School days form an integral part of every childhood. Think about them, and one is immediately transported back to a time where all that mattered was the bell that signaled the beginning of the time of your life – the recess. With the aroma of the much-anticipated meals wafting all over the school playground, one could imagine the delight they felt as they gorged into their lunch boxes.
Capturing the essence of those innocent days – and the heart of school life that was the lunch break – director Amole Gupte created the heartwarming Stanley Ka Dabba. Released 10 years ago, the film spoke about children in a way not many films over the past decade have been able to. Now that's the thing about Gupte – he knows how to tell a child's story with sensitivity. Be it through Taare Zameen Par (2007), Stanley Ka Dabba, or more recently, the parts with the young Saina in the Saina Nehwal biopic, his films look at children from their own gaze, instead of an adult's. And that makes his storytelling special. That is also something other Hindi filmmakers have struggled to master.
SKD feels like a little world in itself. Stanley's (portrayed by an unforgettable Partho Gupte) world. The young protagonist is someone we've all known in our lifetime. He's that kid in the classroom who just stands out. He is intelligent, has a vibrant imagination and is forever brimming with stories. His mind is like a canvas that he paints in a different colour, every day. And yet something feels amiss. He often comes to school unkempt, his uniform is unwashed and shirt tucked out. His teachers judge him for it instead of reaching out.
Stanley's biggest problem is Verma sir, aka Khadoos (Amole Gupte). The man, often hungry for the children's lunch boxes, constantly bullies Stanley for not getting a dabba of his own. While Stanley's friends are happy to share their meals with him, Khadoos – ironically – is frustrated, blaming the younger boy for eating what could've been his share.
It's a subtle commentary on how insensitive the education system in India can be. Most of Stanley's teachers don't even register or even make an attempt to understand why an eight-year-old has bruises on his face, or why he gets uncomfortable at the mention of lunch.
Stanley's relationship with his friends, and his teacher Ms Rosy (Divya Dutta), elevates the film. Unlike the other adults in his school – she looks at him with adoration, not judgement, and perhaps reminds him a little bit of his own mother.
His friends too lift him when the world drags him down. After a point, when they realize that there's more to Stanley than what he shows, they become his anchors, cheering him on and standing up for him even in front of the elder, more intimidating folks. In a scene that tugs at your heartstrings, Stanley stops coming to school after Khadoos banishes him for not bringing his own lunch – telling him to only come to school when he has his dabba. In the aftermath, all his friends sit sadly during one of their lunch breaks, their heads hanging low, as they are unable to share their food with Stanley anymore. Lunch time doesn't feel the same without them eating together.
It's right then that you realize that lunch time was never about showing off your lunch, it was about eating together with friends, chatting about everything under the sun, with no one coming in between, asking you to maintain silence.
SKD handles a range of important topics – hunger, bullying, abuse, the education system, friendship, and humanity. Now this could have gone all wrong; it could have been a mess, but it doesn't. Stanley, with the help of his friends, overcomes his adversities with an honest smile shining across his face. As if taking a cue from its protagonist, the film's climax, even though bittersweet, leaves you with a little ray of hope.
Was it the most wholesome Hindi children's film of the decade? Perhaps, yes. Because it goes beyond showing children as either heroes or brats. It shows a side of childhood that is in front of us which we often refuse to see. It doesn't always turn out bright and nice, there's not always a sure-shot resolution to everything. But does that make it less beautiful? Stanley thinks not – and it's that spirit that stays with you years after.
Stanley Ka Dabba is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar