Twenty five year-old student Dominic Megam Sangma seems silver-tongued over the telephone from Kolkata, as he speaks about what children’s cinema “ought to do in the world”.
As a child in a small village, Tura, in Meghalaya, Sangma’s legs once went numb (and later, tingly) after sitting for hours in an open ground near a church in the village. He gaped, rocking back and forth with laughter, as a makeshift projector screen set up by Italian missionaries showed Charlie Chaplin’s antics.
Many years later, after he shifted to Kolkata to study filmmaking at the Film And Television Institute of India (FTII), Sangma experienced the first pangs of “the alienation of a big city”. That was when he decided to jot it all down — his childhood, the camaraderie, and the projector screen.
He emailed his story in the form of a feature film script — in his native tribal dialect, Garo — to the Children’s Film Society Of India (CFSI), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, earlier this month. His script is among 17 others to be selected for a new initiative by CFSI, the Script Lab, a month-long residential scriptwriting and filmmaking workshop, which will be held in Bhubaneshwar on August 25.
Inspired by Gattu
On July 20, director Rajan Khosa’s film, Gattu, became the first film by the 57 year-old CFSI to have found commercial release. Gattu is about a child who loves to fly kites, and must hunt down Kali, the mysterious black kite, which dominates the skies, if he wants to win the next competition.
The film found special mention at the Berlin Film Festival this year and won critical acclaim at other international festivals. Things finally seem to be looking up for the body which, till now, largely ended up showing films in schools and tied up with NGOs for organise screenings for children.
Monica Wahi, creative head at the CFSI, sees children’s cinema changing in many ways. “Until last year, for instance, 80 percent of the scripts we received were in Hindi, and the rest in English.
But, over the last few months, we’ve received scripts for children’s films from writers and locals in the northeast, which never really happened before. They want to tell quaint, personal stories, in their regional dialects. Imagine the range of stories children will now have access to...” says Wahi.
CFSI Chairperson Nandita Das says, the body makes around 250 films a year. “Now, it is time we represented India’s diversity in our children’s films. This year, we took films to the northeast and Kashmir, and there were children who told us they had never watched a film on screen,” says Das. Recently, she adds, the CFSI tied up with Rajshri productions and put up 50 children’s films on their website, which can now be accessed for free.
Sangma too, is gung ho about taking children’s cinema to better places. His Garo script is about an eight year-old who is branded ‘unlucky’ by everyone in his village because his mother dreamt so during her pregnancy. The projector screen set up in his village helps him through the crisis. “It’s a true story — my cousin was considered unlucky in my village and I felt queasy about it even as a child.
The bit about the cinema is my addition,” he says. The decision to send a script in Garo, he says, comes from the need to be a voice of his region. “I am the first person from my village to have ever made a film, and now, I want to take the dying Garo dialect to children across the country.”
Filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda, director of the well-received 2010 children’s film, I am Kalam and director of the Script Lab for the CFSI, says scriptwriters on children’s films are going beyond the Chandamama-style of stories. This year, he says, the entries for the scripts have sprung a surprise he was long waiting for.
“The scripts tell stories of regions children will be thrilled to learn about. We had an entry from a writer who wrote about a sleepwalker in a village in Bihar. It captured that region beautifully.”
At the Script Lab, writers will be mentored by filmmakers, scriptwriters and producers from India, Germany and Netherlands to make a feature film, and will learn how to sell their scripts and approach producers and distributors. CFSI may also fund a few promising scripts which come out of the script lab.
At the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Powai, associate professor Shilpa Ranade’s office is full of illustrations of owls, princesses and a scruffy singer-musician duo. Her forthcoming animation film, Goopy Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, is a 75 minute-long animation feature based on 1969 Satyajit Ray film, Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen. In 2010, lyricist Gulzar rewrote the story for the publisher, Scholastic and Ranade illustrated the book. The film will be ready by September.
If the rushes on her computer are anything to go by, it’s a wild, vibrant product with everything — out-of-tune but persistent artistes, exasperated villagers, a spooky ghost perpetually on fire, a good and a bad king, and twists and turns.
“I was worried about making such a long feature film for children, but I really think the animation will give kids something different to think about — art that has indigenous stories and goes beyond the typical Disney characters they’re often fed on as their first onscreen experience,” says Ranade.
Animation for children, she adds, rarely finds funding if it doesn’t have a big studio attached to your project. “When I tell people I am an illustrator, the first question I am asked is, “Oh, so you make cartoons?’” Hopefully, the imagery and detail will change the perception of what it takes to make an animation feature film for kids in India,” she hopes.
Khosa says he is heartened at the change in children’s filmmaking in the country, but chooses to remain “pragmatic” about its sustenance. “Children’s films in India are stuck in bottlenecks because of the lack of a revenue model.”
Parents, he says, gladly take their children to watch a Rowdy Rathore, but not for a film made for children. “The revenue system in India is focused on stars, nothing else. Children’s filmmakers have little reason to be optimistic in these circumstances,” he shrugs.
The fact that the CFSI is getting regional scripts is a good sign, he adds, because international film festivals do not care about the language. “For them, whether it is Manipuri or Marathi, the story and the treatment matters most,” says Khosa.
What the country needs to sustain films like Stanley Ka Dabba and Gattu, is a policy. “When the European Union was being formed in the ’50s, filmmakers who explored ideas based in three European countries earned rebates and other benefits from governments, so the citizens could understand the move better and empathise.
There were many films that explored romance and relationships across borders, showed how France is connected to Denmark, which is further connected to Italy. We aren’t doing that for children here in India.”
Fresh entrants, like Sangma, agree, but are equally thrilled at the possibility that they may be the change themselves. Sangma still has not told his father, who retired as an officer at Guwahati’s telegram office 10 years ago, about his Garo script.
“He won’t understand how big this is. It was my grandfather, the village’s storyteller, who sat under a tree and told stories,” says Sangma. “Perhaps, after I make my first children’s film, I’ll sit with my father around a bonfire, and tell him about children and Garo films.”
Documentary filmmaker Shazia Khan is another winner of the CFSI’s Script Lab contest, and her entry is a film in Urdu, Kashmiri and bits of English. The 33 year-old has, in the past 10 years, made films on religions and cultures in India. Her 2007 documentary, Caravan: The Journey Of Islam In India and Salaam India, dealt with the contemporary situation of Muslims in India. “In college,
I had written a largely autobiographical script of a girl growing up amid the armed uprising in Kashmir and the impact on her mind. When I heard that CFSI was inviting scripts for children’s films, I knew I had found my platform,” says Khan.
“I think it is important to expose Indian children to all kinds of stories — including regional ones set in strife, because that world, too exists, just as much as the sanitised one does. Filmmakers never got a chance to tell such stories because the revenue model doesn’t support these stories. As a filmmaker, I see that changing with films like Gattu reaching theatres,” she feels.