Desi wonder years!
Direction: Sanjeevan Lal
Actors: Sohail Lakhani, Apurva Arora
Boys eye girls their age, mark one of them as their own (in their head: “book karke rakha hai”), hope to eventually score someone for real, to legally announce her as their “GF” (girlfriend): the decisive 'neighbour’s envy'. Girls, demure, yet aware of all the male attention, juggle several boys at once. They play hard to get. Yet keep all hopes alive.
“Joint study”, after school hours, is good meeting point for such extra-curricular activities: basically inane, awkward conversations between the boy, the girl, and her best friend. Things get better from there on. The film’s narrator tells us, “Aajkal haath pakadna aam baat hai (These days, it’s not a big deal to hold hands).” Back then, there was only one legit excuse to steal a feminine touch: “hamara rashtriya khel” (our national sport), kabaddi! This is what the boys get together with girls for in the evenings, sucking on Phantom, the peppermint cigarette, which immediately stands out for the ultimate in cool. They cycle around otherwise. The festival Holi is what everyone’s gearing up for now. There’s plenty of space for everything.
Roads are wide, clean, rarely congested. These children, of roughly the same economic classes, studying in the same school, growing up among assorted uncles and aunties, aren’t neighbours in a crummy housing society. The town itself is their vast playground. A local ‘club’ is their affordable restaurant.
India’s industrial townships, namely Bhilai, Bokaro etc, are this nation’s closest approximations to the American suburban life. This film recognises that. The kids here belong to Jamshedpur. It’s a Tata town, which also makes steel (and recently made for smart setting for the indie hit, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan). The people on screen also belong to an era of middle class India, which looks unrecognisable, only about 30 years after. It’s roughly the late ‘70s. It seems. Girls devour Linda Goodman. Guys hide the Debonair.
The father (Sachin Khedekar) is an engineer (of course). The mother (Tanvi Azmi) is a schoolteacher. They make for the typically soft, strict Indian parents, who place premium on studies and good conduct. The family drives a white Fiat (Premier Padmini). A fat black porcelain box with circular dials is the prized telephone they can’t afford. Yet. Neighbours help.
Of the two boys in this family, one’s a deaf-mute, visiting home for the holidays. He’s older, and as you’d expect, the mature, responsible one. The second (Sohail Lakhani, relatively untrained for a lead actor) is a borderline juvenile delinquent. As most 14-year-old boys are. This one’s also slightly selfish, or self-centred, which seems a more common trait among younger siblings. He has a thing for a girl down the street. He also has a serious competitor, a rival suitor in a friend, from his own group, who’ll do anything to block his chances.
The pic is a sweet, rare, candid personal piece; the kind of filmmaking the market has least patience for. The title’s third-rate. The teenybopper advertising is misleading. There is no effort whatsoever to lend finesse to the film, a certain polish to the final product.
Narrative meanders in portions. Screenplay is streteched out in parts. The amateurish, rough touches remain real still. So does the movie. Throughout. It’s the nearest we’ve got to an honest Indian take on the Wonder Years, set in early '70s American suburbia. Now that was one fine television show (favourite for a lot of my generation). This would make for just as fine a four-part mini series. Pick up its DVD, when you get a chance. Else, negotiate through sickeningly extortionist multiplexes that will charge you the same heavy buck for a Rs 50 crore giant Singham, as they would for a low-budget, earnest, gentle Bubble Gum. Chew on that. Sad.