By Subhash K. Jha (17:15)
Film: "Stanley Ka Dabba"; Cast: Partho, Amole Gupte, Divya Dutta; Writer-Director: Amole Gupte; Rating: ****
A sparkling gem of a film, if ever there was one, "Stanley Ka Dabba" is the sort of rare and precious look at the world of a child as seen aeons ago in Satyajit Ray's "Apur Sansar" or his short-film "Pikoo's Diary". Closer in time, there was "Taare Zameen Par" with which Amole Gupte was profoundly associated.
"Stanley Ka Dabba" goes far deeper into the mind of a male child. This time, the endeavour is not to milk the child's deficiencies for tears. In "Stanley…" Gupte looks for and finds an enormously engaging and humane story in the normal tenor of a 10-year old boy's school life.
Stanley and his friends, as played by Partho and a group of absolutely unaffected children, come across as utterly normal creatures of classroom caprice. If as we have been told, these young boys are trained to face the camera, then the training doesn't show at all.
The skill that has gone into the performances is so subtle and the artifice in their performances so minimal, the boys come across as children of a lesser fraud.
The screenplay is almost Chekhovian in mood. The school premises where we meet Stanley and his friends becomes a playground for a sharp and savagely satirical power-play between the endearing and popular Stanley and his mean-minded Hindi teacher (Amole Gupte, lending a mouth-watering fluency to his part).
Around the teacher and the taught there emerges a plot that is tender and taut, slender but nonetheless resonant in its comment on what it means to be a growing child in an increasingly-competitive society.
Gupte fills the canvas of his richly but delicately layered canvas with characters who make a strong impression in no time at all.
If the teachers appear caricatural, it's the nature of their job. Especially heartwarming is Divya Dutt as the archetypal Catholic teacher Miss Rosy. Playing an emphatic echo of Simi Garewal's character in Raj Kapoor's "Mera Naam Joker", Divya brings immense warm to the staffroom table.
It is in the way that Gupte weaves the theme of school rules into the rituals of tiffin breaks that the storyteller's skills surface with deviousness and delicacy. These vignettes from school life are derived from first-hand experiences in the playground of children's minds. The fears and insecurities of the growing child, the fierce bonding among the boys in and out of the classroom and the cordon that comes up when the youngsters' school of solidarity is threatened by predatory instincts…
"Stanley Ka Dabba" lays open a world of innocent and premature pains. It's a universe created out of great conviction and warmth. And yet, there is a surprising absence of self-consciousness in the way the lives of the boys are drawn in and out of the classroom.
The narrative is buoyed by brilliant use of stage devices such as musical pieces that encircle the characters' lives like colourful strings of paper decoration at a children's birthday party. The festive mood is maintained even towards the conclusion when the utterly disarming Stanley's dark secret is revealed.
We know he will get out of the gloom. He is that sort of a brave and invincible child. This is that sort of an optimistic and upbeat view of lives that need nurturing, not preaching or pontifying.
Without getting preachy for even a second, "Stanley Ka Dabba" makes a telling point on what it means to be a child in a world where children are often attacked by those who are meant to protect them. It takes tremendous fortitude to make a film that doesn't treat children with kid gloves. Writer-director Gupte just lets them be.
The children blossom into recognizable endearing characters within the film's restricted playing-time.
No, all is not lost. There is still reason for immense hope and happiness in life and in cinema. "Stanley Ka Dabba" proves it. Among its many exceptional virtues, the one that stands out the most is the performance of Partho in the title role. Before watching him, it was impossible to believe a child could bring so much understated emotion into his character. Now after watching Partho, it would be very difficult to watch other child actors attempt a similar threshold of emotive expression.
But leave that some other time. For now, savour the goodies in "Stanley Ka Dabba". The flavours that waft across the school corridors are not unfamiliar to us. And yet, when was the last time we saw a school and students that seemed to have forgotten the existence of a camera while shooting what is at the end of the day, a film?
"Stanley Ka Dabba" is a wicked and poignant journey into the soul of a child. At once clever and artless it effortlessly takes cinema about child psychology out of the box. The tiffin box.