Director: Raj Chakraborty
Cast: Rudranil Ghosh, Padmanabha Dasgupta, Samiul Alam
Bagheera, Mowgli, Sher Khan, Jungle Book – any film would find it tough, if not impossible, to live up to these venerable names Srijato's title song in Adventures of Jojo invokes. For that matter, one does not really expect, or need, a film or a story to reach those heights. But sadly enough, Raj Chakraborty's new film does not even try. Or rather, it tries too hard to evoke the wonder one expects from a film aimed at children, but never quite manages to pull it off.
The film, based on a story by Arup Kumar Dutta, sets itself up well enough, tapping into the tropes that make this genre work: a city-bred child – whose engagement with the wild is limited to sketching an elephant and its rider – arriving for a vacation in the deep jungles and getting involved in myriad adventures he couldn't have dreamt of back home.
Jojo (Jashojeet) is sent to his uncle Surajit's (the film's screenplay writer Padmanabha Dasgupta) estate which skirts a protected forest reserve teeming with every conceivable animal to excite a child's imagination. Here, he befriends the local boy Shibu (Samiul Alam) and his elephant Noni. One is soon introduced to the dangers lurking around: poachers who seem to have a free run of the reserve and are willing to go to any lengths to kill a tiger named Chengiz, which is almost mythical in the way it is referred to. Before long, Jojo and Shibu get drawn into what should have been a thrilling ride, foiling the poachers' nefarious designs and trying to save Chengiz.
In contrast, there is so much effort in 'making' Jojo a 'children's' film that it not only shows, but also ends up being almost juvenile.
Despite the build-up and the cinematography that captures the outdoors wonderfully – one shot of Shibu climbing the elephant's tusk onto its back against a setting sun stands out in particular – the film does not take long to go off the rails.
Part of the problem lies in the writing. The best children's films – Bambi, E.T., Kitaab, Makdee, and the many illustrious ones in Bengali – effortlessly transcend their core target audience and resonate with a larger universe. In contrast, there is so much effort in 'making' Jojo a 'children's' film that it not only shows, but also ends up being almost juvenile. Not to mention the way it keeps underlining through dialogues the importance of preserving wildlife and the fact that the best schooling actually happens outside the boundaries of a school.
Another problem lies in its two lead child artistes. Bengal has probably the richest tradition of utterly natural child actors in India, stretching all the way back to Subir Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta in Pather Panchali (1955) to the lovable Broto Banerjee and Tiyashi Pal in the charming Haami, and the impish Srijato Bandopadhyay in Parambrata's Sonar Pahar earlier this year. Joshojeet and Samiul, in contrast, lack the spontaneity and come across as performing for the camera for the most time. As such, fatally for a children's film, you are never rooting for the two protagonists who lead the charge.
And the final act, with the poachers coming into the picture big-time, and Jojo and Shibu being put through every conceivable danger, including being shot at, hung upside-down and engaging in fisticuffs, robs the film of whatever it had to offer, even as far as its target audience is concerned. Rudranil Ghosh is particularly laughable as the villain with a lame leg – and not just because he laughs menacingly in every exchange with the children. That laughter could have made a very interesting tic, in particular for an antagonist in a film like this, but here it ends up being just irritating. And talking of being juvenile, surely the writers could have found a more imaginative way, instead of indulging in the hoariest cinematic cliché of clichés, to have Jojo and Shibu outsmart the poacher kingpin, Bose (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya).
I had once read somewhere that there are three elements film-makers are often wary of having in a film: children, animals and water. Raj Chakraborty has to be commended for taking on two of these in the same film. One just wishes that instead of going for the 'big' picture he had paid attention to the small details: Jojo ruffling his hair immediately after his mother has combed it prim and proper; the unreal sense of whimsy that underlines the sequence where Jojo ventures into the jungle the first time and returns home riding the elephant he has sketched; or Bose humming 'Paaye pori baagh mama' from Satyaji Ray's children's classic Hirok Rajar Deshe. These sequences not only give an insight into what this film could have been but also make you almost regret an opportunity lost.