We are a society that supposedly dotes on children and spoils them rotten. But, we also deny them autonomy – of taste, cultural enrichment and learning to appreciate artistic expression that comes in unfamiliar forms. Unfortunately, we only try to fit them into a rigid education system that rewards rote learning and suppresses individuality. But, there are some brave souls who break this mould with purpose, passion and perseverance. Meet Amole Gupte and you will start believing in small miracles.

Everything about Amole Gupte speaks of his passion — films and children.  His commitment is of the rare kind — one that is not content only by supporting a cause verbally and always translates into action. Gupte has done this with Stanley ka Dabba and the earlier Taare Zameen Par that was hijacked by star producer Aamir Khan and Gupte was credited as the creative director (whatever that means). Now comes Hawaa Hawaai. But, we’ll talk about this film a little later. Along with making films the way he wants, Gupte has been working with children at many levels for years now. He spent seven years with the Besant Montessori when his son joined the school, exposing kids to theatre, cinema, art, crafts and literature in any way he could. That is not all. He brings the same passion to his work with underprivileged children through Aseema, the NGO that works dedicatedly to enrich the education of municipal school children in Maharashtra.

The faith Gupte puts in the innate ability of children to respond to art and intelligent cinema is simply astounding. And humbling too. In its own small way, Amole Gupte’s interaction with children recalls the legendary experiment at Heggodu where, at the time of our parallel cinema’s zenith, village audiences were exposed to world classics and their response to Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray shattered all canons of received wisdom, that only the urban culturati can appreciate artistic expression.  In its heyday, giants like Dr. Shivram Karanth and U.R. Ananthmurthy were part of Subbanna’s creative crucible and film and theatre folks counted it a privilege to take part in the Heggodu festival. Gupte’s children watch Iranian films as their enthusiasm bubbles like cutting chai in a kettle. They are knowledgeable without turning blasé. There is nothing as precious as nurturing good taste and the ability to tell the real from fake. And nothing more challenging when Bollywood dominates entertainment.

As the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), Gupte is using all his persuasive powers and networking skills to make this well-meaning body, mired in the usual bureaucracy, to fulfil its mandate. It is time for full disclosure. I am part of the script committee at CFSI that reads, sifts and debates entries that pour in from aspiring and established film makers. Gupte is aware of his responsibility, not just the creative aspect of film making, but of exhibiting films produced or acquired by CFSI. He is a producer who will ask tough questions and will not allow taxpayers’ money to fund films that will not be a credit to the organisation. He has set up a system whereby schools will take students to PVR theatres for morning shows of films like the multi-award winning Gattu and Shilpa Ranade’s animated film Goopi Gyne Bhaga Byne. The objective is to make the school and the multiplex chain partners and expose children to good cinema. Parents these days can’t bestir themselves to take their kids to see Gattu when their own tastes run to Rowdy Rathore.

Seeing Gupte in action at CFSI while he was also making Hawaa Hawaai — scheduling the shoot only during vacations and weekends so that the kids don’t miss school, a practice that he followed while making the marvellous Stanley ka Dabba even at the cost of missing an international festival deadline — gave an insight into his commitment. It is a pity though, that high expectations are let down. Hawaa Hawaai is a well-made winner about a winner who overcomes insuperable odds, with the heart in its right place, an unusual subject and a cast of charmers. Then, why do I feel disappointed?

Because there are films made from the heart and films made from the head. It is simplistic to imply that a film from the heart doesn’t need the organisational abilities of the head. No endeavour works that way. A film from the heart has a soul too. Stanley ka Dabba had heart, soul and something even more elusive: the spontaneity of a lyric and poignancy of an orphan who will not give up his small dream. Gupte made the seeming artlessness of the classic Iranian film his own, stamping the simple narrative with his genius. Humour and heartbreak, gusto and delicacy, were finely poised against each other to leave us with tears and smiles. It was the triumph of mature emotion over easy sentimentality.

In Hawaa Hawaai, the structure is too conspicuous. Structure can be seamless like a lyric poem, its narrative flows over us, taking us along in its sweep. Sometimes, it sticks out like a skeleton, the flesh of character, incident and emotions unable to cover the bare bone framework. There is also too much of a busy agenda. Some of these are unavoidable when you make a sports film about the underdog’s triumph with the help of an ingenuously inventive set of friends and a dedicated coach. We have seen too many of them, be it an individual or a team (with its own internal dynamics to add to the drama) and the rekindling of competitive spirit in a coach who is usually a burnt-out cynic. The inevitable hiccup, the climactic race intercut with scenes from the hero’s past to the alternating rhythms of slow-mo and heart-pumping speed, are all given in this scenario. All that is left is how the filmmaker makes a formulaic narrative his own without manipulating our responses too obviously.

In that respect, Gupte and his team of child actors, turn up trumps. The germ of  Hawaa Hawaai was sown when Partho, Gupte’s talented son, put on skates when he was a little over three. The script has grown with Partho’s growing years, accumulating relevances from Gupte’s own experience. So, the modern Eklavya, whose screen name is Arjun (two epic heroes are merged into one), is a migrant to the city after his cotton farmer father dies when the crop fails. He starts working with a thelawala at the BKC complex and assumes the generic name Raju given to all chaiwallahs (notice, Modi devotees). His simple mother, overwhelmed by the city, works as a domestic help and they all live in a Dharavi slum.

The transformation of bustling, wannabe Manhattan BKC into an eerie desolate place at night that comes alive with the whirr and metallic whroom of hordes of young skaters is courtesy mood-enhancing camera work and brilliant editing by Gupte’s wife Deepa Bhatia. Chai boy Raju’s full name is Arjun Harishchandra Waghmare (Partho Gupte is now old enough to carry the weight of tragedy and aspiration).  He is fascinated by skates and longs to zoom along like the privileged kids under the tutelage of Lucky sir (Saqib Saleem), an easygoing young man confined to a wheelchair because of a fractured leg. There is a bit of a back story there about Lucky’s older brother, bitten by the American keeda, their childhood skating triumphs and death of parents strengthening this fraternal bond even more.

The heart – and charm – of the film are Arjun’s street-smart buddies who use all the powers of native jugaad to fashion a set of wheels from scrap for him. The Bombaiyya swag of mechanic Gochi (Ashfaque Bismillah Khan), gajra seller Bhura (Salman Khan), ragpicker Murugan (Tirupati Krisnapelli) and the myopic Abdul (Maaman Memon). They even fashion an Ironman’s armour welded out of scrap metal, so that he can leap into the arena catapulted from a wheelbarrow pushed by his friends. The detailing is to enhance the heroic entry, dazzle onlookers and inspire Lucky to be a caring modern-day Drona. The moment should have been magical, but sadly, it stays contrived. What we remember and cherish is the teamwork and perfect coordination of the boys who bring chutzpah, charm and courage in equal measure to delight us. Amidst all this is Arjun, calm and still, like the epic hero taking aim only at the parrot’s eye. Normally, reworking epic references into a modern context can be clichéd because of over familiarity. Gupte gives it a nice twist without labouring over the connection.

Gupte tries to use songs as an additional narrative track, but you don’t carry them home with you. It is Arjun’s recital of poems — in classroom and as prayer — that carries more impact. The build-up, the hitch, the coach’s own back story, its resolution and the climax move along predictable lines. A film that could have been inspirational settles for being winsome. Hawaa Hawaai is still engaging, as we dodge and weave along the predicable bumps.

Now back to Gupte and his mission unaccomplished. When he took charge of CFSI 15 months ago, Gupte laid down his demand before the I&B ministry: pass a law to regulate children’s work hours in the media. “I took up the job as chairman to get this law passed, not read 60 scripts and doctor promising ones with inputs.” His letter has not been answered either by the ministry or the department of child and women welfare. A small but telling instance of the apathy of the UPA government, revealing society’s indifference to the issue of child labour. Gupte submitted his resignation last month. He used to carry the letter in his pocket ever since he took charge.