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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Halkaa, Review: Doing it in the open!

Halkaa, Review: Doing it in the open!

Precisely the presumption of the makers of the film. Precisely the bane of filmgoers and film-critics. Furthering the cause of Swachh Bharat (Clean India), a central government campaign to promote, among other things, building of toilets in millions of Indian village homes, the film had to be subtle and extremely well-crafted to work. Sadly, it is neither. That it is made by much decorated director Nila Madhab Panda makes it a bitter pill to swallow.

Halkaa, which had its world premiere at the 21st Festival International du Film Pour Enfants de Montréal Film (FIFEM), bagged the Grand Prix de Montréal at the gala, from among seven international children's films from different countries in the official competition of the festival. No comment. At the Kinolub Festival for Children and Youth, Poland. The jury of the festival lauded the film for taking up a story which shows the heroism, aspirations and dreams of a slum child. “We awarded the Grand Prix to the film Halkaa for courage in undertaking a difficult subject and presenting it in an original and light way, accessible to the young viewer. The added value for the Polish audience is the opportunity to learn about the realities of living in a culturally remote country,” the jury said in a statement. To each his own.

The film is a take on a slum child's heroism, aspirations, and dreams. The child protagonist, eight year-old Pichku, fights to overcome the basic problem that he faces every day: his inability to defæcate in the open. Since the government is providing the finance required to build a toilet at home, there would seem no logical reason for village-folk to perform their morning ablutions in the open, at railway tracks, among other spots. But there is stiff resistance. Some are averse to the basic idea of a closed door toilet system while others, like Pichku’s father, would rather use the money, albeit illegally, towards buying an auto-rickshaw.

Pichku is bent upon having his own toilet. He has the support of another boy and a Shiv Nadar school student, Rahul, who forges a strange bond with him. Joining him in the cause later are a Unani Hakeem (indigenous medicine doctor) Ali Mehdi Zaidi and a Parryware Ceramics salesperson. Saving as much as he can from his meagre income as a scavenger, Pichku nevertheless entertains dreams of installing the Western style toilet bowl near his home. The model he chooses costs Rs. 10,000, but the salesman offers it to him at an employee discount of 25%, i.e. Rs. 7,500 (about USD95). The crusaders start collecting money.

Meanwhile, Pichku’s father collects the Rs. 6,000 grant given by the government and pockets it to further the purchase of his dream auto-rickshaw. Two developments take place that make Pichku feel that his dream may finally see the light of day. Firstly, an honest government official comes and pulls up the corrupt junior staff that has been distributing money towards toilet-building after taking bribes, and, in return, turning a blind eye towards the unauthorised use of the said funds. Secondly, his father’s indiscretion is exposed and he faces arrest. But to Pichku’s dismay, the commode salesman has decamped and is untraceable. Now, will Pichku succeed in installing a Water Closet (WC)/Wash Room against all odds?

Halkaa hona is colloquial for getting relieved, generally referring to urinating or passing a motion, thus the title. As a symbol for the cleanliness drive, the government has been using the frame of Mahatma Gandhi’s horn-rimmed glasses as a symbol in its media campaigns. In addition, there is a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in the village, who inspires Pichku and to which Pichku addresses his concern.

Nila Madhab Panda (I am Kalam, Jalpari, Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, Kadvi Hawa) comes riding on the back of some high quality stuff, but the director loses his way in Halkaa. The only point of reference for a subject of this nature is Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, starring mainstream hero Akshay Kumar. That was a highly successful enterprise, while this one had the makings of a documentary, with the story line squeezed in. After a tiresome first half, it does pick up some pace, but reaches nowhere near engaging or entertaining levels.

Panda told a publication, in June, that the film arose out of his unpleasant encounters with stomach infections. “I am very fond of food and travel often, and wherever I go, I start eating. I used to have so much of antibiotics. Antibiotics have become very common for all of us. But the basic reason of an infection is what is residing in your food and environment. I wanted to tell that story.” Unfortunately, that premise does not ring true, as there is not even a vague reference to food and anti-biotics. However, there is no denying that he has a way with children, and the actors in this film, like in I am Kalam and Jalpari, do justice to their parts, while retaining their innocence.

He has captured the garbage dump in Delhi with the requisite spread, but Halkaa does not deal with drug peddling, child smuggling or prostitution. Also, the ingenious way in which Pichku manages to perform his ablutions at home are a writing tour de force. Foreign audiences are more likely to lap the film up than local ones, in spite of the fact that he does not peddle poverty or glorify garbage. Savour the Montréal jury member Jo-Anne Blouin’s comments: “The jury was unanimously touched and enchanted with 'Halkaa' and gave the top award to the film for the audacity of its subject matter, the opportunity for children to discover the daily lives of children in such a different society, and for the 'joie de vivre' that overcomes adversity, no matter what.”

Considering the popular Toilet Ek Prem Katha and the Swachh Bharat campaign, it is not an audacious subject matter at all. Add to that the unapologetic inclusion of in-film advertising of the Shiv Nadar school and the ceramic brand Parryware, and your empathy with the narrative wanes quickly. While the Nadar scenes are slightly overblown, the play within a play is well executed. The Parryware scenes do not convince, and neither do the scenes wherein the child duo confronts the corrupt official more than once.

Tathastu as Pichku is a delightful bundle, so is the other boy, who looks more like a girl, especially with his long hair. Ranvir Shorey (Traffic Signal, Death in the Gunj, Gali Guleiyan) as Pichku’s father tackles another off-beat role with intensity, but seems to be affected by improvisations. Same holds true of Kumud Mishra (Rockstar, Jolly LL.B. 2, Mulk) as the hakeem. Paoli Dam (Hate Story, Gang of Ghosts, Yara Silly Silly) is the most convincing of the adults. Names of the supporting cast were not available, but the man playing the honest official performs naturally. Almost all the children’s voices sound dubbed, especially in crowd scenes, and the dubbing is below par.

Most scenes end without smooth transitions, often with somebody muttering “Arey..arey” (Hey) twice or thrice. Editing by Archit D. Rastogi limits the film to 114 minutes, which is still too long for a children’s subject. It is very likely that the film would work much better with a length of around 90 minutes. The paradox is that Halkaa tackles a problem that affects everybody, but it is the adults who will have to solve it, not the children. Therefore, the film remains in the realm of an exception, a dream. The solution that the children find in this fictional tale is also in the realm of OTT (over the top), and largely incredible.

Shankar-Ehsan-Loy’s music has a tuneful number called ‘Qhushbuyen’ (fragrances), which, one cannot but note, is in sharp contrast to what the film is about.

Clean toilets, within reach, are a boon and a necessity. Whether this film has the effect of inspiring Indians towards better hygiene or not, the cause is an unarguably a noble one. It will be interesting to know the reactions of villagers and slum dwellers once the film is out in the open, which will be later this week.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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