Baba movie review: Raj Gupta's Marathi melodrama is visual storytelling at its most potent
There’s a clear love of silent movies running through Baba, the Sanjay Dutt-produced, Raj Gupta-directed Marathi melodrama about a hearing, speaking child raised by deaf-mute parents. In a wistful midpoint scene, the boy Shankar (Aaryan Menghji) and his father Madhav (Deepak Dobriyal) come across a traveling cinema; a novelty in their village in 1990. Madhav can only afford one ticket, and given the larger circumstances — the boy’s birth mother has returned to claim him, forcing Madhav and his wife into a legal battle, Madhav wants to see Shankar happy, since their time together might be limited.
Shankar watches and enjoys the film, seated on the floor of a makeshift theatre. Madhav watches his son smile from behind a curtain. After the film, Madhav, in his own rudimentary sign language, asks Shankar how he and the other patrons enjoyed the sound; to Madhav’s surprise, as someone often marginalized for his disability, Shankar (also sign-ing roughly) tells him the film had no sound to begin with. As audience members shuffle joyfully out of the tent, a poster for Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid stands victoriously in the background, having united people beyond words.
The reference may be tongue-in-cheek, but it speaks to the way Baba engages with the emotions underlying its ethical dilemma. Shankar was raised by Madhav and Anandi (Nandita Dhuri) because his birth mother Pallavi (Spruha Joshi) had him out of wedlock; Pallavi’s father, in order to avoid the shame of a bastard grandson, sent the boy home with his maid, who gave the child to the loving, shanty-dwelling couple when he was three days old. In legal terms, the now-married, upper-middle-class Pallavi has claim over her eight-year-old son, and the case she (perhaps rightly) makes is that Madhav and Anandi have neither the means nor the know-how to teach Shankar to speak. At this point in the child’s development, it might take years of therapy. The legalese, as the film presents it, is clear-cut; “What would be best for Shankar’s future, logistically speaking?” Though the approach Baba takes often skews, or outright ignores, the specifics of spoken and written language — legal or otherwise.
Before birth-mother Pallavi ever enters the picture, Gupta and cinematographer Arjun Sorte fill the frame with emotional enormity. The couple’s humble mud-floor hut, their tree-swing and Madhav’s cycle envelop the screen amidst montages of joyful frolic, as young Shankar and his parents dance, and play, and tease each other beyond the need for spoken word. While the court searches for “objective” truths and linguistic evidence — they harp on Shankar’s ability and potential to speak — the film, through its characters’ unbridled, joyful movements, places intangible abstracts like love front & center.
Deepak Dobriyal, fittingly, has a reserved, Buster Keatonian weariness in his eyes — Madhav’s job as a knife-sharpener brings in no more than ₹600 a month — a disposition counterbalanced by Nandita Dhuri’s animated gestures as she runs their home. Despite the film’s clear framing of economic desperation (an undercurrent that extends to multiple characters), the court’s question of whether poor, disabled parents can provide a nurturing environment is swiftly rebuked, even before it’s asked.
There’s kindness in every look, every smile and every gesture. As Madhav and Anandi grow more desperate to keep their son, even their avenues to making him speak (as last-minute evidence for the court) force them to re-assess, in a manner that Indian parents and society seldom do, the humane limits of “tough-love” parenthood for a child’s emotional development. They might lack the tools in a logistical sense — money and therapeutic know-how — but their disability is never framed as a hurdle to thoughtful communication. They mime and gesticulate and speak with their eyes (as a performance piece, Baba is tremendous), and the loving albeit isolated haven they’ve made for Shankar often feels idyllic. However, the broader expectations of communication can’t help but veer into their path.
Madhav’s friend Trymbak (Chittaranjan Giri, Lathe Joshi) speaks with a debilitating stammer. Their public defender Madke (Jayant Gadekar) has a toothache that slurs his speech. The onus falls so often on verbal communication that it feels unfair to Team Shankar. Though like several recent great international films — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters from Japan and Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm from Lebanon come to mind — Baba presents the legal, biological framework of “family” as it’s stood for generations and challenges it, though it does so without the need for speeches or even verbal questions. Instead, it unearths the gestures, the behaviours, the feeling of being loved, contrasting it with the supposed logistics of family, as a means to ask whether we’ve been doing it wrong.
Though where the film perhaps stumbles is its narrative point of view. Madhav is undoubtedly an ideal protagonist (Dobriyal and Giri carve out non-verbal conversations that vary between heart-wrenching and hilarious) but for a character and a film so concerned with what’s best for Shankar, the film rarely seeks out Shankar’s point of view. When birth-mother Pallavi and her husband Rajan (Abhijeet Khandkekar) are accused of treating Shankar as a pawn for their rocky marriage — it’s a legal tactic; the couple is sincere and presented with utmost sympathy — one can’t help get the feeling that Baba may have treated Shankar similarly.
Aaryan Menghji is a stellar young performer, from his wide-eyed wonder, to his fear of loud sounds to his wordless verbalizations. But Shankar is, for the most part, only seen through the eyes of his parents. And while Madhav and Anandi’s story packs an emotional wallop — the way they each handle economic and emotional desperation causes a rift of its own — Shankar, ironically, doesn’t exist outside their family dynamic. His curiosities are rarely explored outside of what he communicates to Madhav. He wants to go to the mela, he wants to watch a movie; like any kid, he wants to go out and do things, but these activities serve only to provide Madhav with dramatic conflict arising from each environment. One in particular surrounding a bicycle bell is mined to great effect; another features a verbal tête-à-tête around double-negatives, as if to de-poeticize verbal dialogue. Neither, however, seem to center Shankar in anything more than the abstract.
Both sets of parents and their lawyers engage in debate about what is (or what would be) best for Shankar. Though these alternatives are never dramatized with Shankar’s involvement. Madhav and Anandi’s love for Shankar is key to the narrative, but he often feels secondary to what ought to be his own story. For instance, he interacts with Pallavi once, briefly, and it’s hard to tell whether he even knows about the life-changing precipice on which he stands throughout the film.
Still, despite its lack of curiosity when it comes to Shankar, Baba proves to be both a delightful performance piece rife with musical energy, and an occasionally incisive look at how legal structures benefit the rich and the able-bodied. And while the film feels like it’s headed towards necessary subversion — the idea that Shankar must speak for his parents to be worthy goes surprisingly unchallenged, its failure to follow through, irksome though it may be, is eventually minuscule. Baba is purely-visual storytelling at its most potent, so whatever logistical and moral ideas might fall by the wayside, they feel compensated for by the film’s thoughtful eye for tenderness and intimacy.
Updated Date: Aug 07, 2019 14:35:36 IST