Monday, May 12, 2014

Lord of the rink: on Hawaa Hawaai

Amole Gupte’s new film Hawaa Hawaai begins with a lush, elegantly shot scene where a poor man sings a devotional hymn in the presence of his family, including his little son Arjun: learn to embrace a hard life (“angaaray pe chal”) if that is what fate has in store, go the words of the song. This poetic sequence can be viewed as a prelude that exists independently of the film’s main narrative. The light is warm and soothing, the music builds in intensity… and then there’s a segue to the first scene of the story proper: a harsher, more prosaic outdoor scene in which Arjun’s mother reluctantly sets him to work at a Bandra tea-stall. He is called “Raju” here, the generic name allotted by the shop-keeper to his employees, and he leads the sort of life where dreaming is forbidden. But then, working at the stall late at night, he sees rich kids being coached for a skating competition and is smitten by the shiny wheels.

One of the things I liked about Gupte’s first film as director, Stanley ka Dabba, was that it refrained from over-explaining things: the engaged viewer was allowed to connect dots, fill in the gaps, or to speculate about a character’s back-story. Hawaa Hawaai has the same quality. The transition from that opening sequence to the next one in Bandra doesn’t immediately tell us that Arjun’s father is no longer alive – this is something we only gather a little later. Nor do we know yet that the boy had started going to school and was apparently a good student before circumstances led him into this new life. The show-don’t-tell principle is very much in place, with snatches of information accumulating over the course of the story, so that we gradually learn more about the characters and understand their personal arcs. This applies not just to Arjun, but also to his friends from the slum, who help him construct a makeshift pair of skates. It also applies to the skating coach and to his elder brother who works as an investment banker in the US. (We see the closeness as well as the tension between the brothers, but some things about their past – including their parents, who were killed in a road accident – are not elaborated on.)

I enjoyed this film hugely and thought it was tighter and better paced than Stanley ka Dabba, which had a few slack moments. In fact, Hawaa Hawaai often transcends its own genre. “Inspirational” films about underdogs triumphing against the odds can so easily become trite, wringing gallons of fake emotion from the premise alone. The familiar template for such stories includes stock scenes such as a climactic competition where flesh-and-blood opponents as well as private demons must be conquered at the same time. Those clichés aren’t avoided here, but the key lies in the handling. There is restraint and interiority, and the film in general is less sentimental than it might have been – not least thanks to the excellent performances of the child actors, led by Gupte’s son Partho in the lead role (at 13, Partho, who was also so good in Gupte’s earlier film, may already be one of the finest actors we have), and a likable adult cast including Saqib Saleem as the young coach, “Lucky sir”, who (cliché alert) wants to "give these kids wings".

The understatement is also admirable given that this is a tale of contrasts between the lives of the privileged and the unprivileged. Images of pampered kids being chauffeured around in big cars are juxtaposed with shots of Arjun and his friends scavenging in garbage dumps. The line “Lakh ki cheez hai” (a reference to the cost of an impossibly sleek pair of skates that Arjun has been admiring from a distance) is followed just a few seconds later by a shot of the boy getting his day’s salary – a worn 20-rupee note, a couple of tens. And inevitably, there are a few facile shots like the one of a kid clambering down a mountain of garbage while an airplane flies past in the background. But again, the film mostly manages to negotiate this subject matter without getting didactic about it.

Importantly, it has a sense of humour, which both offsets and heightens the effect of the serious scenes. Raju/Arjun’s first appearance on the “skating rink” is a scene that could easily have been played only for laughs – he is wearing a ludicrous robot outfit with blinking lights, his skates are covered with a carefully woven zari cloth in the fashion of a new bride, and the other kids understandably yelp and scatter as if an extraterrestrial has appeared in their midst – but surface comedy aside, this is a very important scene, where a modern-day Ekalavya will transform into an Arjuna. (Literally, as it happens: the coach learns “Raju’s” real name, confers him the dignity of calling him by it, and legitimizes his dreams in a way that was denied to the unfortunate tribal boy of the Mahabharata.) Without the lightness of touch, this scene would probably not have worked so well. Gupte’s script also allows the poor children to be irreverent, even crude, without letting us lose sight of their hardships. When the well-mannered Arjun asks his friends to refer to their fathers as “pitaji” instead of “baap”, they retort, “Pitaji bolenge toh baap badal jaayega kya?” - a smart-aleck line, sure, but also a reminder that these children, who constantly see other children leading much cushier lives, might yearn to have been born into a different family.

Perhaps it is also notable that the plot MacGuffin – the thing that sets Arjun dreaming – is something as low-key as skating, as opposed to a mainstream sport such as cricket or even hockey. Even though the film does enter high-drama mode in the climax (complete with suspenseful stops and starts and a droning commentator who seems concerned only with Arjun’s progress in the race), there is no pretence that Arjun’s whole life can be magically transformed by his becoming a district champion – or that he will spend the next few years gliding from one international championship to another, earning lakhs along the way – and that isn’t the point anyway. The point is that he has got the chance to do something on his own terms and to find a measure of success in it – which can perhaps be a stepping stone to self-sufficiency in other fields, and realising other sorts of dreams. No wonder the roller-skate scenes have the feel of rebirth about them. When Arjun puts them on and tries gingerly to move about on them, he is like a fawn taking its first baby steps.

P.S. What I thought was a cute little snide reference: at one point in the race, Arjun is trying to overtake another boy who doesn’t let him pass, and the commentator goes “Aamir is blocking his progress.” Anyone who knows about Amole Gupte’s troubles during the making of Taare Zameen Par, a film that was his baby and that he was originally supposed to direct, will probably get the import of that line.


  1. Oh I missed that Aamir reference in the end! Cheeky.

    You seem to have liked it more than I did. Some of the theatrics like the robot outfit and the last 20 minutes or so did not work for me. Why go for such a ridiculous introduction especially when he's still learning to balance himself? Drama is fine but it comes at the wrong moments I felt. All the lighter touches were a great success though. Arjun and his friends arc stood out for me. I liked that the issue beneath the surface was problems of the system (and the way this was highlighted with the backstory etc) and not an evil perpetrator or something like that. Every single person is a good guy.

    1. Heh. Clearly you need to be a Rafa fan to understand why it's best for a sportsperson to keep himself covered with heavy, injury-resistant armour at all times.

      Yes, someone else mentioned the no-villains thing to me as well...

  2. I wonder why you think the film is better paced. The first half dragged like how, with three songs and hardly four or five scenes. And I did find the first half too sentimental. Also, it hardly focussed on Arjun's life, focussing instead of creating the world, which sounds better on paper than it plays out. Also, he becomes the star too easily. He comes in and Vicky wants to make him the star, all the other kids also want to make him the star. Maybe because it features kids and talks about equality, it almost seemed to me like 'director saab ka beta aaya, sab log kripya raste se hat jaayen aur taali bajayain.' Not that Partho is not a good actor, he is one.
    Also Saqib's both romantic and brother-US tracks were so underdeveloped, especially the US one. It was as Saqib was waiting for Arjun to come so that he gets an excuse not to go to US.

    1. Pawan: some valid points there, but what can I say apart from what I've already said in the piece? I honestly found myself more engaged on a scene-by-scene basis than I was with Stanley ka Dabba. And I was okay - mostly - with the "underdeveloped" tracks because, like I said, it provides a sense that these people have a life outside of this specific narrative.
      Agree that Arjun becoming the centre of attention so quickly is a little trite. But then the idea that an underdog has a special fire inside him, which sets him apart, is one of the assumptions of this type of story.