Whether Masoom (1983), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, (1998) or Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), depictions of children in mainstream Hindi cinema almost always ensure that audiences swim in treacle. It is the unbearable lightness of treatment that reduces child characters to chirruping class toppers, the not-so-cute menders of adult relationships or the wide-eyed would-be cuties who are cuddled like soft toys. One almost misses the angry young Vijay in Deewaar (1975).
Of course, there have been the “different” films, some concerning the “differently abled”. Iqbal (2005) and Taare Zameen Par (2007) are both earnest endeavours, even if a trifle simplistic. In these uplifting and yet patronising before-and-after stories, the genius of special children is fortuitously discovered by a similarly talented or benevolent adult. After weeping for their earlier insensitivity, reformed parents, beaming youngsters and selfless mentors all take a bow. Sparsh (1980) stands unsurpassed in its portrayal of the “differently abled,” showing such children not necessarily to be wizkids with hidden talents but almost regular children being taught to cope with regular life.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s fiery debut Udaan (2010) is among the few films to tackle a teenager’s mental as well as physical struggles at home and the world. Motwane offers no kid gloves and pulls no punches. Udaan gives us a spunky, sometimes provocative teenage character who is refreshingly free of sententiousness. Minus a mother for lullabies in flashback or any shoulder for immediate succour (there is an affectionate but ineffectual uncle), the personality of Udaan’s protagonist develops organically rather than through a series of convenient coincidences.
The script confines most adults to their finger-wagging, punitive or ineffectual worst, but any introspective teacher or parent will see paler versions of themselves in these depictions of authority. At the symbolic (though arguably unrealistic) finale, we see a youngster with a capital I for identity soar away from the ABC (Adult Bullying and Control) rulebook of his father.
“Lose Happiness,” reads 17-year-old Rohan’s t-shirt and he does indeed, when, along with his prankster friends, he is expelled from the boarding school at which he had been offloaded 11 years ago. Rohan (Rajat Barmecha) is now sent home to Jamshedpur where his widower father (a trim and tough Ronit Roy) is in no mood to either forgive or forget his son’s disgrace.
“I want to study the arts,” Rohan says. “I will be a writer one day.”
“You will be nothing of the kind,” his father decides “You will attend engineering classes in college and work in my factory.”
“I don’t want to be an engineer.”
“Did anyone ask for your opinion?”
Rohan’s father imprisons Rohan both physically and metaphorically in a world of steel – something he also plans eventually for his son from a second marriage, six-year-old Arjun (an outstanding Aayan Boradia). Rohan’s father is an obstructive killjoy with serious anger management issues. Absurdly demanding to be addressed as “Sir,” his message for Rohan is to man up. Beginning with a tough physical regimen, he has Rohan up and jogging at dawn and after a round of Jamshedpur landmarks and strenuous push-ups, demands that Rohan race him back home. The repetition of this vigorous routine is not merely to include a montage of Jamshedpur. Rohan needs more than mental resilience to cope with the violence in times to come.
Rohan’s father has a back story, but the film makes no apologies for the physical and mental abuse of a frustrated, alcoholic parent. If this is also the story of “munda bigad gaya” (Rohan is an underage smoker, driver and drinker), there are no apologies for Rohan either. He steals money from his father’s wallet, pays truant from college and fails his college exams. It does not take much imagination to understand why.
Thankfully, in this grim tale of Rohan’s finding guts for glory, the scriptwriters (Motwane and Anurag Kashyap) do not forget to include tenderness. Mainstream Hindi cinema rarely shows children with such reserves of quiet dignity. Rohan looks longingly but tearlessly at photographs of his mother. Arjun will not let Rohan see the welts of his father’s beatings. Especially touching are the hospital scenes when Rohan shares his own stories and poems with Arjun, bringing on their first smiles of camaraderie.
But for the Munnabhai MBBS moments of wowing the hospital staff and patients, these scenes between Arjun and Rohan are intimate and appealing. Arjun learns to trust the boy who suddenly came home to share his life, and Rohan learns to care for the little stepbrother whom he had first shunned. The final scenes of the film wordlessly and poignantly capture what it feels to find a friend in a sibling.
With a nod of acknowledgement to Bruce Springsteen’s song Born to Run, Udaan’s music director and lead singer Amit Trivedi and lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya offer a spirited tribute to all those who refuse to let their dreams die young.
A teenage audience may wean itself away but for every parent and educator who thinks they have got it right, Udaan is a must-watch many times over.