Children’s Cinema Still a Distant Cry
Is there a children’s cinema in India? If yes, how alive and vibrant is it? If not, why not in a country which eats, breathes and sleeps entertainment no matter what the form; and is crazy about films, film stars. Unlike the West where film-makers have thrived on creating strong characters, idols and icons, their counterparts in India until recently—and that too largely through the small screen—have tried to capture the imagination of the young through history and mythology, the latter being more impactful and dramatic. There are three distinct parameters for defining children-related cinema in India. Those explicitly made for a specific audience, those that have centred around their needs and problems, and those where children have been used as characters either to carry the narrative forward, or where stories have tended to move around them.
Cinema in India per se is still at a nascent stage and has largely dealt with themes other than family situation. It has invariably been found that almost all films, where children are involved in defining moments have garnered great response. There have been hundreds of such films. And songs and music play an important role in mainstream Indian cinema and have contributed substantially to the success of these films. Yet a perception persists that films for and about children do not make box office news with the result that financiers, distributors, and now the corporate houses shy away from investing in this ‘risky’ genre. Unfortunately, and for undefined reasons the Children’s Films Society ostensibly created to make infotainment films for younger audience in 1955, at the instance of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has failed to make a breakthrough. The 112 features it has produced thus far, averaging two a year, have proved insufficient in converting it into a movement because an occasional Makdee or a Blue Umbrella, or a Stanley ka Dabba hardly makes for a movement. And this will remain so as long as winning awards is the sole criterion.
There is also a perception that parents are averse to lining up at the box office window for something that wouldn’t serve their own interests. That is also erroneous because entertainment is a universal emotion, and there have been several instances when cinema theatres had been suitably invaded for what was ostensibly not for an adult audience. Take Ra.One for instance. Or the other recent Tare Zameen Par, Chillar Party, Stanley ka Dabba, Koi…Mil Gaya, Krishh. Or still earlier Bum Bum Bole, Tarra Rum Pum, Tarzan—the Wonder Car, Iqbal, Chain Khuli ki Main Khuli, Bhoothnath, We Are Family, Jagantaram Mamantaram, Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke, King Uncle, Wah Life Ho to Aisee, Raju Chacha, Rani Aur Lal Pari, My Friend Ganesha, Thoda Pyar Thoda Magic, Chota Chetan, to name just a handful. All of them can give a clarion call of rise to CFS. Whatever the compulsions of the august body, like many of its sister organisations, it has failed to deliver.
Two of the earliest films of the genre were Satyen Bose’s Jagrati, (which one the Filmfare Best Film Award in 1954). The same year KA Abbas made India’s second songless film, Munaa; Raj Kapoor experimented with Boot Polish from which the song Nane munne bachche teri muthi mein kya hai (what do you have in your fist, child) that when replayed even now transports one back to one’s own childhood. Most Hindi films of the 50s and the 60s had children playing a pivotal role—all without exception with a clear-cut message. Other similar fare followed with films like Ab Dilli Door Nahin, Naunihal, Do Kaliyan, Akhari Khat, Parichay, Masoom, to name just a few. In this cinema almost all issues of importance have been tackled successfully without compromising either the narrative content or the issue specific, often using songs to drive home the thrust area.
These films have dealt with poverty, untouchability, orphans, disability, education, destitute, sports etc. Even those made in the popular genre: Brahmachari, Mr India etc raked in the moolah. Some of the other songs that instantly come to mind are: Nanha munna rahi hoon desh ka sipahi hoon bolo mere sang jai hind jai hind, Chun chun karti aayee chidya; Tera mujh se hai pahle; Nani teri moorni ko moor le gaye baki jo bacha tha kale choor le gaye; Chanda mama door ke; Rote rote hasna sekho; Chal mere ghode tik tik tik; Hum bhi agar bachche hote; Hai na bolo bolo; Lakdi ki kathi kathi pe ghoda; Machli hai jal ki rani; Lala lala lori dudh ki katori; Bachche manke schche are some of the other songs rendered on screen by children in some of those Hindi films where the story in some way or the other centred around a child. Many of these were also situational birthday songs. In the adult world, however juvenile, of Hindi cinema there hardly seemed to be a place for child-centric film, though with experimentation now in vogue the trend seems to be catching up now as there have been more films in the past decade or so directly aimed at the juvenile audience.
One potential genre sorely missed has been seeking out superheroes from Indian mythology. Its successful run on the small screen should have been an eye-opener. But in the changed atmosphere of Hindi cinema where corporate houses are dictating the content, totally ignoring response to films like My Friend Ganesha, Hanuman etc. Hollywood has thrived on idols from history and mythology. Indian cinema emulates only the urban themes. Small screen budgets do not permit special effects, so the films or programmes generally tend to fizzle out fast.
It is interesting to observe that it has generally been short and documentary film-makers who have tried to break fresh ground when attempting forays into feature films relating to children or young adults. The latest to join the bandwagon is the Delhi-based documentary producer, Shashi Varma who has done a number of films on child labour, drug abuse and road safety. Approached judiciously, such documentaries have proved to be effective despite limited budgets. CFS has failed in this direction as well. None of the 52 short documentaries and news magazines produced over the years have made an impact. This is probably because not enough thought has been given to the kind of films the literate rural or urban audience would want to identify with.
Varma’s Papa Please ostensibly deals with anxiety and parental pressures for higher percentage of marks in final examinations. It has a class-12 girl Abilasha, and the story unfolds from her perspective, including discrimination that she faces because of her gender. With a strong storyline it should succeed but what will remain to be seen if it would bring about the necessary breakthrough.
By Suresh Kohli