Whose Childhood Is It Anyway?

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cjildrens-film-1Two films hit the theatres this weekend; the national award winning Marathi film Killa and Ted 2, one of those formulaic Hollywood sequels that spin the wheels of the box-office. And yet, there is an odd strain of similar themes that make these two look like distant cousins. Where, Avinash Arun’s Killa concentrates on the undulating journey of an 11-year-old as he shifts to a new village with his recently widowed mother, Seth McFarlane’s Ted 2 focusses on a talking teddy bear; Ted, and his legal wrangle with the government over his right to adopt a baby. Before, we digress to wonder whether Ted wants a human or a teddy bear baby, the issue at hand is the way these two films rest on elements that deal with childhood. Arun’s film is a meditation on a growing child’s emotional graph and how he learns to cope with the realities of an ‘adult’ world, while the Ted films take a child’s plaything and morph it into an adult-like character, who swears and has an active sexual life, resulting in a satirical treatment of the society around it that cannot condescend to give it the dignity of a free individual. In an extended rhetoric Seth McFarlane’s film can be seen to explore an interesting question: What if that which we segregate for children as a part of a make-believe realm, was given a voice of its own?

This year, there had been a veritable presence of films for or with children as protagonists in the 62nd National Awards. Kaaka Muttai and Elizabeth Ekadashi won the Best Children’s Film and Best Child Artiste’s awards respectively and films like Killa (Best Marathi Film) and Ottaal (Best Environmental Film, Best Adapted Screenplay), stood out for having children as their subjects. Just when everyone was busy praising the resurgence of good films on children, Baradwaj Rangan stirred the hornet’s nest by beginning his review for Kaaka Muttai in The Hindu with these lines:

“The National Award for Kaaka Muttai doesn’t make any sense. Best Children’s Film? What does that even mean? Best film that has good parts for children or good performances by children? Or best film for children? Either way, the award is an insult. Kaaka Muttai isn’t just for children — actually, some of the humour apart, it’s not for children at all.”

Kaaka Muttai has two impoverished siblings as its protagonists and rests on their early brushes with the conspicuous class divide in our society, among other things. It shows the children stealing and lying as they have to put in extra effort to survive in a world that is indifferent to their simple dreams of eating a pizza in a glossy pizza parlour. Such a sombre film cannot be possibly labelled as a children’s film, or can it? What really is expected of such films? Does the term “children’s film” mean a film for children or on children? And why should they be different anyway? Why do we, the adults, presume to know if a film is ‘good’ for a child or not? This writer attempts to understand the trends and expectations around films related to children in India with these and many more similar questions.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister was known for his affection for children. This led to his birthday being celebrated as ‘Children’s Day’ in the country and eventually, it led to the conception of the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI). He was of the view that children should be treated to such cinematic content that helps them sharpen and broaden their worldview. Abiding by his wishes, the cfsi has in its sixty years of functioning, established an illustrious legacy with its maiden production Jaldeep (1956) receiving the first prize for best Children’s Film at the 1957 Venice Film Festival. Over the years, cfsi has roped in the finest of India’s auteurs — a long list that includes Mrinal Sen, Satyen Bose, Tapan Sinha, K Abbas, Shyam Benegal, MS Sathyu, Sai Paranjpye, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Santosh Sivan, Ram Mohan, Rituparno Ghosh and Pankaj Advani — to make films for it. It has built a repertoire of 250 films made in at least ten different languages. It has also regularly taken its films into the rural interiors of the country for screenings. All of this is commendable but the visibility of its work is still very negligible.

Films that are commonly classified as films for children, paint a different picture. For a child of the nineties, a children’s film would have meant Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr. India (1987), a little later it would instantly become Koi Mil Gaya (2003). Interestingly, the phrase ‘children’s films’ triggers memories of a different kind — it naturally gets translated into films one watched as a child. Paresh Mokashi, the director of Elizabeth Ekadashi notes, “There is a debate going on in the cultural circles of Maharashtra about what are the qualifiers of an adult’s film and a children’s film. To me these divisions are not relevant. Any good story finds its own audience. Elizabeth Ekadashi might be a film about the experiences of children but adults are equally relating to the film. Conversely, we grew up watching delightful films that were not necessarily for a child. Manmohan Desai’s films, especially Amar, Akbar, Anthony is one such classic example that I enjoyed immensely as a child. So films that children enjoy might be quite different from films that are made with children in lead roles. We have to be a little flexible on this issue.”

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