Imagine having to jump a little every time you wanted to sit on a chair because it is higher than you, or not being able to buy clothes off the rack or being forced to visit the kid’s section to buy them. Imagine all the public spaces you pass through on a regular basis not being built to serve your height, meaning you cannot reach out to the handrails in a bus, or the pot/urinal in a public toilet.
Obviously, the question arises but why should that be, the society around us is so designed that it serves us. But does this ‘us’ include everyone, does our society really serve everyone’s needs? Out of this question is formed the premise of Kaushik Ganguly’s latest film “Chotoder Chobi”—which received the award for “Best Film On Social Issues”—that was screened at the morning show of the of the first official day of the 62nd National Film Festival that is being held at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi.
Kaushik Ganguly—the Bengali filmmaker—with each passing film is upping his ante given his choice of subjects. After taking up homosexual love and gender identities in “Arekti Premer Golpo” (2010), and the obscurity that the celebrated child actor of Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) had faced in “Apur Panchali” (2013), Ganguly turns his wryly empathetic gaze at the dwarves we see occasionally in circuses or films as comic relief but conveniently forget the next moment.
At the very outset, the name of the film demands the audience’s attention which literally means “(A) Picture for Small People”. You cannot help but wonder uneasily whether it is a comment on our society that has comfortably turned up our noses from the dwarves amidst us. The film is anchored on Khoka (Dulal Sarkar)—again a Bengali term of endearment meaning ‘small boy’—a dwarf, who works as a circus clown and gives us entry into the world of these ‘under-sized people’. He is friends with Shibu, a clown like himself, whom a dreadful accident renders physically incapacitated. Not being able to deal with the fact of the circus paying him a ‘pittance’ for his life’s services Shibu consumes rat poison and dies a painful death. Khoka, gains the acquaintance of Shibu’s family through this tragedy and builds an unlikely connection with the former’s daughter, Shoma (Debalina Roy)—a couple of inches shorter than Khoka. Ganguly had deliberately taken non-actors, careful not to dilute the fragile balance that the story needed. It eventually paid off as Dulal Sarkar was awarded “Best Actor” at the 45th International Film Festival of India in Goa.
The film, overall, deals with universal issues of love, loss and the need for companionship. It is then that you realize with a jolt the only cause you had been expecting something different was because of the size of the people in the film. The director ruthlessly digs into mainstream society’s constricted idea of the normal upon the course of the film with clever cinematography and scene-mounting. Tall tops of buildings, or a low-angle shot of a staircase where Shoma is climbing up a staircase, or a simple shot of their feet always hovering a few inches above the ground whether sitting in a bus or a restaurant. There is a quietly ironic scene where passers-by ogle the phalanx of dwarves in Shibu’s funeral procession underlining the community’s lack of dignity even in death.
It is a given that their means of livelihood has to be cashed upon the fact that they are seen as freaks of nature. In that vein Shibu is a circus clown and his daughter a hawker in trains who hopes to sell better than the average hawker because of the natural attention she draws. Conversely, they are avoided by family and neighbours alike and Shoma aborts her mother’s big plans for her father’s funeral saying she will not invite the same people who consider them sufficiently inauspicious to be ignored in their rituals. Besides, the name-calling and shaming they invite the dwarves can be seen as either objects of curiosity or pity.
The pace and setting of the film is commendably understated with the background score by Indraadip Dasgupta seamlessly fitting the film’s tone. Yet, somewhere in the middle the motifs identifying the schism between ‘them’ and ‘us’ turn repetitive. His indulgent use of heavy imagery seems to be melting into cloying sentimentality. The priest performing the last rites of Shibu informs the dwarves circling him that Hindu mythology gave them social validation for one of Vishnu’s avatars was the dwarf, clowns on stilts jeer and chase Khoka on discovering him with Shoma; these tropes seems like social commentary running parallel to the plot. Neither do the surreal dream-like montages that probably hint towards Khoka’s alienated psychological space do much for the audience other than commenting on the director’s hold over his craft.
It is only when the director treats his characters as normal does the film truly shine, whether that is the oddly comic timing of Shoma’s first visit to Khoka’s mess or Shoma’s poignant anxiety over the fact that dwarves can only breed dwarves, hence her bizarre solution that they all become celibate and die out gradually to save future generations the disgrace she faces on a daily basis. The only time you doff your imaginary hat to the filmmaker is the clever and relevant trick with which he ends his film. Not wishing to risk marriage Shoma agrees to the non-threatening proposal of friendship from Khoka and a montage of their subsequent meetings plays out as the frame shortens in width gradually. And you leave the theatre worried that the ’Small People’ the director was referring to in the film’s title are not them but us for not having the basic empathy to go beyond a dwarf’s height to discover their humanity.