Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A cinematic look, not by the book


India Infoline News Service | Mumbai |

Based on Samaresh Basu’s story ‘Pathik’, Gulzar’s 1977 feature film ‘Kitaab’ was a delicate probe into the mind of an immensely likeable kid called Babla who’s struggling to fit his disruptive adolescent cravings within the framework of norms and expectations of the world around him.Sudhir Raikar recounts the splendor of this priceless gem which was unfortunately (and not surprisingly) a box office failure.

On the face of it, the film is pretty linear in its narrative structure but the subtle undercurrents become discernible as the story progresses. Babla lives with his sister and her husband as per his mother’s wish who wants him to study at a good school in the big city. Initially, things seem hunky dory as Babla relishes his impish moments in the company of his concurring friends. School time is largely devoted to composing spoofy rhymes and posing coarse questions to gullible teachers like “Sir, Aapka Honeymoon kaise beeta? (How was your honeymoon sir?) Off school, they wonder about a host of everyday happenings as they wander around with gay abandon. From the science of magic shows to the art of sweet shops, nothing’s spared from their roving gaze. But this honeymoon is short lived as the breaking news of Babla’s loathsome antics is driven home by the school authorities.

Severely admonished by his sister and brother-in-law for his academic neglect and irresponsible behaviour, he does make an effort to fit himself in their mould but to no avail. The pensive solitude soon harbours a strong notion in his mind that childhood is just not the time for unconditional recognition or due acknowledgment. He’ll have to wait till he grows up to be able to move the kaleidoscope of his life as per his whims and fancies. The consuming predicament soon worsens to the boiling point when he can’t take it anymore and resolves to get back to his mother.

En route the homecoming voyage, he examines life from close quarters as every accidental encounter adds to his wealth of adolescent experience. Whether through the sermons of a veteran mendicant in the ticketless train journey or the realization in retrospect of having slept next to a dead beggar woman to escape the biting cold of the railway platform, he catches a good glimpse of the reality in the lives of some grown-ups grappling with a devastation of far more serious implications. The purgative acknowledgment of status quo now helps him turn a new leaf from within. The new voyage also marks a culmination of few unfounded fears as also a continuum of routine life.

Beyond doubt, ‘Kitaab’ is one of Gulzar’s very best, which will always be remembered for Master Raju’s brilliant performance as Babla and R D Burman’s refreshingly inventive score (Masterji ki aa gayi chitti, Dhanno ki aakho mein, mere saath chale na sayaa et al). Uttam Kumar, Deena Pathak and Vidya Sinha provide spirited support although it’s somewhat funny to find thespian Dr. Shreeram Lagoo with his overtly defining Brahminicial features in the role of a tramp, however deep-thinking in stature.

Master Raju was impressive in almost every film he did at that time (as also ‘Woh Saat Din’ in later years) but ‘Kitaab’ had him centre stage for the first time and he made the most of this well-deserved opportunity. It’s indeed unfortunate that his supreme talent was lost to us in the maze of his subsequent support roles but that has been the case of almost every child artiste in India. Even so, we prefer him endorsing a leading bank’s insurance product in a TV commercial rather than suffer Gulzar’s diluted poetry in recent Bharadwaj productions. It’s not difficult to spot sincerity even in circumstances of deprivation but it’s impossible to condone mediocre work that aims to thrive solely on the legacy of past glory.

The endurance of Gulzar’s structured episodic creation makes ‘Kitaab’ as relevant today as it was years back. Many parents of today’s generation have ambassadorial opinions on a host of national and international issues. They are most keen to realign their social smartness in line with the latest brand of cell phones. They have all the time in the world for Facebook friends, Twitter followers and LinkedIn endorsements but they invariably fall short of even the most cursory of effort when it comes to gauging the minds of their own kids.

Worse, they take immense pride in their black and white punitive actions aimed at ‘disciplining their children’ without the slightest consideration to the failings and quandaries of their growing years in similar territories. It’s indeed perplexing why they should fail to realize a simple fact that imposing a tyrant ban, far from a solution, is a new problem in itself. Ban alcohol and face the worst ever liquor tragedy. And when the child is forced to design ingenious ways to hide his vulnerabilities, they seek the help of school teachers and tuition providers before the customary knock at the psychiatrist’s door.

It’s in this context that celebrated American philosopher Eric Hoffer’s words ring truer than ever before: “Perhaps a modern society can remain stable only by eliminating adolescence, by giving its young, from the age of ten, the skills, responsibilities, and rewards of grownups, and opportunities for action in all spheres of life. Adolescence should be a time of useful action, while book learning and scholarship should be a preoccupation of adults.” If Hoffer’s recommendation seems miles away, the least we could do is to relish ‘Kitaab’ all over again in the esteemed company of our kids.