Mahatma Gandhi has been the inspiration for many feature films down the years – as ghost, as part of a child’s subconscious memory, as an icon to be followed at every step, as the real man who is interpreted differently at different phases of his life by different filmmakers with their distinct treatment, style and approach. But in Babar Naam Gandhiji, a street urchin named Kencho (snail) who was discovered discarded in a dustbin by an old alcoholic and grew up in the dredges of Kolkata, eking a living out of begging and blackmailing, Gandhi assumes the shape of his biological father! That changes the map of his life forever.
Babar Naam Gandhi is Pavel Bhattacharya’s debut film which does not appear to be a debut film considering the maturity with which he has written the story, the creative design, choice of location and backdrop and also, the cast he has chosen mainly the street urchins who are children from middle-class families who have never faced a camera before.
“The story is not mine, it is Kencho’s story” says the voice-over of Pavel (Parambrato Chatterjee) who runs an NGO for street children who attend his classes only because he arranges tiffin for them. Kencho is their leader who not only uses his intelligence and shrewdness to fool people to part with their money but also teaches the other kids clever ways of extortion. He hardly attends Pavel’s classes but uses this young man as his bank because “I have faith in you” says this worldly-wise ten-year-old. But he is a very friendly sort and all the beggars in the locality are behind him through there are a couple of goons who bash him up black and blue when he refuses to part with their demand for hafta. But even these goons rally behind him when he decides to join the big school in the neighborhood as his reaction to a teacher who insults him in his father’s (Gandhi) name! This leads to two things – Kencho’s bonding with Pavel gets stronger while Pavel’s live-in girlfriend (Sayoni Ghosh) poised to leave for the US leaves him because she feels he is more committed to the children in his NGO than in getting married to her and settling down to a ‘normal’ life.
The script offers a colourful glimpse – through Kencho’s pranks and Pavel’s frustrations – into multilayered areas of life in any urban metro of which Kolkata is only a metaphor. The boss having an affair with his secretary yet frowning on his daughter Mini’s friendship with Kencho, a street urchin, the municipal man (Shankar Debnath) refusing to divulge his academic qualification when asked by Pavel and threatening him with closure of the classes and replacing it with a spanking gym; Kencbo catching a policeman (in plain clothes) urinating against the wall and demanding Rs.20 as fine as against Rs.100 which a police man would ask for and getting caught on the wrong foot; Kencho’s good pickings that makes him take his friends by a taxi cab to a movie and paying the fare by the meter; Kencho’s warm friendship with the higher class girl Mini whose mother adores the boy but the father hates him because Kencho had once extorted money from him when he was caught kissing his secretary in the car; the entire crowd of beggars in the neighborhood taking out a procession with their own indigenous band party playing music when Kencho nervously walks towards the big school for his final interview; the same street crowd of a medley of men, women and children saving from their weekly ‘hafta’ which the goons agree to surrender to collect Rs.5000 as Kencho’s first installment for the high fees and upturning a sack of small coins in the principal’s cabin; they also promise that “more will come when needed” from the same source; the smooth falsifying of every single document Kencho with Pavel’s help has to produce for his admission test from birth certificate to ration card to age proof to the name of his father written in full as “Kenchodas Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” and many more such small bits and pieces picked up from real life and portrayed on celluloid make Babar Naam Gandhi a film worth not only watching but watching out for!
The only negative phase when the film slides down somewhat is in the melodrama involving the South Indian master who is dead against Kencho’s admission to the classy school who takes Kencho’s test in a separate room but takes great care to demoralize him before taking the test by pointing out that the entire edifice Kencho has been given to build his castle of dreams on does not exist – Gandhi is not his father because Gandhi cannot be his father! This scene is a bit too long drawn out while the rest of the film races from one action-filled incident to the next, without breathing space yet allowing the subtle messages to seep into our fossilized mind-sets.
Babar Naam Gandhi has been shot almost entirely on real locations spanning Ultadanga footbridge, MG Road, Shovabajar, Lalbagan Basti, Bhangamath Basti, the rooftop of Tripti Bar at Bhowanipur, La Martiniere School for Boys, St Joesph’s School except the police station which had to be shot in a studio set. Supriyo Dutta’s cinematography familiars us with a city we live in but do not really know. Kencho crying in front of Gandhiji’s statue with the rains leashing down on him is a beautiful scene as is the scene where Pavel breaks down on his pizza when his girlfriend leaves him, or Pavel charging the principal of the big school with things he never thought he would be questioned on. Sanlaap Bhowmick’s editing moves at almost an electric pace sustaining a mix of mood of suspense, action and emotion. The production design, the sound design and the costumes fit the film’s ambience and structure to a tee. Raja Narayan Deb’s low-key music for the two songs running through the soundtrack like a common theme is beautifully rendered and written by Prosen.
Surojit Mukherjee as Kencho is a miracle in human form. He creates magic on screen in every scene and dominates the frame offering solid support to the other characters in the film, good or bad, big or small, important or not so important. Koushik Sen as the biased, snobbish teacher with a strong South Indian accent who places two full plates on his dinner table, one for his wife who ran away with a bootlegger and one for himself, has done as good a job as he always does but for his being constantly stereotyping in sharp negative roles even in otherwise positive films. Debdoot Ghosh as Mini’s father, Arun Mukherjee as the alcoholic beggar who picks up Kencho from the dustbin, Srijita Choudhury as little Mini give masterful performances. Sayoni Ghosh as Pavel’s live-in partner does reasonably well in a differently etched role. Parambrato stands out in a refreshing, non-conforming characterization as Pavel because he is not the hero, does not have the mandatory romantic angle, does not have to fight but only has this strange bonding and feeling for the street kids. One question that keeps dogging the viewer is how does he afford to live in such a spacious apartment on a very mean salary even after his girlfriend has left him?
The message of the film comes across loud and clear – it is not Gandhi that is important in this story but it is how the iconization of a departed national leader can change the life of a street urchin even after he learns that Gandhi is not his father, never was and never will be! The film does not pontificate, does not deliver sermons or lectures but does everything through entertainment and how!