Halkaa movie cast: Tathastu, Aryan Preet, Ranvir Shorey, Paoli Dam
Halkaa movie director: Nila Madhab Panda
Halkaa movie rating: 2.5 stars
A lot is riding on the frail shoulders of Halkaa, and on its even tinier tots: the ambitions of Swachh Bharat, the expectations of the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the beneficence of the Shiv Nadar Foundation, the stretched-to-the-limit reputation of that dear old Mahatma Gandhi, and even the sales of bath fittings firm Parryware. Left on their own, the tots, led by protagonist Pickhu (Tathastu) but even more his spunky friend Gopi (Preet), almost pull it off. But can they be left alone is the question? And so, in the film’s wild swings between good and goodiness, a rich kid throwing a gift from his school bus window at children sorting garbage whom he passes by every day is to be applauded as altruism. Inside the gift box are face masks and a bottle of perfume, to take the edge off their hard lives presumably.
And yet at its heart, Halkaa is a very simple tale, about what having to defecate in the open means. Pichku lives in a slum in Delhi by the rail tracks, is embarrassed about relieving himself in the open, is disgusted by the state of the public toilet available in his slum, and so, for lack of a choice, shits on a newspaper inside his one-room shanty before disposing it of wrapped in a garbage bag, and lighting agarbattis to mask the smell. Gradually he finds two like-minded souls who are as troubled by the lack of privacy available to them in this most basic of tasks, including Gopi and a local quack (played by Kumud Mishra).
In telling the story through Pichku and later Gopi, the film brings perspective to a problem we are all aware of, but as easily turn away our eyes from. Mostly the film is about the two of them, and not about lofty goals, sanitation, or Mission Toilet — till it is. Pichku’s efforts to convince his father Ramesh (Shorey) to build a toilet go in vain, as Ramesh would rather use the Swachh Bharat money to buy an autorickshaw. His mother Shobha (Dam) is more understanding, but only protests faintly — even letting go of one instance when Ramesh shockingly drags Pichku publicly through the slum to the railway track, on catching the boy defecating within home. As an agarbatti maker, Shobha’s fingers always smell nice — and Pichku sniffs them to go to sleep, in one of the film’s nice touches. Both Shorey and Dam are good, though the latter looks at times too well put-together for the slum.
This setting is again where Panda scores, bringing alive to us the slums we pass by every day, even if the suggestion of grime is fleeting. At the same time, this is where he cheats, by giving us a film about urban wretchedness in easily digestible drawing-room gollops — just the kind to show up as good SUPW on the report card of a child in one of the National Capital Region’s many “progressive schools”.