Jhalki movie review: A sincere effort to highlight the horrors of child labour that sorely misses its mark

Jhalki is a call to action, fictionalising real events surrounding (or in this case, obliquely related to) Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kailash Satyarthi

Siddhant Adlakha September 27, 2019 14:12:16 IST


A vital topic deserves a vital cinematic approach. However, Jhalki is a sincere, heartfelt effort that sorely misses its mark.

Jhalki is a call to action, fictionalising real events surrounding (or in this case, obliquely related to) Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kailash Satyarthi, whose tireless work has freed countless children from industrial slavery. I say “obliquely” because Satyarthi makes but a brief cameo, played by Boman Irani. The film isn’t about Satyarthi, but about a fictitious sibling pair — nine-year-old Jhalki (Aarti Jha) and her seven-year-old brother Babu (Goraksh Sakpal) — forced to contend with the evils of child labour. The focus on the rescued, in lieu of the rescuer, is theoretically a call to empathy; Jhalki is an ego-free film in that regard, though it seems to free itself of emotional involvement in several other ways.

Had I not mentioned Boman Irani, chances are people reading this might have sat through Jhalki without sense of who he plays. Not just that that he plays Satyarthi, but that he plays an activist who spearheads child liberation. This Satyarthi character is merely dropped into an ongoing situation, and the film is non-committal when it comes to his actual involvement. The specifics of this brief appearance ought not to matter, but they’re emblematic of a larger problem: the film barely commits to its own premise.

Jhalki movie review A sincere effort to highlight the horrors of child labour that sorely misses its mark

A still from Jhalki.

While the plot centers on young Jhalki trying to rescue her brother — their parents sold Babu out of desperation, not knowing the harshness he would face — the film takes a hands-off approach in the moments it ought to go for the emotional jugular. Too often, director Brahmanand S. Singh, a documentarian, keeps the camera at an observational vantage (complicated all the more by Jhalki’s hair, which obscures her expressions when she’s in profile). Though one gets the sense that a broad, even saccharine story was, in fact, the intent, despite this physical distance. Jhalki is littered with dream sequences, upbeat childhood flashbacks and operatic music cues, each dictating bold emotional targets. But the film lacks both the mystique to feel like a real-world fairytale, and the genuine drama that might help it land as a work of neorealism. Sometimes it tries to be both. Most times, it ends up neither.

The film posits the path to liberation as literal appeals to empathy; Jhalki’s purpose in the film is as much to search for Babu as it is to deliver grand emotional sermons that change people’s minds. These speeches, however, jut out awkwardly. Not because of their delivery, mind you; Aarti Jha, like all the other actors in the film, is just fine (one wonders if giving them more to do beyond delivering their lines might’ve imbued the story with life). No, these pleas for moral upswing act as jagged left turns for the people in Jhalki’s vicinity.

See, the film uses a neat framing device on occasion. It flashes to a fable about a sparrow who, in the pursuit of retrieving its grain from a hollow log, comes up against unhelpful person after unhelpful person. The story is told through colourful paintings and hand-puppets; it’s childlike, making for what ought to be a powerful contrast with a grim, realistic story. Instead, the real people Jhalki comes across are as two-dimensional as the colourful cutouts. We follow several other characters during the film, like local politicians, policemen, and even a rickshaw cyclist who delivers children to slavers. The film is painfully aware of the top-down complicity within an unjust system, but these characters don’t function like real human beings. Rather than people with opinions or thoughts about their actions, they are merely “types” — switches to be flipped by Jhalki’s speeches, toward the sudden realisation that child slavery is bad.

The film is concerned with most literal, most immediate details, like where Jhalki is standing in relation to the other characters; close-ups are rare, to say the least. Were this a stage play set against an empty backdrop, the blocking might prompt one’s imagination to fill in the details. On film however, it has a distancing effect. Major events become background noise, and there’s little intimacy within a film that wants desperately to be an intimate tale of abuse.

Whether or not one needs to see physical abuse on screen can be debated to no end, but the brief, suggestive flashes of Babu’s abuse at a carpet factory are too removed to stir the soul —too vague to shock the imagination. Rather than Jhalki picturing what might become of Babu the moment he’s kidnapped, the film simply replays the moment of his kidnapping, in black & white flashback, five seconds after it happens.

The focus on the literal and superficial renders even secondary details moot; there’s hardly a moment where Babu’s conditions are made to seem stuffy or squalid. They’re bright. They’re spacious. They’re more “sets” than real locations. They don’t feel constricting, and so the stakes of freedom don’t feel as consequential as they ought to. The brief scenes of children working aren’t shot with any kind of eye for emotional state — which makes a sudden, singular moment of fear and trauma later on seem almost unfounded.

This is, in part, a failure of the film’s production design to work towards these emotional goals, but little else in the film makes it feel like Babu undergoes anything untoward. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to know that kids in the real world experience harm in these conditions. But we spend an inordinate amount of time alongside Babu during which it feels like child actors are playing between takes, rather than real children being forced into servitude.

It’s as if the film, in all its love for real kids, is afraid to harm fictitious ones.

But don’t take my word for it. To see a more potent example of stirring imagery, one needn’t look further than the film’s own closing credits. The end titles play alongside documentary footage showing the real physical and emotional anguish of kids in these scenarios. They live huddled up in the dark. Their eyes are heavy. Their spines are hunched. Some of their fingers are even bleeding. It’s monumentally brutal — though nothing nearly this emotionally charged ends up in the actual film.

Were someone to get up and leave before the credits, there’s a good chance Jhalki might fade from their memory the moment they step outside. There would be no second thoughts. No lingering discomfort. No desire to act. No moment of realisation that leaving a dark room is a luxury some don’t have.

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