Director: Amole Gupte
Cast: Khushmeet Gill, Surekha Sikri, Manmeet Singh, Sushmita Mukherjee, Putul Guha
In the thematic short-film anthology, Shor Se Shuruaat, a Zoya Akhtar mentored segment called Aamer captured the essence of “Indian” noise in the truest sense. A hearing-impaired Mumbai street kid has a bittersweet experience acclimatizing to the possibilities of his new electronic hearing-aid device. His excitement to digest everything he has missed out on quickly turns into disillusionment with the city’s relentless assault of sounds. In the end, he simply lowers the volume to re-embrace his vacuum of soothing silence. He feels in charge of his own soundscape. This is perhaps an accurate, real-world reaction to a sudden sensory “superpower”; pragmatism is often the last resort of romance in today’s crowded times.
A potentially quirky and intimate coming-of-age story becomes a generic and commercially defined crime-fighting saga
Amole Gupte’s saccharinely fairytale-ish universe of Sniff!!! has no time for such cynicism. It thrives on textbook cuteness and optimism. His interpretation is pure fantasy and annoyingly Amar Chitra Katha-esque – harking back to an innocent (dated) age when characters were idiosyncratic caricatures and something like this was supposed to feel magical. And exciting. The focus here is to carve out a fluffy kiddie superhero/detective origin tale, almost as a defiant reaction to adulthood.
Only, it’s a clumsy one – a short story stretched into a stubbornly simplistic 89-minute adventure of misadventures. A potentially quirky and intimate coming-of-age story becomes a generic and commercially defined crime-fighting saga. There’s again a lived-in, “local” flavour to proceedings, but the adventure itself is boring – patronizing in its basicness, uninspiring in its action. If this film were a person, it’d be that well-meaning relative obsessively baby talking and pulling the neighbourhood kids’ cheeks.
You’d imagine that a freakish dog-like sense of smell would be a liability in these surroundings, but not for Gupte’s pristine children. You’d imagine that a kid born with a damaged olfactory nerve would take a while to adapt to his sudden golden-nose power and associate scents to their sources, but not in Gupte’s pristine setup. Here, the cute 9-year-old protagonist, Sunny Gill (a spirited Khushmeet Gill), can immediately sniff and tell, describing what his friends ate for breakfast two days ago – akin to Aamer instantly acquiring the ability to speak and understand the concept of words.
I’ve always believed Gupte is more of a storyteller than a filmmaker; his translated on-screen material rarely goes beyond the nuances of cultural establishment. For instance, Sunny belongs to a proud Sikh family running a generational homemade-pickle business; his nose is of utmost importance to this gastronomical legacy. Unfortunately, Gupte doesn’t stick to the food; Sunny is made to become a more conventional hero. He goes from black sheep to celebrity in an Andheri colony full of ethnically diverse and heightened stereotypes – a Gujarati secretary, a nostalgic Maharastrian Koli uncle, an aggressive Bengali policewoman and her disturbingly emasculated househusband, bickering Marwari couples and so on. Different accents dot their self-important society meetings, and a car-theft epidemic is approached with typically cautious and all-bark-no-bite urgency.
Gupte greedily packs in too much for its modest scale; at one point, he even wants to make this bigger than a harmless colony whodunit
The problem here lies when the maker tries to infuse this familiar environment with a cartoonish tone. Short of eyes popping out from their sockets and skins stretching, it’s all there. I’m not sure too many kids will (or should) chuckle when they see the bumbling bong cop repeatedly abuse and slap her husband for eating sweets behind her back. Some wives might, perhaps. Or when one hamming South Indian teacher (Suresh Menon, of course) slaps his colleague repeatedly for stealing money. And when such exaggerated temperaments are given human, preachy grown-up resolutions, there’s a curious mismatch of intent. At least Stanley Ka Dabba and Hawaa Hawaai were committed to their emotional heft in context of a legitimate setting; this one springs it out of nowhere to challenge its own frivolousness.
Another problem is that Gupte greedily packs in too much for its modest scale; at one point, he even wants to make this bigger than a harmless colony whodunit. It hastily dips its grubby fingers into a half-baked macro plot involving “serious” gangsters, before remembering that there should be no place for darkness in underdog narratives.
Amole Gupte’s films are usually designed this way. He has started to make films for children, not about them. His protagonists are dramatically self-aware (“There’s a nose in front of my eyes, but I’m not in front of God’s eyes,” Sunny writes in an essay) – modern incarnations of teary 1990s Bollywood children who crooned at annual functions begging God’s forgiveness for loving their parents more (Remember Biwi No. 1’s Mujhe Maaf Karna Om Sai Ram?). They might be slightly more untrained and spontaneous. But they do seem designed to make adults like myself feel guilty for not appreciating their goodness enough, or for criticizing their stories’ lack of voice and craft. I often feel like I’m dissing a saint when I write about such films. But maybe the kids are not all right. And maybe they deserve a little better in 2017.
After all, children’s films don’t have to look like they are made by children anymore.