Gattu Rajan Khosa fiftyfiftyme2013: Major
I got this film primarily because it was produced under the auspices of the Children’s Film Society of India while Nandita Das was chairperson. It was a tangential connection to my filmi favourite, but seeing her listed first in the “Special Thanks” made me feel good. So did the film.
Some synopses have used phrases like “The story of an orphan chasing his dream”. That might make it sound like this film is going to be unbearably twee or saccharine. It isn’t. In fact, for the first twenty minutes or so, I was wondering whether Ms Das’s involvement actually meant that this was doomed to be some sort of Dickensian horror that ended bleakly. Happily, it wasn’t that either.
I found Gattu to be a great children’s film. Uplifting with a positive tone fitting for its audience, and with a clear moral or message, but devoid of sickly sentimentality. The first twenty minutes or so in particular reminded me that the world of Indian children like Gattu is more remote from my experience or comprehension than Mars will ever be. The candour of the film in showing the world of its orphan hero was never overwhelmingly grim, coming across as more matter-of-fact, “this is how it is” than any “slum porn” glorification or romanticising of hardship.
The casual and accepted use of violence and humiliation as disciplinary tactics by authority figures was another reminder that this was another world, but the film strove to show that the people doing these things were not sadistic bullies, but people who meant well, for the most part.
The characterisations were the strength of the film, especially Gattu. A very focused young boy, his dream of conquering the seemingly invincible patang known as Kali is the core of the story. Everything he does is about trying to beat the unknown flier of the black kite with a legendary status in his town. His determination to beat Kali sees him steal a uniform to gain access to a local school, whose roof is the highest point in town.
An illiterate orphan child labourer breaks into a school whose motto is satyamev jayate – it probably doesn’t take a degree in film studies to work out where this goes. Indeed, the inevitability of the outcome resulted in a mildly jarring transformation in a couple of the characters, a slightly rushed revelation of their better natures that seemed a bit implausible. The ending of the film with children singing saare jahaan se achchaa also struck a false note with me as a somewhat manipulative display of nationalism. Then again, this is an Indian film for children, funded by the Children’s Film Society of India, a part of a government ministry, so nationalist propaganda and a happy ending that seemed a bit convenient were not deal breakers.
This was another film in a similar vein to Stanley ka Dabba and I Am Kalam. I enjoyed all three very much, and while Gattu did not wow me as much as the exceptional Kalam, like them it did draw me into to its sweet tale and make me care about what happened to its hero, primarily thanks to a great performance from its young lead. If you’re looking for a child-friendly film with a good message and engaging characters, Gattu will not disappoint.