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What's the future of children's films in India?

Monojit Lahiri, |

Updated: December 9, 2012, 12:40 PM IST
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What's the future of children's films in India?
There has never been any conscious attempt to promote children's films as a separate and special category.

New Delhi: As a nation, we are passionately committed and engaged in the manufacture of children. Presently, rolling out a 1 billion plus population, we are riding high and hot on the global record register. This automatically means that we have a gigantic 'kiddies club' across all stratas of society. We are also the proud manufactures of the 'largest volume' of movies on planet earth and of course everyone is everyone is fully aware of our movie-madness and craze for movie stars. This disease is truly infectious in a democratic way because it embraces masses everywhere, cutting across all religion, language, caste, creed, colour and social barrier, in frightening fashion.

Superimposed on this very scenario is the strange, sad and shockingly shameful plight of a genre that should have got at least a fraction of the spectacular hi-fives so generously given to commercial cinema but didn't. Result? On one end lies a world buried amidst an embarrassment of riches, while on the other lies a world living in the shadows, rejected, neglected, overlooked, ignored, unattended, uncared and frequently dismissed by the merchants of muck as 'sideshows'. A disfranchised (in popular imagination) territory with all the 'formal and official' trappings required for fulfilling the 'political correctness' quotient, children films, alas, continues to garner precious little respect, attention or recognition it deserves.

The reason is simple. In India, mass-entertainment is Bollywood, which means stars. In this format, where do children feature, except as props? Also (like art cinema) there has never been any conscious attempt to promote children's films as a separate and special category that can entertain, enrich and empower in one fell swoop. It is an area that is popularly perceived as residing in the 'education' slot or 'fairy tales/fantasy' space and hence dumped wholesale in the tray marked 'bachhalog'.

Way back in the fifties, Satyen Bose did make the inspirational, Jagriti and Raj Kapoor, Boot Polish splendid films blending children's issues with social comment but the follow up wasn't really encouraging. Sure there were the absolutely adorable 'Irani sisters' (Daisy and Honey) as very popular child stars of their time and later the wonderful Raju Shrestha the Mehmood - aper, Junior Mehmood and Baby Guddu, all with a fan-base of their own but children-based films were few and far between.

Critics point out to a mixture of 'fear and nervousness to tread that area' on the part of film makers convinced that there is 'no real market for serious children's films.' That apprehension continues, although when you look Hollywood, classics like King Kong, Wizard of oz, Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, E.T, Children of Heaven (among others) leap into the mind enchanting us with their charming narratives. In recent times, the Home Alone series were an amazing example of children's movie, totally grabbing universal audiences, across the globe.

The first serious breakthrough in this genre amidst the hi-decibel, star-studded Bollywood fare came from the person who truly defines creative courage and continues to put his money where his mouth is Aamir Khan. Totally zapped by Amole Gupte's fantastic script of Taare Zameen Par, he bankrolled the film with Rs 12 crore budget, directed, produced and promoted the film like one possessed and hit the bulls eye.

Mesmerising audiences wherever it played and transforming its bucktooth lead child-star Darsheel Safary into a Rs 80 lakh per film and 50 lakh per endorsement celeb, Taare Zameen Par became commercially successful and showed the clueless B-town gang what passion, conviction and ability can achieve when herd-mentality and risk-proof thinking is ignored.

Although a creative misunderstanding saw Gupte let go TZP, Gupte for his turn proved his creative worth as script writer and director in his next venture where he went the distance with Stanley Ka Dabba. A critical and commercial success, the film garnered appreciation winning awards as well. Hot on the hells of his SKD success, Gupte is planning his next children film, Sapno ko ginte ginte.

Meanwhile, the other two Khans flung their hats into the ring with their respective children driven projects, King Khan's Rs 50 crore Ra.One (the superhero fantasy) zoomed out last year, delighting kids to fetch mixed responses. Salman Khan's much more modest and focused Chillar Party hit the target bang-on to pick up the National Award as well as loads of appreciation.

"Unlike earlier times, new categories engagingly made can now exist across genres. The multiplexes have created an audience pool that is forever ready and waiting for new, interesting content covering every type including children's cinema," says Bahl. Further, tax exemption, a lack of expensive stars and a budget of a little over Rs 5 crore, has ensured that Chillar Party is the new template to follow for directors to power this exciting, rewarding and lucrative movement.

However, post TZP there have been flops as well. Aladin, Paathshaala and Bum Bum Bole had to be peeled off the ceiling because, "kids as core audiences will not be taken in by anything you chuck their way. Scripts not genres need to be re-scrutinized and reviewed. Story telling is critical but without being preachy, consciously childish or talking down to them," says Ravi Chopra, who's kiddie spookie Bhootnath, with the Big B, was a big hit.

Bahl puts it down to the "delicate balance between entertainment and message with a sense of fun. Most importantly, there needs to be that critical element of innocence, difficult to explain but easy to identify."

So will Chillar Party's award and success mark a new beginning for children of a lesser god? Film makers doubt it. Although corporatization has brought in funds for the industry, this category has seldom been lucky because 'the mega weekend openings' don't feature and the money boys are mostly fixated towards the direction. Tokenism, yes but serious money...unlikely. Even for a super successful film like I am Kalam, the maker lamented the lack of support from the Children Film Society towards releasing the film. For a film that has scooped up 9 awards across film festivals around the world, "I was forced to take a loan against my house to release Kalam," rues Nila Madhab Panda. Shocking, right?

How long will children's films remain in this orphaned state? When will a Chillar Party and Kalam be celebrated, not with lip service but flush funds to power this movement? When will respect and recognition come to this genre? Your guess is as good as mine.

First Published: December 9, 2012, 12:40 PM IST
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