June 4 2014
The London Asian Film Festival opened with a powerful and unflinching film depicting the life of 14 year old girl whose childhood is completely destroyed…
CHILD-TRAFFICKING is a serious and terrible business in India.
Director Nagesh Kukunoor’s “Lakshmi”, which opened the London Asian Film Festival on Sunday (June 1), does an excellent job of bringing the issue into the spotlight.
In a Q&A after the screening of his film, he said that when he was initially preparing to publicise the film, he was working with an estimate of around 50,000 children going missing every year in India and a fair many of those ending up in the sex trade, as does the Lakshmi of his film.
In truth, one expert told him the problem was far worse and that as many as 500,000 children are exploited in this way.
Look, for some it is simply a business and while it seems completely heartless for family members to betray a child’s trust and ‘sell’ them in this fashion, no can deny it happens.
Last year, the film “Siddharth” made by Canadian Richie Mehta focused on the same problem but from the angle of those sold into child labour – and in his film, the family never intended the move to be permanent and come to greatly regret ever sending their son away to make a bit of extra cash before Diwali. But poor families often have few options, while there are those with the means and will to exploit that and don’t give a fig for the young lives they destroy.
Kukunoor’s film is watchable and has a strong narrative through it, but you can see why it failed to register with some of the best known film festivals around the globe.
This is not meant as a disparagement, but as a reminder that films with a cause at the heart of them often lack the subtlety or art required of them to enter the major festival circuit – and it’s as true of western films as well (perhaps, a rare exception is “Fruitvale Station” about the fatal shooting in California in 2008 of an innocent black man, targeted by police because of little else than the colour of his skin, which showed in Cannes last year).
Having said all that, “Lakshmi” is generally well done and carries its message with much strength and clarity.
If it can help to enlist other people to the cause of anti-trafficking then Kukunoor has done us all a great service. And indeed, he said he is giving the film out free to those who may be in a position to help tackle the menace.
In many ways, you can see just why his encounter with the real ‘Lakshmi’ led to his film.
“It changed my life and you will see why,” he told the audience gathered at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London before the curtains drew back on Sunday (June 1).
His film is “fictional” but based around real events. Kukunoor spent time researching the issues and talking to people in the sex trade in India and the story is set around Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh.
It is a remarkable story – because Lakshmi not only escapes the brutality and tyranny of her captors but later goes on to testify against them.
Kukunoor’s court scenes are a little dry and obvious and come at a point when the film seems to be nearing a conclusion but actually goes up a notch in intensity.
You could quite easily make a whole film about the vagaries of the justice system in India – judges, lawyers, court officials, police and witnesses in theory all have a price. Even Lakshmi is drawn into this unseemly world of negotiation and corruption.
Very few have the integrity to dispense justice or behave in accordance with an orderly system of law. It only further helps entrench dark and powerful forces in a system unable to protect the weak and vulnerable – as any child is.
Kukunoor revealed that he first cast a 14-year-old girl in the lead role and then had a major crisis of conscience.
It was too brutal a tale for anyone of that tender age to reprise and so he finally found his Lakshmi in 26-year-old Bollywood playback singer Monali Thakur. When he revealed this, the audience at the Tricycle gasped in disbelief.
Shah is pitch perfect playing innocence but perhaps a little less assured when it comes to toughness and showing how a childhood has been utterly destroyed. What emerges, though, is a young adult of superlative courage.
In court, she reverts to her lost world and crumbles under tough questioning; yet the mere fact she is prepared to go to court in the first place already shows her strength and presence of mind to put terrible wrongs right.
Some motivations in the final section aren’t well articulated or are too crude (in style and are more Bollywoodish) – there seems to be no explanation as to why the doctor should testify as he does.
It doesn’t detract from the power of the film because there are strong performances throughout – Kukunoor is excellent as the evil, twisted Chinna who thinks nothing of punishing ‘an investment’ for insolence or mildly challenging behaviour.
Sautish Kaushik is marvellous (as he always is, who can forget him from “Brick Lane”?), playing Chinna’s older brother – an absurd and dangerous mix of charm, cruelty and despotic temper.
Kukunoor doesn’t hide away from some simple but astonishing facts – many rescued girls and women go back into prostitution and some family members actively trade their daughters into these ‘hostels’ knowing full well what their fate will be.
Towards then end. the theme of Lakshmi wanting to use lipstick to look good in front of the cameras as her fame widens is odd. She is 14, and is really still a child…why should she play that game when it has visited such horrors on her?
Kukunoor is very much part of a new generation of youngish filmmakers emerging out of India at this time and making movies about the real India: its violence, its unflinching hierarchies, and its brutal realities.
He spoke of going “beyond entertainment”; he has and convincingly so.
Man, are we a world away from Shah Rukh Khan and all that gloss and fantasy…
There is nothing wrong in making these statement films – India needs them, but will enough Indians actually see it and does it actually matter?
This might seem somewhat tangential but it is directly relevant – just stay with us on this one.
In Cannes, British filmmaker Ken Loach, who makes as socially aware film as they come, conceded that films can’t change people’s opinions or perceptions or at least only in a very limited way.
His latest film which premiered there and opened in the UK on Friday (May 30), “Jimmy’s Hall” is about an Irish communist leader going back to his home village shortly after the Partition and coming up against conservative forces which are opposed to such dangerous concepts as jazz music and education for workers.
Loach said films can add to the debate and make a contribution to the general noise about certain topics and subjects, but you cannot expect them to change minds.
If India is to emerge truly as a global powerhouse, it has to offer its citizens – especially its women and young girls a greater sense of equality and justice.
Films like “Lakshmi” show that the country has a way to go and that there are people who want to tackle its problems – that at least is a start.
Picture: Nagesh Kukunoor (right) in a Q&A with Viji Alles from www.ukasiaonline.com