I don't think I'd be writing here if I didn't, on some level, have the irrepressible, deep-seated urge to root for the little guy. There are times when this makes it difficult for me to say less than glowing things about a film of which I'm not overly fond, and Ravi Jadhav's Balak Palak is just such a film. It's not that Balak Palak is bad; the film is very competently made, the acting is pretty decent overall, and there's nothing especially offensive about it, it's just that it's a good opportunity lost, and that's probably even more disappointing.
Balak Palak opens on a family in urban Maharashtra having a typically teenaged shouting match when a father finds his son's nudie mags. The father harshly chastises the poor boy, all the while, his mother wonders where they went wrong. Why would their 11-year-old son possibly have any interest in looking at scantily clad women? From here we move into an extended flashback showing Mom and Dad and two of their friends at age thirteen and the journey they take in discovering their own sexuality in rural Maharashtra twenty years earlier. For the next hour, Balak Palak is a really fun little story about kids being kids and the ways they get themselves into and out of trouble when trying to discover what the big deal is.
This extended sequence begins with a huge amount of promise and good-natured dirty fun. The four students, bursting with curiosity about sex, latch onto a low-rent lothario who promises to teach them everything they need to know via dirty magazines, peeping, and all manner of goofy childish misbehavin'. Their journey through the great unknown that is puberty is a joyous thing to witness, as this mixed-gender group (two boys and two girls) navigate the mysterious waters of sex and the physical act of love from afar, and begin to feel the effects of their own hormones and what it feels like to try to act on them. This would make a great movie!
Rather than allowing the kids to act on their own, react on their own, make their own mistakes and feel their own consequences, Balak Palak decides that it would be more appropriate to turn on a dime and become a cautionary tale. Enter: wise old uncle. We are introduced to a character who is determined to guide these kids through these waters by suggesting that they simply go to their parents with questions rather than exploring for themselves.
Now, before I get any hate mail, this is an admirable cause. I have a young child and I am wary of the day when I actually have to have these conversations with him, but of course I'd rather him come to me than head off to the internet and reach his own skewed conclusions about love and sex. However, as wonderful, touching, and right as this argument is, it doesn't make for very good drama. What is good in real life doesn't often translate onto the big screen. These kids being kept from making their own mistakes kills the film's drama in its tracks, though I imagine that this is probably the point of the filmmaker, that a little guidance can avoid a lot of anguish. The problem is that anguish makes for good films.
In the end, Balak Palak takes such a hard detour into Afterschool Special territory that it's almost hard to remember the magic of the first half of the film. Those sequences with the kids, boys and girls, exploring the dirty magazines are absolutely golden. The children's curiosity is palpable and entertaining in a way that is no longer the case once reason enters the equation. I much prefer Balak Palak the sex-comedy to Balak Palak the message movie. Too bad I got stuck with both.
The World Premiere of Balak Palak happens tomorrow night, October 26, at the 11th annual South Asian International Film Festival in New York. Click here to purchase tickets and to see the fest's full lineup.