Stanley Ka Dabba
Director: Amole Gupte
Actors: Partho, Amole Gupte
Varmaji chews the paan and teaches Hindi for a living. At most schools, these two facts are often mutually inclusive. Varmaji’s face lights up most when he expresses in his chaste Hindi his love for a “Hrisht pusht tandarust, chaar chamchamate compartment ka dabba (a healthy, shiny four-compartment Tiffin carrier).”
You figure quite early on in this film that the director – who’s laid out screenfuls of swish pans and close-ups of all kinds of edibles, cooked and cooking – and who’s also the actor who plays the glutton Varmaji (Amole Gupte), is incessantly obsessed with food. It’s at the forefront of the film. If you were hungry, like I was during the movie, you'd do well to keep a dabba to dig into nearby. Otherwise? Tough luck.
Varmaji eyes every kid’s dabba in his classroom, staff room. He never ever brings his own lunch box. This is true for the little boy Stanley (Partho) as well. The teacher hates this student for the same reason. The difference between the two being that while the old Hindi shikshak pigs on other people’s lunches, the self-respecting kid would rather glug down gallons of water to try and quench his hunger instead. But then Varmaji's only one of a kind. Stanley has teachers of all sorts – encouraging, stern, morose, dumb.... This is true for every school.
We’re at a Christian missionary one, the educational chain that for generations has taught Indians virtues of discipline, and facility with the English language. They’ve served the nation well; remain still one of the most under-rated institutions around (this is something even LK Advani, who went to one, may agree with).
Boys in Stanley’s Class 4F don’t care much about his daily lack of a dabba. They’re only too happy to share their lunch with him -- and not with the wicked Varmaji. This is sweet. Though kids that age, especially the wealthy bratty ones, are usually known to be more unforgiving and cruel than that. The proposed 25% reservation for the poor at all Indian private schools, once operational, would seriously change the way the rich, insular, urban India grows up. But that hasn’t happened yet.
It never quite seems that these boys are patiently acting out their assumed parts. Children, I guess, are just born naturals. A hand-held camera follows them practically through what's supposed to be an academic year (a lot like Laurent Cantent’s French phenomenon The Class). The maker of this movie was also the original brain behind Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, based on children again. The only thing immediately common between the two films is probably the guitar riff of the background score that suspiciously sounds like the song Kholo kholo darwaze.
You know where this story is headed, and sort of why Stanley can’t quite afford a dabba. You unfortunately learn very little (or nothing) about why the dictatorial, dabba-less Varmaji is a stuffy dabba himself. The narrative then remains tonally flat. But you don’t care.
This film, we’re informed, was the result of extensive workshops conducted over weekends at an actual school in Mumbai. It shows. The realism gently, warmly sucks you in. You sit back, sometimes reminisce, mostly observe. The take-home for the viewer is entirely experiential. As with all good experimental films.