Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s Bengali films have always tapped into the contemporary concerns of Kolkata’s middle-class residents that often stem from the clash between traditional values and a rapidly changing present. Their upcoming film Haami (Kiss) sets the friendship of two school children against the backdrop of mistrust and misgivings over the relationship between students and teachers.
The protagonists are classmates Bhutu, played by six-year-old Broto Bandhopadhyay, and Chini, played by seven-year-old Tiyasha Paul. When Bhutu gives Chini a peck on her check, their families and the school administration react badly.
The trailer of Haami begins with a character addressing a crowded auditorium, “Seventy two percent Indian parents don’t trust schools anymore. But because of a few bad people and the ineptitude of one particular school, should we blame the entire system?”
The reference is timely. On December 1, 2017, Kolkata was rocked with the news of a four-year-old girl being sexually assaulted at the GD Birla Centre for Education. Amid protests by parents, two teachers, identified by the victim, were arrested as culprits.
Soon after, news of similar misconduct in Kolkata’s schools emerged. As the 24-hour news cycle jumped into the fray, Kolkata’s residents expressed their lack of trust in the education system and called for protective measures such as the need for surveillance cameras, among others.
The subject of Haami, scheduled to be released on May 11, makes it a relevant film for Kolkata audiences. Roy and Mukherjee, however, said that the screenplay was in development months before the incident at the GD Birla Centre for Education was reported.
“While working on Ramdhanu, we met a lot of teachers and students, and we kept hearing these stories,” Mukherjee said. “Since, Ramdhanu became a massive hit, we wanted to make a sequel of sorts. We created the script borrowed from the incidents told to us.” Their 2014 film Ramdhanu introduced the characters of Mitali Dutta (Gargi Roychowdhury) and Laltu Dutta (Shiboprosad Mukherjee), who go to great lengths to get their son admitted in one of Kolkata’s top schools.
In Haami, Mukherjee and Roychowdhrury reprise their roles as Laltu and Mitali. “We wanted to bring the characters back just as Munnabhai and Circuit are used in a different setting with different characters from film to film,” Mukherjee said.
The filmmakers insist that the incidents of December 1 and the subsequent furore did not influence the screenplay. “Coincidentally, only when the script was ready did we get to know that something of this sort [the GD Birla incident] had happened,” Mukherjee said. “You can find some similarities to the Gurugram incident, and while writing when you come across these things, you cannot help but think if you were able to foresee things.”
Haami’s trailer, however, features a scene where a woman, presumably a parent, says out loud, “Would you call the Ranikuthi incident something that occurred out of being playful?” The GD Birla Centre for Education is located in Kolkata’s Ranikuthi area.
Both Haami and its trailer have received an Universal rating. Was it tough to touch upon sensitive issues while incorporating extensive scenes involving children into the screenplay? “It depends on how you are telling the story,” Mukherjee explained. “Our aim was not to sensationalise a sensitive topic. A boy and a girl might become friends in a co-ed institute, and one might propose marriage to the other, or write I love you in a piece of paper, but these incidents are increasingly being seen in a different light because of ongoing circumstances.”
Roy and Mukherjee hope that their film will instill confidence among parents in Kolkata’s education system. “Definitely, we want things to become normal again,” Roy said. “We want to show the positive side of things. There are bad elements in every system, but we need to rationalise that instead of hyping it up and creating fear.”
In the trailer, Bhutu’s character is seen asking her parents the meaning of “shlilotahani”, which loosely translates to “sexual harassment”. On being asked about how the children were protected from the darker corners of the screenplay, Mukherjee said that the two child characters had complete trust in the filmmakers, and that they said dialogue without ever questioning what they meant. “Children don’t have any inhibitions,” Roy said. “They learn very quickly. Once you show them a way to do a scene, they imitate it as if they learned it by rote.”
Mukherjee added that it is inevitable for children to question their parents about sexual harassment once they are exposed to the term because of the state of affairs.
“An incident occurs, the school is closed, and 1,200 students go home, and they are exposed to the discussions of their parents and the ruckus they see on television,” Mukherjee said. “Of course, they will want to know what has really happened. The words sexual harassment are written in headlines, day after day. So, they will ask. And parents will be forced to answer. Did anyone want these kids to grow up so soon?”