MOVIES STARRING CHILDREN in central roles can be difficult to pull off. Kids may tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but that directorial advantage — of being able to pull the viewer in with ease — comes with the danger of tipping over into maudlin territory.
Thanks, Maa begins shakily, with a confusing title sequence that cuts between a nervousburqa-clad woman so distracted by her husband’s crankiness that she endangers their crawling baby, and street kids stealing a wallet under the pretext of polishing shoes. Debutant director Irfan Kamal seems to be setting the viewer up for an oddly overcooked morality tale, pitched somewhere between Amar Akbar Anthony and Boot Polish, with neither the zany humour of one nor the emotional kick of the other. Thankfully, Kamal recovers swiftly. Initial caricatures (like the bug-eyed seth from Surat) and amateurish acting are forgotten when we meet the film’s real subjects: a charming bunch of street urchins named Soda, Municipality, Cutting, Sursuri and Shana. Shams Patel’s star turn as the twelve-year-old Municipality Ghatkopar (named for the place where he was found as a baby) has garnered a National Award for Best Child Actor, but his co-actors’ performances are pitch-perfect too — fluctuating between jaded cynicism and wide-eyed vulnerability. Among the adults, mention must be made of Alok Nath and Ranvir Shorey’s superb cameos as the smarmy head of a juvenile home and a nervous middle class husband, respectively.
The narrative centres on Municipality’s discovery of an abandoned infant and his determined effort to trace its mother, who he is convinced is grief-stricken and waiting to be reunited with it. The film teeters on the brink of a Madhur Bhandarkar-like sensational excess, but Kamal and cinematographer Ajayan Vincent use Municipality’s journey as an opportunity to shoot a magnificently varied set of urban locales. That old Mumbai cliché, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, is captured afresh and memorably, but the camera also manages to make us see a strange and startling beauty everywhere — in the hill-like slums of Parkside, Vikhroli, in the surreal space of a BPO as seen by a street child. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.