We know that Amole Gupte can write. He has ideas, he has a vision, and unlike many writers in Hindi cinema, he has a clear direction in which he wants to take his material. He makes films about kids, and in his two movies so far both starring his son Partho Gupte (the first one being Stanley Ka Dabba), there is a linear progression of a child’s life that we see forming. Partho was younger in Stanley Ka Dabba, and his problems were also those of a young kid, problems with schoolmasters, a first crush, worrying about his lunch and bullies. In Hawaa Hawaai, we see an older Partho, one who is filled with ambition, working a full-time job as a chai-wala (thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, even Americans know what this means), providing for his family, caring for his mother, and in center of the story, pining to be a champion at roller-skating. It makes even more of an impact that the younger Gupte plays a poor, lonely outsider from the shanties in this movie as opposed to an upper-middle class popular kid in Stanley. He’s a boy who has to grow up faster than any boy really should. These aren’t just kids dreams or problems anymore, Gupte has signified to us that his second film is in fact, a second stage of his son’s life… that of ambition, responsibility, and finding a place in the world. The tagline for Taxi Driver rings out here: “On every corner or every street, there’s a nobody dreaming of becoming a somebody”. The ideas and intent that lay as the foundation of an Amole Gupte film are always exciting. The script as well, is always filled with promise.
As a director however, I am not sold on Amole Gupte. In fact, I don’t think he’s cut out for it. There was a major controversy back in 2007 surrounding Gupte’s first script titled Taare Zameen Par. Aamir Khan came aboard as producer and after viewing the material decided to direct the film himself. A lot of people were irked by Gupte’s suggestion that Khan deceived him and took over the project without permission. Despite all that, the film became a sensation. In hindsight, I think it was a blessing that Aamir Khan directed the film. You may scoff at the notion of perfectionism that Khan is always tagged with, you may disregard it as unqualified self-indulgence. All those are valid arguments. However, there is something to be said about being a perfectionist. When you are so sure of your intuition as a filmmaker, the worst that can happen is that it can come across as pretentious, in which case you move on. What can never happen though is a lack of technique, vision and perspective when it comes to sharing your world view.
There is something artistically dubious and wrong with each scene that Gupte films; edits where they shouldn’t be, slow-motion at ill advised points, and song sequences which come off more as schmaltzy instead of emotional. Every time the lead character, Arjun Harishchand Waghmare, gets a glimpse of shiny roller-blades, everything becomes slow-motion. The same gimmicky slow-motion appears countless times during the song sequence “Ginte Ginte” which pans across dirty city streets, shanties, and sweatshops, showing poor slum children being mistreated and having to live amongst rubble and beg for whatever sustenance they can get. All through this, the children have the most depressing facial expressions. If there was ever an appropriate time to label a film as poverty porn, this is the time. If you take a look back at the script for Taare Zameen Par, there were ample opportunities for these maudlin moments, but Aamir Khan managed to impressively refrain from beating us over the head with a bat that says “feel sorry for these kids!” written on it. In a sequence, where Aamir Khan’s character is sitting at a table and witnesses a young boy cleaning up tables at a dhabba, he could have easily focused in petty slow-motion and had the child turn his head up so we could see ‘pain’ or whatever in his eyes. Instead, the kid mops up quickly, looks content and leaves. He is a person, amongst thousands of others working for a living, and awareness of that is enough.
Gupte is not satisfied with that however, his poor children need to be felt sorry for, they need to be cried over, and worst of all, they are treated throughout the film as if they are neglected and battered puppy dogs. When the boys call up to one of their friends, sitting atop a giant mountain of garbage, the camera pans down as, in insulting slow-motion as usual, the kid slides down the mountain of dirty newspapers, feces, food scraps and banana peels. It’s this type of “Public Service Announcement” kitsch which made me question Gupte’s ability as a director. It also makes me understand further why he was bitter about Aamir Khan taking his reigns of director for Taare Zameen Par, and succeeding with it.