Director: Sandeep Modi
Cast: Swanand Kirkire, Sahil Jadhav, Sangram Desai
The key to watching a film with a child protagonist is to watch it through his eyes, and Baalu (Sahil Jadhav), the 15-year-old at the centre of Sandeep Modi’s Chumbak is cynical, full of mistrust. His home back in the village is a broken one, and he has a wretched job of cleaning tables at a Mumbai restaurant. He, along with his partner-in-crime Disco (Sangram Desai, a roguish, charming presence)—who is older to him and smarter—has lost money in a small-scale investment scam, on which Baalu was depending to fund his dream of opening a juice shop near the bus stand of his village. They plot a con-job so juvenile—in which they promise one crore to the winner provided he pays twenty thousand first—that literally one person in all Maharashtra falls for it: A simpleton called Prasanna (Swanand Kirkire) who is “a bit slow in the head.” He is the exact opposite of Baalu, a man who is more childlike than him.
They are like the ends of two magnets (Chumbak) that keep pulling toward each other. Their fates will get intertwined and they’ll undergo a transformative journey.
We are invested in the boys’ misadventures initially—preceded by a funny conversation between Baalu and Disco after they’ve been duped. And there are inspired moments (co-written by Saurabh Bhave, along with Modi) that propel the film. For instance, when Baalu and Disco get momentarily rich, they have lunch at the same restaurant where they served as waiters; when a new boy comes to clean his table, Baalu can’t help but lend a hand even as he remains seated. Or the scene in which Baalu’s bus breaks down in the middle of the night and he is hungry and tired, he finds a plastic pouch of sweet in his pocket; it’s the prasad from Lord Vithoba given to him by Prasanna in good faith, the man who he has just conned; he goes back.
But Chumbak turns out too convoluted to be a parable, and too sweet to be a grown-up coming-of-age tale. It needed a bit more… dreaminess–Jadhav has an open face that is perfect for the conflict his character goes through, and Prasanna haunts him like a nagging conscience. Does the dark side of a 15-year-old, also an age of sexual awakening, only have place for stealing and conning? We get into the adolescent’s mind only in two dream sequences in which he sees people from his village drunk on the soda from his juice shop and make merry. As a result, Baalu’s life feels a bit one-track. And Prasanna’s quirks are amusing at first, but it follows the kind of beats you would expect in a character like this.
I wonder if the director and the cinematographer missed a trick or two by not making the most of the terrain across which the journey unfolds. From Mumbai to Lotewadi through the Satara and the Satpura – the landscape stirs something within the characters. We get shots of Baalu gazing from the bus window. We needed to see through his eyes.