Mayank Shekhar: That thing called first crush
Meri Nimmo, produced by Aanand L Rai, is a rare Hindi film that tells you as much about childhood as life in a village
Karan Devam and Anjali Patil in a still from Meri Nimmo. Pic/Twitter
Around mid 2000s, when mainstream Hindi cinema audiences were almost neatly split between front-bencher, single-screen crowds in small towns dedicatedly following superstar Salman Khan (and the like); and the city folk, who caught Shah Rukh Khan's non-resident Indian romances at plush, urban multiplexes, I asked Shah Rukh if he thought of himself as essentially an urban phenomenon. "You're also an urban writer," Shah Rukh shot back. Which is true, given English as the medium of expression. But, he went on to add, rather tellingly that "movies themselves are basically an urban phenomena."
Are they? Think about it. Nearly 70 per cent of India lives in villages. Absolutely none of whom have a cinema near them. There is usually one in the closest district (Mona, Jaya, Prashant, etc), several of which have also shut down.
Is that why about 850 million people rarely, if ever, find themselves represented in movies - still very much the most popular form of public entertainment? The best known Indian film is obviously Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), made by a full-on Bhadralok Calcutta elite, whose curiosity about rural life in Bengal found instant resonance among film buffs across the world. They'd never seen anything like this before.
Does the little kid Dave (Karan Devam, such a fine talent) in the sweet, slice-of-life film Meri Nimmo, produced by Aanand L Rai, and directed by first-timer Rahul Shanklya, faintly remind you of Apu from Pather Panchali? Very faintly. The children here seem more like the ones from Avinash Arun's stunningly brilliant Marathi film, Killa (2015), set in rural Maharashtra.
Although living in what seems to be a village, perhaps somewhere in central India, the kids in Meri Nimmo also know their movies, as they figure out a unique way to project a film-negative on a wall using sunlight and mirror, and can tell that Shah Rukh in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) played Raj, not Rahul in that film.
Eight-year-old Dave, to be fair, is also a bit of a romantic 'Raj' (in his own head). Look back at when you were growing up, and tell me if your first crush, as it were, wasn't an adult - maybe the school teacher, if not a super-super-senior from high school. Little boy Dave similarly falls in love with the neighbourhood 'Didi', Nimmo (played so effortlessly by Anjali Patil).
Dave's is effectively everyone's unexpressed childhood drama. His level of obsession with the old girl (who adores him almost like a mom) could make you slightly queasy as in the voyeuristic kid's short story in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog (1989), badly remade in Hindi as Ek Chhotisi Love Story (2002).
But no, you actually fall for this child as he innocently falls for Nimmo, who's about to get married, and he simply can't take it! Primarily for its incredibly natural ensemble cast, what you fall for most, actually, is the world that director Shanklya surveys through his film, diving you deep into the tiniest nuances of rural/semi-urban Indian life, with its own quirks and customs, rhythms and rituals, even homilies and pop-psychology.
Among stuff I learnt, for instance, is that peeing (urinating) on a wound heals it, and that being left alone heals a broken heart. Not that one ought to excessively romanticise rural life. There's plenty of rubbish going on in there. But, it's great sometimes to get a unique insight into a culture - defined mainly as how people entertain themselves (worshipping, marriage ceremonies, playing sport, taking potshots at each other).
Meri Nimmo, in that sense, isn't 'popular entertainment', which is separate from what we term 'art', that's chiefly a medium of self-expression - mostly unconcerned by the number of people it pleases. But, the film is still so much a crowd-pleaser - funny, real, and altogether a lived-in experience.
Would people in villages get to see this rare Hindi film, ostensibly set in a village? For once, along with everyone else. In what seems like definitely the future of non-blockbuster flicks, hardcore, mainstream Bollywood producers Rai and Eros have decided to open their film, this Friday - but on a streaming app, entirely ignoring a theatrical release. The Internet, even if crazily slow, seems to have entered villages, almost at the same time as electricity, roads, or television. Would this film move the audience it talks about? Think they'll love it. Everybody would. Okay, clearly, I did.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to email@example.com
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