enjoyed them. When we restored Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor, a 1970s black-and-white film, with no child artiste, we were very unsure if the kids of today would sit through it. But to our pleasant surprise, they absolutely loved it in every screening! So let’s not assume we know what kids want. Our job is to give them alternatives, choices. The regular stuff is very accessible, but we need to make sure they also have access to films that are more age appropriate. How can a film be right for a six-year old and a 60-year old? Unfortunately, our films for children are either preachy and boring, or fluffy and sometimes even violent.”
However there are filmmakers who think the debate on the quality of children’s films is redundant. Says Hansal Mehta, “Most of these so-called children’s films are produced by a government body and released so apologetically. I think children below a certain age should not watch films! Films at a very early age restrict the development of a child’s imagination.”