Director: Bhargav Saikia
Cast: Tom Alter, Shernaz Patel, Uday Chandra
I don’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a little film. It’s the kind of young feeling I’ve missed – the kind I grew up experiencing, especially while gaping at the gothic magnificence of Tim Burton movies. I didn’t once think such vivid, mischievous imagery could exist amidst us in India. It’s hard for a city kid to look beyond the orchestral chaos of urban life.
But I’ve slowly learned it’s not really the geography and cultural texture of a space that defines a film’s visuals. Mussorie and Transylvania are merely labels used to identify the physicality of mysticism. Imagination, after all, is a universal religion. And who better than Ruskin Bond to bridge the gap between place and mood?
It’s a testament to filmmaker Bhargav Saikia’s craft that I might later be a little confused about whether his film, The Black Cat – an adaptation of the author’s eponymous short story – was in fact an old, illustrative book I allowed to take form in my ten-year-old head. Because in our heads, the possibilities are endless. There are no limits; fantastic beasts can co-exist with nightmarish creatures without having to worry about budget constraints and nosy producers.
I can’t think of a better way for Tom Alter to sign off – with another accomplished stage veteran, oozing the kind of innocent grandfatherly magic that could well stoke the creative fire of so many impressionable young minds.
This film, too, is atmospheric and playful and simultaneously beautiful: a typically quaint hill-station fairytale involving the old author (the late Tom Alter), his cozy cottage, a stubborn black cat and a visit by its mysterious owner (Shernaz Patel, a personal favourite, as the hypnotic Miss Bellows). I can’t think of a better way for Tom Alter to sign off – with another accomplished stage veteran, oozing the kind of innocent grandfatherly magic that could well stoke the creative fire of so many impressionable young minds.
The Black Cat is a great children’s film because it doesn’t look like an adult’s perception – and grammatical appropriation – of a child’s world. It doesn’t end up sounding “small” in order to appear young. So many stories end up condescending on adolescence because of how they choose to baby-talk their way out of intellect. Here’s one that views adults through the eyes of children – through the glint of their colour-coded eyes, the perky music of their keen ears and the title design of twitchy fingers – the way Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee and Blue Umbrella once did, and the way Anurag Basu’s Barfi! and Jagga Jasoos do.
Maybe it’s the times we live in, or the auctioning of dreams in the form of bloated franchises, but even a whiff of old-school storytelling like this takes me back to an attic full of dusty pages instead of the blinding glare of my laptop screen. Early on, a shopkeeper (Uday Chandra) convinces Bond to pay good money for a rickety old broomstick. “It has so much character!” he exclaims. He is right.
The same can be said about Saikia’s film palette. He is a natural, and his world-building is effortless. Genre filmmakers excite me, and I hope this marks the beginning of an exciting new career. Heaven knows we need a few more Peter Pans in this age full of Hooks and crooks.
Watch the short film The Black Cat here: