I have a soft spot for well-crafted stories about children. Not stories necessarily for children, but stories in which children are the main focus. Children, seen through adult eyes, can often be the sadly one-dimensional sort that act like miniature adults—too wise, too mature, too everything. Or, veering off towards the other end of the spectrum: too naïve, too unaware of all that goes on around them.
It is therefore always a pleasure to me to come across a creative work that sees children for what they really are. Not adults, not imbeciles. This is why I’ve enjoyed RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days, or wept over Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. This is why I’ve loved Batul Mukhtiar’s touching and very sweet Kaphal – Wild Berries, made for the Children’s Film Society, India (CSFI).
Kaphal, for the uninitiated, is the local name—in the Himalayas, from Himachal and Uttarakhand into Nepal—for what Google tells me is Myrica nagi, known in English as box myrtle. I became familiar with it as kaphal when I was a child and my parents took me on frequent trips into the hills of Garhwal and Kumaon. Kaphal, usually a bright orange-yellow when I saw them, were sweet, tart little fruit, rather like raspberries. I was told they ripen into a deep crimson, and are irresistible when ripe. They also make good jam.
…and they’ve lent their name to one of the best films about children that I’ve seen.
Kaphal – Wild Berries, written and directed by Mumbai-based film maker Batul Mukhtiar, is set in a small village in Garhwal.
This is the quintessential pahari village, with slate roofs, terraced fields, red-flowering rhododendrons, and—beyond—the snowcapped peaks. It’s against this backdrop that the entire story plays out, beginning with a tense little scene as a small boy carefully goes up an oak tree to rescue a remote-controlled toy plane that has made a bad landing. His friends, all tight-lipped and serious, watch on. There’s much joy when the plane is retrieved safe and sound.
Within the next few minutes, we’re introduced to the main characters. There are four boys here: 11-year old Makar (Harish Rana), his friends Bupi (Anuraaj Negi, and the proud owner of the plane) and Pusu (Ajay Rana), and Makar’s little brother, 6-year old Kamru (Pavan Singh Negi). The boys are the best of friends, roaming about the hills, playing with Bupi’s prized plane, meandering along the dusty road that they take to school. (Or, just as often, don’t take to school. School is, inevitably, a bit of a bore, even though their teacher is an indulgent and friendly soul).
The teacher (Shoorveer Tyagi) is, in fact, one of the few adult men in the village. The others are all old men: retired Captain Dhonu; the old shopkeeper; their equally old friend. This is a village of women and children. The men are all far away, trying to keep body and soul together by working in the cities. In the hills, there is no source of income. (As the shopkeeper says in one scene: “If I make 10 or 20 rupees a day, I am satisfied.”)
Makar and Kamru’s father, Kailash (Subrat Dutta) is a scooter mechanic in Delhi. He hasn’t been home in five years. Little Kamru, though he insists that he remembers Baba, really knows nothing of what his father’s like. One night, while the boys sit in bed, chatting and tickling each other, Kamru quizzes their mother, Sula (Pubali Sanyal): what is a mechanic? What is a scooter, by the way? Why doesn’t Baba come home? When will Baba come home?
The other boys’ fathers, it seems, are rather more frequent visitors to the gaon. Bupi’s father, who runs a ‘Chinese stall’ in Delhi, is obviously doing well enough to be able to bring Bupi a battery-operated plane. And Bupi proudly boasts that his Baba will come home for Diwali and make a grand Chinese meal to feed the whole village. What sort of food is Chinese? Oh, snakes and stuff. “Nobody will eat meat at Diwali!” says one of his friends scornfully. But there’s an undercurrent of envy here: lucky, lucky Bupi.
And then, one day, Makar and Kamru’s luck turns, too. A phone call comes—at their neighbour’s; Sula is not wealthy enough to possess a phone—and the news is wonderful: Baba is coming home! There is immediate excitement. Bupi and Pusu question Makar and Kamru on their way to school: what will their father bring them from the city? Oh, this and that. A Doraemon, pipes up Kamru. Suddenly, Bupi is not the only object of envy.
But Kailash arrives, and does not come bearing gifts. (In a poignant scene when the children are asleep, he confides in Sula: he just did not have the money to buy anything. It does not matter, says Sula; she had, on her own, bought some gifts from Chopta. The boys don’t know about them. Kailash can give those to Makar and Kamru, passing them off as gifts he’s brought for them from Delhi).
A ball and a small plastic toy are poor substitutes for the longed-for Doraemon. Makar and Kamru are deeply disappointed—and humiliated, because Bupi and Pusu and the rest of the village children are all interested in knowing what their Baba brought them from the city. It’s terrible to admit that he brought them nothing worth mentioning.
Worse still, it seems their Baba is not the hero they’ve been imagining him to be all these years. A month passes, and Kailash seems to have decided to settle down in the village. He won’t go back. But what will he do? All the work here is done by the women. Even when he goes off with the family’s Rural Employment Scheme card and turns up for work on a construction site, Kailash fails. He doesn’t work hard enough, says the overseer. The others—all women—work harder than him.
Makar and Kamru too are having a hard time. Besides not having got them any gifts, Baba is proving a hard taskmaster, scolding them for being scruffy, making sure they bathe well, scolding them for staying up late, for loitering on the way to school… for just about everything. And the whispers in the village soon grow louder: Kailash has always been a goonda, a ne’er-do-well. There’s a police case pending against him in Delhi, which is why he’s run away and come home to the hills.
What an awful father to be saddled with. And, looking closer at an old photo of their father’s, Makar and Kamru come to the conclusion that this man who’s turned up isn’t Baba, after all. He’s an impostor. His rightful place is back wherever he came from.
How will they get rid of him, though? Some discussion with Bupi and Pusu, and the boys realize there’s only one solution: to go to the elusive witch, Pagli Daadi, who is rumoured to live up on Kaali Choti, and practices black magic. Surely she can work some magic to send this fraud Baba away…
And that is what Kaphal is about: Makar and Kamru’s quest (equally, the ever-loyal Bupi’s and Pusu’s quest) to free the two brothers of this unwanted and tyrannical father who has barged into their lives. It becomes also, as the story moves on, a poignant yet heartwarming tale of what it means to be a child caught in a world that has its own problems—problems that don’t leave any room for the ‘minor’ niggles of childhood to be taken seriously.
Kaphal appealed to me on several levels. The landscapes, the snowy mountains splashed with the pink and gold of a setting (and rising) sun; the rhododendrons, the woods, the terraced fields—are beautiful. The village is very real (it is; this wasn’t a specially constructed set), what with its steep paths, its cluster of houses, its short, plump cows. The people are very real, people with real problems, real joys.
That, most of all, was what touched me to the core. Makar and Kamru, their friends and families, are people one can relate to. This is a world that is real. There are the problems that actually beset hill people: poor infrastructure, a lack of employment opportunities, the need to go away to cities to scrape together a living. Poverty.
And yet, there isn’t utter despair. There is food to eat. There are friends, there are neighbours whom you will quarrel with but eventually make up with, too. There are those who guard the forests, who watch over you and stand by you…
Kaphal reminded me a little of a fairytale (and it does have some of the elements: a witch-woman, a story of a demon and of good magic). A fairytale, where the heroes have to go on a quest—and what a hard, dangerous quest, too—in order to achieve what they want. And the outcome is an interesting one. A fairytale that is sweet, funny in places, poignant, and touching. A film that will appeal to children, but which an adult can also love. The adults, of course, will realize that the ends that are sewn up may not be very practical, but there is hope there. And hope, as much as love, makes the world go round.
This is a film that shows sensitivity (a scene, for example, where Makar and Kamru, now relegated to a tiny back room instead of their parents’ bedroom, sit on their camp bed, looking silent and forlorn). It’s a film of subtlety, and of a deep understanding of children (the scene where Kamru follows—to the minutest detail—Makar’s lead when drinking milk, saying goodbye, and heading for school, reminded me of my childhood when I emulated my elder sister in everything!)
Don’t miss Kaphal if you get a chance to see it. It’ll be screened at the Children’s Film Festival in Hyderabad, November 14-20, 2013. A DVD will also eventually be released, but probably not for several months yet.
And here is the Kaphal website, for some interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film. The actors (many of whom, including the children, were local villagers), the costume designers, the challenges of shooting in an area that is so very remote: all of it is here, and worth browsing through.