Chippa movie review: A magical children's film with notes on modern-day Kolkata, and adulthood
Chippa borders on being a fairytale due to its cherubic protagonist whose imagination has the power to blur lines between continents, and between reality and dreams
castSunny Pawar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Sumeet Thakur, Tanaji, Gautam Sarkar, Masood Akhtar,
I have grown up wondering what our homes and cities became at night, when I slept. Sometimes I imagined my books coming to life, sometimes I imagined my dolls having a little tea party of their own (I read a lot of Enid Blyton) and as for what became of my city, Calcutta, I had many theories and over the years, Safdar Rahman’s Chippa has come closest to what I imagined for it to really be.
Rahman’s directorial debut is a heart-warming story of ten-year-old Chippa (Sunny Pawar) who, on his tenth birthday, armed with a letter he can’t read, sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, a father who has left him the letter written in Urdu. Rahman and Chippa’s Calcutta is not the Calcutta of the Victoria Memorial, women in red bordered white sari stereotypes that film after film have fed us; it is not the Kolkata of Durga Puja, cricket and the Maidan; it is the “Kalkatta” of the city’s migrants who speak in a curious mix of Hindi, Bengali, and Bhojpuri. The city that runs on the backs of men and women make tea, fry shingaras, drive taxis, build houses just so the City of Joy can drink, eat, travel and live to call itself intellectual. It is an underbelly that crowns the city at night, long past the bedtimes of the city’s famed poets and artists. It is exactly then that Chippa’s drawing book comes out and we see Kalkatta emerge—in red post boxes, in late-night football matches, in tiny tea stalls and in a crazy taxi with a roof garden. The kind of city we find often in the works of Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Italo Calvino.
Chippa is a love letter to a city that Rahman has called home all his life. While the larger city often lies crouched in the borders of his story, his film is a letter addressed to distinct parts of the city that he loves best. Spanning a journey of perhaps only a few kilometres, Chippa is a travelogue that is not long but deep. The story, aided by Ramanuj Dutta’s camera and the music of Cyrille de Haes, drives in and out of lives of people who walk the streets of the city past midnight. Reminiscent of the Bombay of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry, this is a Calcutta of drunks finding it hard to stand straight, of prostitutes disappearing into cars, of hijras starting their days, of a tea seller who regales Chippa with stories of his great grandmother and of diabetic cops who are a far cry from the aggressive policemen of the daytime. And amidst all of them, stands Chippa—petting his dog, Pippa, and smiling through the sad world of adults.
Of course, Chippa is a film for children that Rahman dedicates to his newborn, but he sure knows how to sneak in a few lessons that adults could do well learning. There is magic everywhere in Chippa but the biggest reveal lies perhaps in the realisation that adults at night time are only children who have forgotten to be happy. During daytime, they unfurl and become rude and mean monsters, perhaps just to compensate for the goodness that has gone missing from their hearts. While their eyes are busy doubting and figuring out if Chippa is a Hindu or a Muslim, Chippa himself has his eyes brimming with dreams of being a taxi driver, a trumpet player, a policeman, a newspaper delivery man—all at the same time. Sunny Pawar, with his small face and big eyes, is the hero we really need but perhaps don’t deserve. As one sees him stand his ground against actors way older than him, one can’t help feel relieved at the future of cinema, and the larger world in general. The people who populate his night-time adventure, each of them excellent actors (a motley cast featuring the brilliant Sumeet Thakur, Tanaji Dasgupta, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Gautam Sarkar, Masood Akhtar, among others) written into fascinating characters by Rahman, are all knights of their own battles—shining bright against a sleeping city.
The film borders on being a fairytale thanks to its cherubic protagonist whose imagination has the power to blur lines between continents, and between reality and dreams. But the masterful script has its own subtle way of pulling us back to our often worrisome presents. In the city of the world’s best biryani (at this point, this is beyond debate), one can’t barely find a person who can read out the letter written in Urdu. The city seems to be in a tearing hurry to brush off the culture that has built its spine; along with Urdu, it seems to be discarding the land of stories where fantastic women like Shaukat Jahaan broke open coconut shells with their bare hands.
It is very easy to be cynical about our cities, to shake our heads, throw our hands up in the air, give up, and sigh. For adults living vicariously through Chippa’s little jaunt, it is easy to feel a little heartbroken when it comes to a logical end. While daytime signals the end to our dreaming, Chippa chirps in, “Zindagi abhi shuru hua hai.” Life has only just begun.
Life, in big cities mostly, is not a fairytale on most days and adults have a way of making things worse by making things about religion, nationalism, and language. Then a film like Chippa comes by, a filmmaker like Rahman comes by, to tell us just what we need to know; they tell us about love. They remind us, over and over again, that we are what our shared histories make us, and our histories, as Rushdie says, "are, despite everything, acts of love".
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