There are some films that move you beyond critical appreciation. Stanley Ka Dabba is one of them. It’s endearing, poignant and uncluttered. Unlike its predecessor Taare Zameen Par that was a film about kids for parents, Stanley Ka Dabba is for children. And if you’re looking right, there is food-for-thought for the grown-ups too. One of those films that is simple in its plot and storytelling, yet complex with its metaphors of friendship, hunger, right to education and the egalitarian powers of the school uniform.
As an adult, it triggers a flood of memories. In our time, a school wouldn’t be a school if you didn’t have science teachers like Mrs Iyer. Hardly a caricature, this was a breed that believed in strict countenances and textbook talks. Often stepped in mediocrity themselves, they were usually blind to unconventional flashes of brilliance in their students. And who hasn’t heard stories of friends who fell prey to the ‘righteousness of right-handedness’. But the strongest connect of the story was obviously with the Dabba.
We’ve all been a part of dabba gangs and had our share of dabba stories in school. I remember that if my mother packed noodles, burgers or pizzas instead of the regular dal-roti-sabzi, I'd definitely be the dabba-star of the day. What we didn’t realise then is that the dabba often revealed everything the uniform tried to hide. But then, class differences hardly mattered in class. That’s the beauty of innocence, and Amole Gupte captures it well.
The main thread ofcourse pits hunger versus gluttony, innocence versus shame and dignity versus disgrace. There are two parallel worlds, one that centres around the very-popular Stanley in Stanley’s classroom; and the other in the staffroom where ‘Verma sir’ unwittingly entertains with his antics. Both their lives are strangely similar. Both long for food – one out of hunger, the other out of gluttony. And both get their share – one out of friendship, the other of pity. But when their worlds’ collide, you wonder if quiet dignity has the power to embarrass shame.
As a film for kids, the messaging is quite clear without a talk-down or a dumb-down of the issues. I was personally quite entertained by a very talkative little girl who sat behind me in the theatre. She completely identified with Stanley and his world, was very upset with the actions of the ‘khadoos sir’, implored her father with questions on why Stanley never got his dabba and often tried to pre-empt the story in her way. She behaved exactly like how the director would have wanted her too. And I’m quite sure that she will learn to value her dabba a little more when she gets back to school after the summer holidays.
As a documentary film maker, I believe that a documentary with messaging on child labour would never have had the same reach as a Stanley Ka Dabba. I’m glad Amole Gupte decided to push the limits and set his story in the space of actuality, but within the grammar of fiction. The hybrid works really well for me. I’m sure with time, it will charm the cynic too. For now, I’d rate it beyond critical appreciation.