You simply cannot refuse Chaitanya, the seven-year-old boy with the shining eyes and a songbird in his throat. There’s even a song dedicated to Chaitanya’s habit of ending his sentences with the interjection “na va”. When Chaitanya pleads “Jau de na va” (let it be) or “Saang na va” (please tell me), adamantime is the heart that turns him down.

Cinematographer Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti’s directorial debut Naal wins half its battle with its superb casting. Shreenivas Pokale is the kind of child actor for whom directors would give an arm and leg. Utterly unselfconscious, both impish and serious, and always alive to the film’s emotional journey, Pokale gives a performance for the ages.

But Naal (The Cord) isn’t just content with relying on Pokale’s camera-friendliness. Yakkanti’s Marathi-language drama, which he also shot, is a keenly observed exploration of Chaitanya’s journey of self-discovery.

The film is set in a village in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district. The title refers to the relationship between Chaitanya and his adoptive mother Suman (Devika Daftardar) as well as the boy’s yearning for his biological mother Parvati (Deepti Devi).

Chaitanya has become recently acquainted with motherhood – the family cow has given birth. He is consumed with doubt when he learns of his real mother’s existence.

Devika Daftardar in Naal. Courtesy Madgandh Films/Aatpat Production/Zee Studios.

Naal was released in cinemas in 2018 and is now being streamed on ZEE5. The film has been co-produced by Nagraj Manjule, whose Sairat and Jhund were shot by Reddy. Apart from playing Chaitanya’s father, Manjule has also written the conversational dialogue, which reflects the lilt of the local Marathi dialect.

Reddy often lowers his camera to match Pokale’s height. While the remarkably expressive boy is the film’s centrepiece, Devika Daftardar is terrific too as Chaitanya’s adoptive mother.

The film treats the shifting relationship between Suman and Chaitanya without resorting to melodrama. There’s no equivalent of the moment in Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film Kannathil Muthamittal, in which the character played by Nandita Das cries a river upon meeting the daughter she has given up for adoption.

However, Naal too has moments that cause lumps in the throat. While Chaitanya’s adventures border on the comic, it’s advisable to keep a box of tissues handy when the boy confronts the confounding world of grown-ups.

Naal (2018).

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