Cast: Suraj Kabadwal, Trimala Adhikari, Abhay Joshi, Kumud Mishra
I've often wondered how the Iranians do it. Why does the story of two children and a white balloon, or two children and a pair of shoes, send shivers and echoes of familiarity through us? Finally, someone from the Indian subcontinent gives us three children and a red ball, in a story told through layered metaphors.
Hindi poet-playwright Manav Kaul's Hansa doesn't give you a plot so much as a glimpse into the lives of people whose lonely struggles are irrelevant to those of us in the mainstream. They live in the lands we holiday in. They do things we don't do, running up and down steep mountain slopes, and rearing animals. It's easy to forget they do things that we do, like bunk school, place bets, play cricket, and make imaginary friends.
The film looks at the ignored issue of sexual predators
The film doesn't have a narrative arc, but is made up of random threads from the lives of the people who populate it. An indefatigable madman plays observer, as a girl (Trimala Adhikari) deals with a sleazy lecher (Kumud Mishra), an avaricious middleman (Abhay Joshi), an incorrigible brother (Suraj Kabadwal), an ailing mother, a missing father, and a motormouth of a grandmother.
Speaking of his foray into filmmaking, Manav Kaul calls it a "no-budget film". None of the actors asked to be paid, and almost everyone was new to film. "When we got the camera out, and I was about to take the first shot, I was thinking, 'How do I tell them I don't know how to make films?'" The heat was off him for a bit, though, because no one knew how to handle a clapboard.
To watch the film, one simply can't tell that the cast and crew were inexperienced. It opens with that universal symbol of nostalgia - an empty school building, brimming with memories of childhood. The scene came to him, says Kaul, when he visited his native village, Hoshangabad, on holiday from college. "The school was shut, and I sat where I used to sit, and the bench was just the same, I could see marks I'd left on it. You feel something else - you miss it very badly, and at the same time, you think, 'Oh my god, it's absolutely the same!' It belongs to a beautiful world, it's poetic." But the sharp pain it induces hits the audience.
Manav Kaul calls it a "no-budget film"
The premise of the story is a common enough occurrence in poverty-struck villages across the subcontinent - a man, overburdened by debt and responsibility, takes off. Was he forced to leave? Where did he go? Will he come back? And, until they know, what must the family do? What can they compromise to save themselves? What risks can they take to keep their lives from crumbling? When your world sucks everything out of you, what gives you hope that things will be better one day?
"Someone touches you in front of your parents, and you know the touch is not right, but you don't know how to react"
The film looks at an issue that has largely been ignored in commercial cinema, perhaps because it's too delicate to speak of, or too challenging to portray convincingly - that of sexual predators. Not the predators who go the whole hog, but the ones who push the boundaries, leaving just that little space for doubt. How can you tell the difference between an avuncular hug and a lecherous squeeze? Between a fond pat and a cunning grope? Sure, we speak of instinct, but what if that instinct makes us feel guilty and dirty? What if, even when we know we're right, we're made to feel we're wrong?
"I know so many people who've been through it, and I've seen it so often," says Kaul, "It happens in our own homes. Someone touches you in front of your parents, and you know the touch is not right, but you don't know how to react. Nobody tends to notice. When you complain, they shut you up, saying, 'No, no, he's like your uncle, what is wrong with you?' That's the pressure every girl goes through, and we need to start speaking about it."
With a loose storyline, the film focuses on relationships in a small town. Through vignettes that often make us laugh, we see the rapport between the madman and the children, the fear-contempt-triumph dynamic between the village bully and two impish boys, the instincts that foster protectiveness among siblings, and the effect of power earned by means and manipulation. While it makes us think about the weaknesses in ourselves, Hansa also reminds us of our own reserves of strength, and ends on a note of hope.
"At the end of every day, you get something. Something happens that makes sure you sleep well, assured that you'll have a nice cup of tea the next morning, and you can deal with the new day," says Kaul. That his debut film achieves exactly that stands as testimony to his storytelling skill.