Mangesh Hadawale's utterly charming and gorgeously photographed Dekh Indian Circus, which recently screened at the 12th New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), is rather innocuous on its surface: a seemingly simple story of a poor mother taking her kids to see the circus, and of the misadventures they encounter along the way. But go a little deeper, and you will find a bitter pill of caustic social satire and sharp political commentary on the millions of people still left behind in India's modern era of technologically driven progress. The film's most pointed barbs are aimed squarely at the corrupt politicians who gain power through voter manipulation and naked bribery. These snake-oil salesmen, along with megaphone-blaring caravans, travel to poor villages every few years in appeals for electoral support, but think little of them and do even less for them in the intervening years. This is Hadawale's real message, thinly masked by its family-friendly narrative trappings, and which gives the film its substance and bracing political bite.
Dekh Indian Circus (usually translated as Watch Indian Circus) is set mostly in the rural desert area of Rajasthan, where struggling mother Kajro (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and her mute road worker husband Jethu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) work to scrape together money to send their son Ghumroo (Virendra Singh Rathod) and younger daughter Panni (Suhani Oza) to school. Jethu is the putative breadwinner, toiling long hours on the road for little pay, but his status as a member of a nomadic minority, his illiteracy, and his mute condition have greatly reduced his patriarchal authority. This leaves Kajro to be the real head of the family; she has the looks of a rural, traditional woman, but she is actually a very modern and progressive-minded woman with a fiercely independent spirit, and the drive to make sure her children do not have to experience the poverty she has had to. Despite their different personalities, Kajro and Jethu are obviously very much in love with each other, and pass this love on to their children. Jethu buys a stick of bright red lipstick for his wife early in the film; although Kajro chides him for spending precious rupees for such a frivolous purchase, she is very appreciative of this gesture. This is a loving family, indulging in playful banter and horseplay with one another, but their grinding poverty and reduced circumstances are a constant strain.
The story occurs in the midst of a political campaign where the rival candidates hold huge rallies in a bid for village support, giving out cash and free cell phones in exchange for votes. Kajro bitterly despises politicians of all political stripes, decrying their penchant of strolling into towns every few years, spouting empty promises and grandiose nationalistic rhetoric, but leaving the lives of the citizens unchanged. This idea is neatly, and satirically, illustrated in a scene in which one of the candidates promise that the villagers' lives will be as bright as the Diwali festival of lights, after which the electricity goes out.
Jethu brings his children to one of these rallies, where a candidate hands out 200 rupees for each member of the villagers' families, causing much excitement. After the rally, Panni finds a flyer for a traveling circus coming to a nearby town. Ghumroo and Panni both beg their parents to take them to this circus; Panni is especially entranced by a picture of the "Bamboo Man," a stilts performer in the circus. Kajro is quite angry with Jethu for accepting what she considers dirty money, refusing to accept it; nevertheless, Jethu plans to use some of this money to take the children to the circus. Unfortunately, Jethu is later robbed of the money by thugs who mistakenly believe Jethu is supporting a rival candidate, leaving him without the funds for the circus trip. Panni is especially inconsolable, and both of the kids blame Jethu for breaking his promise. Kajro, seeing her children's disappointment and wishing to bring some sense of magic and wonder to their lives, as well as her own, scrapes together some money, planning to take them to the circus while Jethu is at work. Kajro, feigning her children's illness, spirits them away and makes the long trek to the circus, walking long distances and eventually managing to hitch a ride there. However, when they get to the circus, it proves to be less than the welcoming place they thought, especially when Kajro lacks the money for all of them to gain admission to the circus. The circus here functions as a potent metaphor for modern Indian society itself, in which wealth determines access, and this system is strictly guarded by heartless gatekeepers who refuse to deviate from their rigid rules. A chase sequence in the latter scenes of the film involve Ghumroo, whose discovery of a stray 20-rupee note inspires a scheme in which he desperately tries to make it possible for all three of them to enjoy the spectacle under the big top.
Dekh Indian Circus is a film set in a poor rural community, but it admirably refuses to indulge in the sort of poverty porn that often overpopulates film festivals, encouraging voyeuristic gawking at impoverished communities, the more remote and exotic the better. The lovely cinematography by Laxman Utekar brings out the colorful beauty of this desert land, but without glossing over the gritty realities of the have-nots depicted in the film. There are some especially striking shots of silhouetted figures framed against the sunset that are quite breathtaking. The performances are impressive across the board; the stunningly beautiful Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane and Road, Movie) leaves an indelible impression as the fiercely loving mother; though she may be a tad glam to play a rural woman, she is never less than convincing in her role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Peepli Live) conveys much emotion in a memorable turn without relying on dialogue. Virendra Singh Rathod and Suhani Oza, as the rambunctious Ghumroo and the adorably sweet Panni, two young performers who have never appeared in films before, bring a beautifully rendered naturalism to their performances.
As is usually the case in Hindi-language cinema, the songs and music are an essential part of Dekh Indian Circus, and as much skill is on display in this department as there is in the acting and visuals. The Western-influenced score by Wayne Sharpe, as well as the song music by Shankar Ehsaan Roy and lyrics by Prasoon Joshi, advance the action and reinforce the main theme of the film. Hadawale's crystal-clear message is that the real "Indian Circus" of the film is not the one with lions, tigers, elephants, stilt walkers, and clown dwarves, but the one that lies outside the big tent. This circus is, to quote from the title song, the "ticketless circus" of "empty promises" and "hungry smiles." And just in case you somehow didn't get the point throughout the film, and still think this is just some saccharine story about kids and the circus, the final title card with pointed statistics on India today drives the point home with undeniable forcefulness.
Dekh Indian Circus won the Audience Award at the 16th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last year.
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