Director: Nila Madhab Panda
Cast: Tathastu, Ranvir Shorey, Paoli Dam, Kumud Mishra
Being a “social message” filmmaker in this country is tricky. On one hand, you might genuinely believe that cinema is a medium of change. On the other, you might end up disrespecting the medium to convey noble (and government-stamped) intentions. Nila Madhab Panda is interesting in this sense. He has fashioned a career out of socially relevant tropes – his latest, Halkaa, a children’s version of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, is officially a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan initiative. But he does more than merely giftwrap a cause with a shiny superstar and two nationalistic monologues. His films have a degree of texture, craft, sincerity and seasoned performers. Sometimes he goes woefully wrong (Babloo Happy Hai), and at times he gets it right (Kaun Kitney Paani Mein, Kadvi Hawa). Halkaa, a story about an antsy ten-year-old slum kid (Tathastu, as Pichkoo) yearning for his own toilet, is somewhere down the middle.
Unlike I Am Kalam, where a child’s outlook is central to the film’s theme (education), Halkaa tends to trivialize a socioeconomic epidemic by situating it within the confines of a frivolous kiddie template. I get that children function as a useful narrative device to strip down distinctly adult issues to their bare essentials. A child’s view is uncomplicated. But here it feels like the problem – an entire Indian sub-culture of “adjustment” – is customized to suit the boy’s underdog adventure, instead of the other way around. An example is the film’s signature music: an anthem called Khushbuyein (sweet scents), sung with an un-ironic passion more suited to the moods of a rousing sports biopic. And then there’s the challenge of having to cinematize poo, crouching tigers, nervous bowels and smelly railway tracks. It is, to put it mildly, a sticky wicket to be on.
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Pichkoo is a likeable lad, though, and urges us to believe that he genuinely can’t get himself to squat in public view on the tracks – unlike his father (a one-note Ranvir Shorey) and the rest of the slum-dwellers. It is hinted at that the females, like his mother (Paoli Dam; strange casting), wake up at dawn to do their business. But Halkaa is aggressively male-centric, perhaps because its protagonist is a boy and this is a ‘children’s film’. Showing a girl relieve herself is considered too R-rated in our movies. In any case, turning a blind eye to the opposite gender begins early in life. I suspect it also has something to do with Toilet inelegantly having dealt with this angle at a mainstream level.
The setup is decent: especially the opening segment that establishes Pichkoo as an infamous slum legend for secretly squatting at home when his folks are away and drowning the stink by lighting scented agarbattis. His father, an aspiring rickshaw driver, can’t understand the fuss. Even his dreams are tinged with nightmarish elements – a spanking new mobile toilet bisecting those dreaded railway tracks. He soon finds a like-minded friend (Aryan Preet) and dhongi Baba (Kumud Mishra), and off he sets on a rose-tinted journey to secure his community’s first modern toilet. That the urban slum-culture enables grass-root struggles to transcend communal friction (Mishra plays a senile Muslim homeopath) makes for a nice detail. But this survivalist attitude is watered down in pursuit of a PG-13 journey.
Panda employs a simplistic palette that depicts everyone – from the Baba to the corrupt government officer, to a bathroom salesman to the city of Delhi – as Tinkle-style stereotypes designed to educate younger age groups in shades of black and white. This might have worked as a concise short film, but at some point in a two-hour-long story, the tone gets self-righteous and repetitive, and the politics whitewashed. It really pushes the morality card with a needless sub-thread of upper-class school students; one of them even displays Pichkoo on stage, almost as an exhibit in a museum, and lectures the auditorium full of privileged families about the importance of Delhi’s rag pickers.
This lack of self-awareness is a pitfall for most socially inclined tales. Slapping it over with a sanitized layer of textbook vision doubles the bleach and triples the preach. It doesn’t help that artificial characters occupy real locations – a mismatch that appears jarring when the gang breaks out into mandatory song-and-dance routines. Halkaa ends on a high, thanks largely to the manipulative dynamics of a Rajkumar-Hirani-ish payoff. But leaving the hall after the movie feels like exiting a bathroom choked with the smoke of its beloved agarbattis.