Half Ticket[Introduction]The unheralded and unfulfilled world of children’s films in India.[Body]For a country rich in both grannies’ tales and celluloid ventures, it is a surprisethat India has never had a consistent record when it comes to films for children.Mainstream cinema stretched itself in simultaneously appealing to every tastebud, with the result that niche markets, like those for children, were never on theagenda of most production houses. Unlike Iranian cinema, whose socialconstraints sparked a creative revolution in children’s films, Indian cinema wasfree to flourish commercially. The result was that most children’s films becamerelegated to the sidelines or were dependent on state patronage.Of course, there is no clear definition of what a children’s film is or should be.Several films that had at least one child actor in a central role (backed by a petanimal or two) instantly became labeled as a children’s film. Sometimes, this wasthe death knell of many an aspirant to box office success. Some films like Mr.India did manage to balance ensemble casts of children with conventional starsen route to commercial megabucks, while “Chota Chetan” piggy-backed on itsnovelty of being India’s first 3D film.However, thanks in part to some visionary directors and the Children’s FilmSociety of India (a government agency), Indian filmmaking centered around kidshave produced a few memorable films that would make it to any must-watch listsof Indian cinema.The years immediately after independence tended to glorify children as paragonsof virtue. One such example was “Jagriti” (1954), an Indian Tom Brown’sSchooldays, with paeans to the Independence movement in that particular quirkof Indian playback singing: adult singers singing in falsettos for child actors.“Boot Polish”, released in the same year, was set on the streets of Bombay, andwas notable for being backed by Raj Kapoor, by then a film industry baron.By the 70s, children in commercial Hindi films were either playing haplesssiblings or younger versions of lead stars who would end up running intoadulthood by reel two. By then, the Children’s Film Society of India (establishedin 1955 by Jawaharlal Nehru) had taken on the responsibility of producing filmsfor younger audiences. However, a lack of interest in marketing these films to awider audience restricted them to film festivals or later, television.In contrast, Satyajit Ray had begun making films that would nominally be aimedat children, but were made with the same care and sophistication that suffusedany of his other masterpieces. In particular, Ray’s fantasy comedy “Goopy GyneBagha Byne” and his Feluda story “Sonar Kella” are outstanding examples fromhis filmography.
In recent times, two filmmakers have carried forward a similar interest forsubjects that put children firmly in the limelight. Santosh Sivan, a master of fluidcinematography, made his feature debut as director with “Halo” (1996). The filmis a milestone of filmmaking for kids, with a zany mix of angles and characterswrapped around a simple tale of a child who finds a lost dog. Like all goodchildren’s movies, it never patronised its young characters. Sivan’s “Malli” and“Tahaan” would further underline his keen interest in stories involving youngminds.The other filmmaker walks in the unusual footsteps of Ray as director-composer.Vishal Bhardwaj has earned praise for his taut dramas and Shakespeareanadaptations, but like Sivan, he chose to debut with “Makdee” (2002). Anengaging tale that deals with superstition and mischief, the film served as a testbed for Bhardwaj’s directorial aspirations. In comparison, his “The BlueUmbrella” (2007) was an assured piece of cinema which was not afraid to delveinto darker themes of egotism and ostracism. Based on a Ruskin Bond story, itbegs the question as to why other filmmakers haven’t similarly tapped into therich vein of Indian children’s literature.Despite its cinematic qualities and critical success, “The Blue Umbrella” receivedvery little mainstream attention, a fate shared by many of its predecessors. Forone, it lacked a market-friendly star, which was something the Aamir Khan-powered “Taare Zameen Par” (2007) had in abundance.This was a film conceived and partly executed by Amole Gupte and is arguablythe most successful Indian film to fully focus around a child protagonist. Ithighlighted the somewhat obscure subject of dyslexia while making pertinentobservations on the nature of parental expectations.The subject of disaffected children would be explored to good effect in films likeGulzar’s “Kitaab” (1977) and the Marathi “Dahavi F” (2002) . Shyam Benegal’s“Mammo” took a fresh look at post-Partition relationships in a warmly writtenfilm about an orphaned boy discovering life and films via his aunt.Animation is considered prime kiddie material but India is nowhere close tostate-of-the-art cinema in this respect. Indian filmmakers haven’t even replicatedthe success of the likes of the Amar Chitra Katha books in popularity. But inrecent times, a potentially viable genre of stories around mythological characterslike Hanuman and Ganesha has emerged. These efforts still lack the finesse orcreativity in story-telling that sets a Pixar apart.Children’s films in India have shown an annoying Peter Pan-like tendency tonever really come of age despite possessing all the necessary cultural andtechnical ingredients. In part, the inconsistency of audiences in acceptingchildren-centric films has hurt the genre. Mani Ratnam’s intimate “Kannathil
Muthamittal” (2002) was arguably a much better effort than his “Anjali” (1990),but suffered a contrasting financial fate.However, the multiplex boom of the last decade has seen a change in businessmodels which has allowed smaller movies to compete commercially. Carefullymarketed children’s films could now have a better chance. The Harry Potterfranchise and the Pixar creations have set international benchmarks that wouldstill be beyond most Indian productions. Therefore, the key would lie in thequality of the tales and story-telling, rather than in graphic rendering or animaltricks. The inclination of successful filmmakers like Santosh Sivan or VishalBhardwaj to keep returning to the genre should inspire others, especially youngerdirectors, to explore this space. Indian short filmmakers have already exhibitedboth boldness and success with the genre in recent times. India’s equivalent of“Children of Heaven” may well be nearby – perhaps someone just needs to lookup.Text:J. Ramanand (firstname.lastname@example.org, 97642 58560)