Somewhere I saw a supercilious review of this marvelous film describing it as an exercize in “potty training”
This is akin to calling Pather Panchali poverty porn. Or Salaam Bombay is an exploitative exercize.
The morning toilet habit plays a big hand in director Nila Madhab Panda’s new film. But Halkaa is not only about morning ablutions. The potty prattle secretes an immense compassion for the downtrodden.
I wouldn’t call the wonderful children in director Nila Madhab Panda’s film “oppressed”. By India’s abysmal standards of poverty, Pichku (played by the wonderfully sensitive Tatthastu) is a happy child. Sure, his father is a wretchedly overworked rickshaw puller (play with characteristic credibility by Ranveer Shorey) who dreams of owning an autorickshaw. He shouts at Pichku. But if your son did his morning business inside your one-room tenement would you lose the plot?
Writer-director Nila Madhav Panda allows little Pichku and his friend Gopi (Aryanpreet Gopi) plenty of mindscapes to roam freely. Their shared adventures with a bogus but benign baba (Kumud Mishra, as into his character as ever) constitutes the core of this heartfelt drama.
Providentially, Panda doesn’t suffuse the narrative with the blinding light of positivity. He never glorifies poverty. Nor does he use it as an occasion to share a raga of wretchedness with the music of our stricken soul. There is no attempt to manipulate our emotions into the state of sympathetic submission, as Pichku and Gopi set out on a mission to get a toilet at any cost.
The adventure takes the pair to corrupt government officers, caricaturish in their corruption, who pocket the money set aside for toilet construction schemes. But the most memorable encounter with flush fantasies is it a high-end sanitation store where Pinchu tries out the commodious commodes like a soldier at battle testing his new guns as a newly-recruited salesman (Devender Choudhary) tries to sell the boy his dream at a subsidized rate.
Indeed there is a quality of contagious magic in little Tathastu’s personality. I am not sure the little child understands why the toilet is so essential to the child’s being. Even though he doesn’t follow the concept of dignity, he seems to know instinctively that doing your morning business at the railway tracks is undignified. In this way, Pichku’s yearning for a personal toilet becomes a metaphor for a higher life that we all crave for.
Non-judgmental poverty is not easy to process and project on screen. Panda does it with an exceptional level of success. Of course, the performances lend a trend of great tenderness to the going on. Little Tathtastu is as precious and prized a discovery as some of Panda’s child actors in his earlier films.
Nihar Ranjan-Samal’s sound design and Pratap Raut’s cinematography are in absolute harmony with the determined quality of Pichku’s dream. He won’t do his business at the railway track even if the trains that pass do not stop to carry his dream.