Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stanley Ka Dabba review

Director: Amole Gupte
Starring: Partho, Divya Dutta
Rating: ***1/2

Amole Gupte’s new film is a fresh, original effort, one that feels closest to classic slice-of-life Iranian cinema like Where Is My Friend's Home and Children Of Heaven. It has tremendous strengths, even if it ends up valorising the protagonist — the delightful Stanley (Partho) — also Gupte’s son — more than necessary. This makes it entirely character-driven, which somewhat dilutes the impact of the film. Yet, let’s not get into the negatives first.

There’s no doubt Stanley Ka Dabba is as pure and seamless a film as they come. Amole, having worked in the area of childrens’ welfare for long now, is beautifully in touch with their world. And it is this sensitivity that he brings to his writing, portraying bitter-sweet memories of childhood —bench-mates elbowing each other for desk space, a hungry student pinching a piece of vada-pao from his dabba before recess. The film almost entirely centres around the world of school dabbas, and through food, Amole explores a variety of situations, emotions and character quirks.

Stanley (Partho) is always the first to arrive and his dishevelled state with bruises indicates that something could be wrong. As he puts his head down on the bench, you see a great anguish and agitation in him, as if he’d want to scream out for help. But the bell rings and Stanley quickly rubs his face, and steadies his emotions. He’s a great favourite among his classmates, who admire him for his ability to narrate interesting things. Even otherwise, he’s a boy impossible to dislike. Radiating warmth and boyish charm, he’s keen to keep up appearances of belonging to a normal household. He comes up with creative excuses that invariably centre around his mother. But one soon sees a pattern with Stanley. He never gets a dabba. His friends want him to share their food, but Stanley — though hungry — is too ashamed to borrow everyday.

His rapport with each teacher differs. He blooms with confidence when his English teacher Rosy maam (Divya Dutta) is around, but feels stifled under the unkind, rigid gaze of his science teacher, Mrs Iyer (Divya Jagdale). But the teacher who seems to particularly dislike him is Babubhai Varma, their Hindi teacher (Amole Gupte). Babubhai is unkempt and shamelessly digs into others’ dabbas. His colleagues are exasperated with him and frown each time he eyes their tiffin. The children too don't seem to have much respect for him.

Babubhai’s dislike for Stanley perhaps stems from the fact that the former sees a reflection of himself in the boy — of taking food from others. Or then it could be envy that Stanley is popular and gets offered food all the time, while he is rejected by the students and kept at bay.

All this is wonderful to watch. But then the film starts to become completely about Stanley. Even TZP was about Darsheel, but the film never lost sight of the issues it was trying to address. Of course, here too, Amole wants to stress on Stanley’s indomitable spirit in the face of difficulties, but it gets a bit exaggerated and over-the-top by the end. And this jars, because the rest of the film is pure gold. This is still a terrific debut from Amole. And a special mention to the couple of kids who play Partho’s friends. They exude such natural warmth and goodness, it almost made me imagine what lovely people they would make in their characters when they grow up.


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