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How Sthalpuran gives the child and his world a rare primacy

Akshay Indikar's Marathi feature, which won two awards at the International Film Festival of Kerala 2021 and was screened at Berlinale 2020, is a delicate evocation of how childhood can be full of pain and pleasure

Written by Shubhra Gupta
New Delhi | April 18, 2021 6:00:36 am
Akshay Indikar’s Sthalpuran, Dighu Sthalpuran, dighu movie, movie Sthalpuran, shubhra guptaSeeing beyond: Childhood can be full of pain and pleasure.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a child can yield to some of the most sublime moments in cinema. The wonder, the bursting-with-excitement expression on a child’s face, is priceless. We may have seen that particular object so often that it’s become part of the scenery. A child’s gaze makes it fresh. Creates it anew. Gives us a new way of looking.

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Remember the scene which has Apu and Durga in Satyajit Ray’s classic Pather Panchali (1955) looking at a train for the very first time? That’s my go-to reference when I think of a filmmaker using a child to map an emotion, a feeling, without using words. The framing of the children, as they add a sight to their visual vocabulary, is done in the most lifelike manner. And, we
receive it as it is meant, a commentary on the children, and their lives.

Mainstream Hindi cinema has not covered itself with glory in its portrayal of children. They are mostly cutesy moppets lisping cute dialogues or preternaturally wise beyond-their-years tykes, very quickly setting our teeth on edge. For the most part, it is films from other parts of India that have used children to tell stories with universal resonance.

The hero in Akshay Indikar’s Sthalpuran: Chronicle Of Space is eight-year-old Dighu, part child, part growing-too-uncomfortably-fast into an adult. The film opens with the lad’s pensive face resting on a train window, as it takes him and his family away from Pune to a small Konkan town. The film’s gorgeous frames are moist with not just the monsoon’s bounties but unshed tears: Dighu now has only his mother and sister, and wonders what has become of the father. The absence is never specifically explained. But the consequence of that absence is clear in the boy’s wanderings, and in the way he is left searching for answers.

Sthalpuran, which premiered at the Berlinale 2020 and won Indikar two awards at this year’s IFFK, is a Marathi film. But we don’t need any language to read the boy’s face, as he notes things happening around him: of a mother being “too friendly” with a man in the factory she is works in, of a sister’s “coming of age”, or of a day that just passes by.

Indikar, 29, knows how to use silence and sound, without either cluttering our vision. The sea shore where the boy sits, or the bridge he uses to walk over an overflowing-with-rain culvert, or the ledge where he spots a man who looks familiar, are all part of his world. Did he really see someone, or was it the result of wishful thinking?

Just like two earlier wonderful Marathi films, Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s Vihir (2009) and Avinash Arun’s Killa (2014), Indikar’s Sthalpuran gives the child and his world a rare primacy. Both Vihir and Killa are strongly bound by a narrative; Indikar’s film is much more observational. But just like we did in those two films, we immerse ourselves in Dighu’s world, a lovely, delicate evocation of how childhood can be full of pain and pleasure.

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