Director: Amol Gole
Writer: Sanjeev K. Jha
Cast: Akanksha Pingle, Smita Tambe, Nitin Bhajan, Divyesh Indulkar
My heart sinks when I see a film stuck in a bygone era by virtue of being a children’s film. Most Indian stories based on the young tend to use their demographic as an excuse to look hopelessly old. All the signs are there with Sumi, Amol Gole’s National-award winning Marathi movie about a 12-year-old village girl who dreams of owning a bicycle to commute to her faraway school. It has that dated Doordarshan (DD) tone – a hybrid of an Amar Chitra Katha visual aesthetic and casio-and-flute music aesthetic. The dialogue is simple to a fault. Every other scene fades to black. Kids sound older than their age because they’re written by adults. The treatment lacks personality; professional actors range from dishevelled to jaded in appearance to fit their rural roles, and everyone is forced to behave one shade sadder than they should be.
Yet, Sumi is slightly different from the thousand other cycle-centric children’s films out there. Which is to say: The filmmaking might be antiquated, but its storytelling isn’t. There are times when it plays on our notions of the genre. For instance, Sumi doesn’t open at the “beginning”. The titular character, Sumi (Akanksha Pingle), is already sulking because her father (Nitin Bhajan) – a modest stone quarry worker – can’t afford to continue paying for her education. She topped her seventh standard exams, and she’s clearly an enthusiastic student who’s had a taste of school life. Most movies might have shown us the moment she is denied her shot at a future. They might have established Sumi’s popularity in class, and all that she stands to lose, before her parents hit her with the bombshell. They might have even amplified the stakes of missing the academic year. But Sumi implies. None of the backstory is seen – the film opens with the girl morosely delivering lunch to her father at the quarry. She’s in a funk; all the drama is over. She is barely on talking terms with him.
There are other nice touches, too. Sumi’s parents at first seem like typically tropey folks who dismiss their daughter for daring to defy tradition. We hear the line “don’t educate her or you won’t find a groom for her” early on. It becomes reasonable to expect that Sumi will fight this battle on her own; that she will win the day despite her mother (Smita Tambe). It even points us in this direction, with the introduction of another child – an upper-class boy named Chinmay (a sprightly Divyesh Indulkar) – who teaches Sumi how to ride a cycle and gives her a winning glimpse of his school. But the screenplay recognises that a 12-year-old can’t magically become independent for the sake of a hero arc. There is only so much she can do on her own, within the constraints of her environment. As a result, it never excludes the parents from Sumi’s journey. It acknowledges that they must play a role in the realisation of her dreams. It’s Sumi’s single-mindedness that transforms them over weeks; their denial turns into guilt, which slowly morphs into belief. In the end, it has to be her father who buys her the cycle. There is no other way. That doesn’t make him or even Chinmay a male saviour; it makes Sumi someone who manages to shape the world around her.
Most stories might have also allowed the parents to hijack the film. The father’s moral struggle to earn extra money. The mother’s potential sewing business and her disillusionment with other women in the village. But that’s another thing Sumi is careful about. It preaches quietly, and stays in service of its central character. At one point, Sumi’s father is fired by his boss in a scene we’ve seen several times before – the arrogant contractor, the tearful labourer. But in his next scene, instead of a drunken outburst, we see him treating his family to a night at the local funfair. He looks relieved and happy; his wife is amused. And it’s then that we remember he was introduced as a cripplingly honest man. He broke character in desperation, and is therefore happy to have paid the price – his faith in fate has been restored. The burden is off his shoulders. This is followed by perhaps the film’s best scene, featuring the married couple discussing a path forward while the kids are asleep. The conversation is tender and pragmatic. There is no room for noise.
When the mother sells her first product online with the help of a young neighbour, the film doesn’t turn her into a success montage either. She instantly hands over the money to her husband, who is instructed to get Sumi the cycle she needs. They’re not lionised for doing their duty. Even the way Sumi’s friendship with Chinmay is handled suggests that the film is aware how upper-class people might view Sumi – as an inspirational story, as someone who deserves our charity and attention. But nobody is demonised in order to highlight Sumi’s desires. She gets the help she needs, but it’s her agency that drives the narrative. Perhaps that’s what distinguishes the old-world innocence of this film. The execution and language are far from perfect. But the reason Sumi succeeds is because it refuses to fail in all the usual ways. It is fundamentally sorted, even when it’s much easier to revert to type. And it doesn’t aim to be incredible; it remains credible. For once, it’s this intent that matters.