A conversation with writer-director Safdar Rahman.
Safdar Rahman's directorial debut Chippa is a portrait of childhood; its playful narrative meanders like a child's wandering mind. Chippa, played by a spirited nine-year-old Sunny Pawar, is an intelligent young boy who lives on the streets but doesn't let the world get the better of him. Rahman's one line idea for this character was "A kid who is out to one-up the world at every point of time. This was my starting point for writing and then I let myself go wherever Chippa wanted to take me." Chippa sets out at midnight on his 10th birthday to explore life beyond his little corner of the world.
The film makes a significant departure from the representation of street children in commercial and mainstream cinema. Films like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire are centred around the struggles of inner-city life. The thematic movements of Chippa, instead, are an ode to adventure in children's literature, evoking the ageless wisdom of The Little Prince, Haroun's allegorical quest and the philosophical musings of Calvin and Hobbes.
We are carried along with the protagonist, in a yellow taxi, construction lorry, mail van, Mercedes Benz, on a motorbike and on a bicycle. A water pump, red letter-box, PCO booth, hand-pulled carts, colourful doorways and old stairways transport us to Kolkata's lesser-known streets. A drunkard, mailmen, a wedding band, a sex worker, labourers and newspaper distributors occupy the streets at different times. Chippa fancifully declares he wants to be a cab driver, footballer, policeman and musician all in the same night.
Chippa is whimsical enough to be typecast as a children's movie – a category that presents challenges in terms of its scope and reach in India. However, it is a film for all ages, through the ages. Like a fluidly written novel, it can be interpreted in multiple ways, with insight tucked away between the lines. By employing elements of magical realism, it steers clear of the sometimes problematic and prescriptive messaging of a social-drama.
The camera is Chippa's companion; we are with him all the time. Even when introduced to other characters, we come upon them and understand them from Chippa's perspective. We don't see them before he sees them or after he sees them, except for in the last scene. "In fiction filmmaking, that's a big call to take because it gives you limited scope to build up drama and explore what happens outside his life," Safdar explains. Although this is a technical decision, it adds a dimension of agency to the character, who is moving around in the world and interacting with it rather than having events happen to him.
Safdar came to filmmaking through working with kids. He taught forty second- and third-graders in a low-income private school in Delhi's Seelampur district. He also conducted theatre workshops with youth from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in Kolkata. Describing his approach to working with children in the classroom, on stage and for screen, he says, "It's more about being sensitive, empathetic and earnest, which is the approach I find myself trying to take even while working with adults." This guides his gaze as a filmmaker.
Films and media are educational devices. They have the power to break down some of our biases and conceptions about lives that are different from ours. Safdar strongly believes that all childhoods are tough and that childhoods can also be happy wherever you are. He says, "Chippa is not essentially a character that you imagine a street child to be because there is no character that a street child is supposed to be. Lives of kids growing up on the streets are as different from one another as they are from lives of kids that grow up in apartments. Every child has their own personality and a different set of codes to navigate."
For Chippa those codes are embedded in the streets of Park Circus, which is, amongst other things, a predominantly Hindi-speaking, Muslim neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Earlier this year, it was the site of a sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Safdar grew up here and the audience is acquainted with its alleyways through Chippa, whose curiosity propels the plot. Chippa's directive is to decipher a letter written by his estranged father in Urdu, a language fading from our collective consciousness under increasing duress.
Films mirror society and one tends to look for reflections of cultural and political happenings beneath their surface. In one scene, Chippa is sitting in an expensive car with an inebriated man who asks him a series of uninhibited questions. When asked whether he is a Muslim, Chippa grows irritable and refuses to respond. This is a moment that betrays the writer's intent.
Probed further about this particular exchange, Safdar reveals, "What's important is where the story comes from. Park Circus has so much to it and it being a Muslim ghetto is one layer of what that neighbourhood presents. To me, it's important to address it but also not clamp down on a gaze that perhaps would not be very important to Chippa. I was conscious about trying to be truthful to the character. I wanted to acknowledge where he came from but also the fact that this story went somewhere else. It was talking about dreams, and love, eventually."
Chippa feels like a hopeful film, so I asked Safdar where he draws hope from. He recalls the time his daughter was around 6 months old: "I remember a couple of months when Nour would be on the floor, on her belly, trying to make swim-like strokes. She would do this for hours, becoming very frustrated that she couldn't crawl. I knew that children first learn to sit, then crawl, then stand and finally walk. What I didn't know is that there's a long period between sitting and crawling, and between crawling and walking. It's a common belief that life is easy and worry-free when you're a kid. This taught me that the basis of human life is struggle. Everybody struggles. There's no running away from it. So if one can be kind and hopeful, then perhaps it makes the idea of future struggle a little easier to bear."
The journey of one night or a lifetime, when illuminated by hope, adventure, companionship, childlike curiosity and some humour, brightens the path ahead. Circumnavigating a certain sense of despair, to me, felt like the courageous choice to make as a storyteller.