“If a robot doesn’t get burnt in a fire, why does a firefighter bhaiyya not wear a metal uniform?” This is Srini Swaminathan’s question to his second graders at an under-funded municipal school in Dharavi, Mumbai. The children are on a timer, and before you know, hands go up to answer. “That is because, if it is metal, he can’t run quickly. A robot can run or walk fast but he (the fireman) will not be able to.”
A still from award-winning Island of Magic by Mumbai-based Anaka Kaundinya, shows how quality teaching can make a difference to the way children confront life. In her debut documentary, she sits in classrooms with engineer-turned-teacher Swaminathan, at the Dharavi Transit Camp Municipal School, as he throws away predictable methods of teaching, and challenges students to think for themselves.
“I was 18 and studying law at the Government Law College, Mumbai. It took me a while to understand that I like studying law but not practising it. In 2010, I began volunteering in municipal schools along with friends Abhik Bhattacharjee and Sanah Khan, We started Dear Imagination, an NGO that focuses on arts education for underprivileged children. That’s how we met Srini, and found his teaching meticulous,” says Kaundinya, adding, “There was something compelling about his classrooms in Dharavi. He too came from a similar background, having lost his father in his childhood, and raised by his mother.”
She and her friend Raza Hussain Mehta began shooting in 2012. She recalls the first visit to the classroom, after which she decided to shoot the documentary. From mud on the floor during a pot planting, and children running away because a cat had a litter, to all the crying, punching and screaming, as seven-year-olds are wont to do, it was something of a disaster. But soon, she realised there was a lot more happening in the class, and a dream was being built. They would perform a musical in English on stage.
Swaminathan asked the children to maintain a diary in which they had to write in English, which is not easy, given Marathi was their first language. “Srini makes learning fun. When he had to teach them how to tell the time, he drew a clock on the floor and made three students act like its three needles,” says 25-year-old Kaundinya.
Island of Magic has been doing festival rounds across the world. Presented with their vulnerability, but without pity or sadness, the 30-minute documentary shows how teaching in government schools need not be a cliched as it is imagined. Kaundinya’s future projects include a short film for children, and a video to support adoption of stray dogs.