Ishu, that won the national award for Best Assamese film, has just been screened at the Tagore Theatre, Thiruvananthapuram. Children coming out, watching the film, are asked for opinion. The film has a child like them as the protagonist, what did they think of him? They think they’d do what Ishu has done in the film, fight for their favourite aunt who is branded a witch, fight against superstition. Swati Pandey, listening to these voices, realises again, movies transcend language and regional barriers. The CEO of Children’s Film Society of India, Swati, has brought a bunch of films to be screened in Thiruvananthapuram, as part of the International Children’s Film Festival of Kerala, put together by the Kerala State Council for Child Welfare along with the Kerala Chalachithra Academy.
“Values are true everywhere. They said that it may be of some other place, but we were all Ishu at that time we were watching it,” Swati says, hours later. She is happy to notice the turnout at the first edition of the festival. At the Kalabhavan theatre, where she watched Song of the Sea, Swati could find a seat only on the stairs and even there, she was shoved and pushed by someone else trying to find space to sit. But she is happy that the festival is a success. “The purpose is to widen the horizon. When a child watches films from other parts of the world, they grapple with the situations in the country, and around the world. They respect and understand how a child copes up in Assam or France. It is the same kind of struggle for a child everywhere – with parents, society, school and peer groups. It is edutainment.”
Another film being screened is Window Horses, a Canadian film, about a Canadian girl going to Iran. It had a curious effect at a film festival in Mumbai. Monica Wahi, curator of quite a few children’s film festivals in the country, remembers what kids who watched the film wrote on feedback sheets That they thought Iran was
a country of terrorists and now they realised it is land of poetry and culture.“They shouldn’t have thought that it was a land of terrorists, it is the impression they get from media,” Monica says, sitting at the Kalabhavan Theatre.
She is a consultant of the ICFFK and after many years of curating children’s film festivals, can tell you why it is important to have them. Or even a label called a children’s film in the first place. “It is important to tell a story from the point of view of children not only because they cater to them but also because children’s stories weave in a curious look of the world with a certain fearless conviction of what’s good about the world,” Monica says.
Those movies have themes we forget as we grow up, in our attempt to take us away from being a child. “To have that unfettered kind of imagination, empathy, to have faith in something beyond what is real. To be able to invest in something immediately around you and question that,” she adds. Exposure to beautiful works from across the world gives them reflective space – not just to watch a film, consume with popcorn and forget about later. We have thus reduced movies to a pastime, looking at cinema as only an entertainment product, Monica says.
“But it is an art – an amalgamation of so many arts. It tells you to look at the world around you in a different way, focus on something you see every day but do not notice. It is educational development, but not to be a preachy message, allowing you to build your own critical faculties, inspiring you to be creative, tactile, to be inclusive and to empower you.”
If you look at the content of what comes on television for kids, there are very few with girl protagonists, Dalit or Adivasi children or Muslim children, or children with disabilities seeing themselves projected on the screen. “If as a child I am always seeing only that, that’s the kind of world I think is normal. Constantly reinforced by the kind of stories I am told, I won’t question it. As a child from a marginalised community, you feel your invisibleness when you don’t see your stories up there. And other children feel it is perfectly fine for this status quo to continue,” Monica says.
She points to the preaching adults give children and then not practise. Telling children to respect elders and be kind to everyone, and then having different service lifts for servants, giving them different utensils to eat and drink and letting them stand while others sit. “This is the background in which they watch entertainment content. Children in cars see other kids like them beg or trying to sell something on the streets. In your air-conditioned cars, you are totally in dissonance with what’s outside. We see entertainment content that completely negates that kind of a world. Even the education system tells you to constantly win, win, win. In this context, films have a huge role to play – not just creating empathy for those around you, but also providing tools for you to question, build opinions – purely as an art form.”
Monica has a list of don’ts when she programmes a film festival. She will not have a film that is trying to tell you that because you belong to a certain community or gender you should feel superior about it. Or the one that makes you laugh at someone’s vulnerability – disability or the way one dresses or eats. “We are also staying in a world where resources are depleting. If we are going to create a value amongst us to win constantly, which literally means you win at the cost of others, how are we going to survive in this world,” she asks. When there is a film which concentrates on the idea of competing and winning as against one which encourages you to share and collaborate, Monica would rather show the latter.