The scene in Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) where Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan) talks to the mirror while inebriated and also proceeds to bandage the same, has worked for children of all generations post the seventies. Many might sniff that the scene is inappropriate for the viewing of children for its portrayal of intoxication, but by then the damage has already been done as Sholay another violent cult classic has been the staple of many cinema-loving Indian kids. In the absence of films that can selectively cater to them, a sizable chunk of Indian children grow up watching whatever their parents do.
The year 2007 is significant in this discussion about the right mixture of storytelling and sensitivity while making a film for children when Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par barges into mainstream Bollywood. The film tells the story of a dyslexic child and his troubles while ‘fitting in’ with the rest of the kids. While some were critical of the film being ‘too preachy’, it did set a trend for films like Stanley Ka Dabba and Chillar Party and helped them find their audience. Before 2007, the trend of films for children was more scattered. There was the occasional Haathhi Mere Saathi (1971) but such films were not made regularly. According to Mokashi, “Children’s films were never made actively in the Hindi film industry. It has always been a rare phenomenon. How many such films can be pointed out in the sixties or the seventies? Perhaps once in every ten years a film would come along that was delightful and had children as its subjects.”
Over the last five years, Bollywood has broken new grounds of commerce by experimenting with superhero films like Krrish (2006) and Ra.one (2011). These films are based on the premise of the make-belief where children, who are the main target audience of the films, are only entertained but not really educated, as Nehru had originally aspired.
But then again, Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne (1969) trilogy has proved that the realm of fantasy can be explored not only for its innocent sense of adventure but also for the insights it gives on the human condition. Shyam Benegal, who got one of his early breaks after making Charandas Chor with CFSI feels, “Children lack two things if compared to adults. First is their lack of learning, or skills that adults have. To that end we have schools. The second thing is immediate experience in the sensory areas where they operate. Nevertheless, the world becomes a larger place as they grow up. But I don’t see children as little idiots for whom you have to simplify everything.”
The lingering question is: Why are there not as many original voices in the film industry when it comes to making films on children, whereas everyone is ready to make yet another action or a romantic film? The answer lies in the fact that the moment a film is tagged under the children’s film section, it has to generate its audience by being a ‘family film’ or the scope of its target audience would considerably narrow down. The Bhootnath (2008, 2014) franchise powered by Amitabh Bachchan, could survive because of its star power and by compromising the originality of the first film in the sequel by becoming a ‘social-message film’. Benegal believes that the general attitude of condescension towards makers of children’s films must change. He laments, “In our country, children’s films are quite silly. The people who make children’s films are short-shrifted. In turn, no one is also willing to spend funds to make them.”
Seeing children as non-entities with no political voice whatsoever is what lies behind this prevailing indifference towards the need for meaningful films for children. However, the regional film industries have made their marks in producing a few insightful albeit entertaining films on children. Bengali cinema has had a rich tradition of films for children with Ray’s detective films and Tapan Sinha’s contributions such as Kabuliwala (1957) to Golpo Holeo Sotti (1966). Tamil cinema also has Mani Ratnam’s critically acclaimed Anjali (1990), portraying the integration of a specially-abled child into society, which again won three National Awards. More recently, Malayali director Anjali Menon won national recognition and accolades with her Manjadikuru (2008) that unravelled the feudal workings of a Malayali Nair family as seen through the eyes of children.
Last year, Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film Fandry focused on the romantic possibilities of a teenage lower caste boy. While Fandry deals with an adolescent’s experiences, the lack of a proper definition for children’s films forces it to be clubbed with the same. Another such film on the experiences of a young boy growing up in a town in North Bengal, Indranil Roy chowdhury’s Phoring (2013), had the tagline ‘Boroder chhotobelar chhobi’ (A film on the childhood of adults) and its marketing campaign contained themes of a sexual nature. Explaining the state of matters Roychowdhury says, “Though the protagonist of my film was a young boy, the film dealt with themes that did not have a feelgood factor that could be taken home by the audience. If you go by most of the children’s films made in this country it is a make-belief world while in reality it is not always so smooth a journey for a child. There is still a visible chunk of films that are made on and for children, but very little has been explored on the issues of adolescence. While in Europe there is a healthy tradition of films on both the subjects where films like 400 Blows can coexist with the Harry Potter films. Yet in India the idiom of children’s films has to have some feel-good factor that glosses over the more unsavoury bits of childhood.”
Roychowdhury suggests that the CFSI must revamp its present methods to make good content reach out to the audience. He thinks that, “Like Hollywood, Bollywood, with its mammoth machinery, is invincible so, to counter its tide the CFSI has to come up with more innovative ideas. Internet hubs can be formed to bring to rural children a diverse range of good content that goes beyond its own productions and subtitles should be provided in local languages. Conversely it is wrong to assume that urban kids cannot enjoy more layered films if they are made visually engaging and brought to them in the right context. Programs should be introduced to tie-up with schools and provide films for viewing free of cost. Having said that, culture and cinema has always featured low on the government’s priority list. The administration might be absent to fund such schemes.”
Until the scenario changes, the government will remain content with doling out awards for the “Best Children’s Film” while the filmmakers and the audience fail to reach a consensus on what really makes a film apt for a child.