Director: Vinod Kamble
Writers: Vinod Kamble, Shivaji Karde
Cast: Samarth Sonawane (Gopi), Shravan Upalkar (Adim), Kunal Pawar (Vikas)
Duration: 102 minutes
Available in: Theatres
This week, two films have been released that are essentially about a boy who meanders through circumstance and happenstance, only to realise what is truly important to him. Both films stumble occasionally because of performances that feel stilted in parts. Both rely heavily on the adorable appearances of their lead actors. The star of one of these films is Agastya Nanda, grandson of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and hero of The Archies. The other is Samarth Sonawane, who plays Gopi from Kastoori, the boy who dreams of school while being forced to clean toilets and work multiple jobs. Strictly in cinematic terms, Sonawane is the one who comes up on top. He may not have lineage or privilege or fame, but he’s got the better role and better film, while Nanda’s stuck in a lazy and listless screenplay that gives the debutant little chance to show off any talent he may have. Show business is no level playing field, but the imagination can be a powerful wild card.
Set in a dusty small town in Maharashtra, Kastoori follows Gopi (Sonawane) who doesn’t talk about his dreams, but lets us glimpse them through the longing glances he casts at cheerful uniformed children in classrooms and at government officers who sign their names with casual, proud authority. Gopi’s childhood is anything but idyllic. The family is racked by poverty. His father is an alcoholic and his grit-jawed mother does multiple jobs, trying everything she can to earn some money — this includes taking Gopi out of school and serving him up as a replacement for Gopi’s father in the government hospital where the older man used to work.
The prejudice that surrounds the jobs that Gopi has to do becomes tangible through the distinctive foul odours that the boy becomes paranoid about. His most prized possessions include a bar of soap and the attar that he shares with his best friend Adim (Shravan Upalkar). When Gopi is told he’ll be awarded the first prize for an essay he’d written in Sanskrit for a school assignment, both boys know that they have to get hold of a special attar. Gopi can’t appear before the school smelling he does. He and Adim become obsessed with getting hold of some musk from which they can get attar made.
It takes a few beats to realise that in Kastoori, “PM” stands for “post mortem” and no one bats an eyelid at the idea of a boy handling corpses and cleaning autopsy rooms. In a pointed and telling detail, Gopi pins his hopes on a man named Vikas (Kunal Pawar). His name means “progress”, a word that is often dangled like a carrot before marginalised communities by those who seek to capitalise on people’s desperation. The more we see of him, the more obvious it becomes that Vikas is just hollow promises, the threat of violence and deceit packaged in the form of a person.
The starting point of Kastoori for writer-director Vinod Kamble was a newspaper article he’d chanced upon, which reported that a student from Class VIII had been tasked with conducting autopsies at a government hospital. From this came first a short film (titled Post Mortem) and then the story grew into Kastoori, standing on the strength of a script that Kamble has crafted with care and intention. From details like Gopi’s best friend being the Muslim butcher’s son, or naming the town’s local con artist “Vikas”, this is a film in which practically every scene has an important subtext. However, Kamble is careful to steer clear of lecturing his audience. There is some heavy-handed symbolism, but for most part, the director works to make the audience care for his characters — not out of guilt, but because Gopi and Adim radiate a sweetness and innocence that feels like the rarest, most precious treasure.
Adim and Gopi’s friendship, with cherished rituals like applying attar or watching pigeons, is the highlight of Kastoori. The two boys are occasionally awkward performers, but their ease with one another is endearing. Adim’s optimism and the joy he takes in Gopi doing well in school (despite not being particularly interested in studies himself) offer much-needed relief to the despair that swirls around Gopi. It’s not just the wider society that brings Gopi down, but also his family. Straitjacketed by their desperate circumstances, both Gopi’s mother and his grandmother see the boy’s education as an indulgence and push him towards work rather than school.
While Sonawane and Upalkar are utterly charming, some of the other performances in Kastoori are sometimes stilted. Sporadically, the film loses momentum, but mostly thanks to a skilful screenplay and Sonawane’s moving performance, it’s able to pick itself up. Offering a powerful counterpoint to the heartbreaks and unfair treatment that Gopi suffers are the little joys that he determinedly and meticulously gathers for himself. He carries in his shirt pocket a ball point pen and when he finds a blank piece of paper, he writes his name — Gopinath Chavan — in neat, perfectly-formed letters, in HIndi and English.
Kamble emphasises the realism of the story, but is also careful to make sure this world doesn’t feel overwhelming to those of us who are far removed from Gopi’s reality. For example, we are made to see an actual autopsy in progress, but Kamble doesn’t confront us with the gruesome sight of a gaping corpse. Instead, he gives us the haunting image of Gopi’s childish fingers picking up primitive looking instruments and threading the thick needle that is used to crudely stitch up a corpse. Much later, we’ll see Gopi use a similar thread and needle, but for a very different — and more heartwarming — reason. The thread and needle goes from being a motif of despair to one that feels optimistic, holding out the hope that the same tools can be oppressive or transformative, depending upon the user and their intention.
Gopi’s experiences in Kastoori come from Kamble’s research as well as his own childhood memories. Kamble is a civil engineer and self-taught filmmaker. His grandfather and father worked as sweepers. As a child, Kamble was told to clean the gutters in the government school where he was a student. At the time, Kamble didn’t realise there was anything wrong in this and neither does Gopi in Kastoori.
Despite Sonawane’s sweetly cherubic smile, which lights up the bleak world of Kastoori, this is often a difficult film to watch. There’s little beauty in the dusty, sun-bleached terrain. Light falls hard and flat on the shacks and stubby buildings. Relief is hard to come by for both Gopi and the audience. Kamble uses the shock value of gore and graphic imagery judiciously, making sure the impact isn’t diluted. It’s a luxury to feel numbed rather than disgusted or horrified, and this is a luxury that Kamble does not afford his audience. The sight of the implements used to dissect a body during post mortem examinations; the clogged, filthy bathroom that Gopi has to clean; the glimpse of a body part that’s been dug out by stray dogs — there are only a handful of scenes that force the audience to confront the tangible ugliness in Gopi’s life, and Kamble is unforgiving in the way he makes use of them. Kastoori is a film with a conscience and it doesn’t offer an audience easy entertainment. Instead, it works hard to move the viewer, to make them see those who are usually rendered invisible.