There have been a number of films on India's education system. Prakash Jha's Aarakshan on the commercialisation of college degrees and Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots on the pressure we put on our children were some of the recent works. Tamil movie, Thanga Meenkal (Goldfish) also talks about how private schools with ill paid teachers can deeply affect the very psyche of a student.
Chellama (Baby Sadhana) is a second grader who is taunted and teased by teachers and students because she cannot keep up with the class. When she writes 'M' for 'W' on the blackboard, she is promptly nicknamed 'W'. For a child, nothing can be more traumatic. Her parents (played by the director Ram himself and Shelly) are even more agonised, driven to the wall as they are by the girl's grandfather swearing by private school education. The film is a part of the ongoing International Film Festival of India.
Thanga Meenkal has another layer that is as powerful as the dilemma thrown up the school system -- the tender relationship between Chellama and her father, Kalyanasundaram, only that it may appear incestuous to some viewers.
But beneath the pain and suffering of the three people, the mother included, Ram emphasises the marauding role of money power in the country's social dynamics. A school dropout with a job that fetches him a measly salary, Kalyanasundaram has to depend on his father to even educate Chellama.
While the script and direction lend themselves to some uniformly fine performances (Sadhana is an absolute thrill to watch with her amazing natural ease), they do tend to get a little too melodramatic at times. Nothing is left unsaid and dialogues are delivered on a note of near hysteria. Thanga Meenkal slips on this count even as it tries to hammer into our consciousness the flipside of a system tailored for mass consumption.
During a chat with Ram, he clarifies that his work is a comment on the maliciousness of India's greedy schools and how inconsiderate they are towards a child's needs. "I have a 12-year-old daughter who lives in Coimbatore. As I travel a lot, staying in Chennai for many months at a time, we have long conversations over the telephone, and these have formed part of my film's narrative structure," Ram smiles.
He says he wanted to stress how private school education, especially in Tamil Nadu, intrudes into a family, and sometimes mucks up relationships beyond repair. The ill effects are even more debilitating in the case of a joint family as we see in Thanga Meenkal with the school erecting a wall between Chellama's father and grandfather.
Beyond all this is the growing concern in India about the quality of teaching. Poor salaries don't attract the best of talent and teachers are often overworked. "Where is the time for individual attention, particularly for those who may not be able to sync with the rest," wonders Ram.
Although Chellama is termed a slow learner, Ram feels that there is no such thing as this. "I think it is highly unfair to adopt a single scale to a class of 40 kids," Ram sounds almost angry. "Our education must take into consideration the fact that every child is different. One may be brilliant in mathematics, but with a poor appetite for languages, while another may hate numbers".
What is even more pertinent in Ram's world is the freedom a boy or girl must enjoy to pursue his or her passion. We saw that in Taare Zameen Par. We see that in Thanga Meenkal, where Chellama is curious about the goldfish in the village pond. Of course, she has never seen them. They may not be even there, but the little girl's imagination takes over every time she is by the pond.
This precisely is what India's education does not allow. It does not let a child dream, nay, it stops a child from discovering the wonders of life. Thanga Meenkal brings this out through powerful visuals, though Ram need not have run his work into the clichéd feel-good finale.