This is a very unusual and bittersweet film based on a Rabindranath Tagore story about the last few days of a dying boy named Amal (an unforgettable Sachin). Produced by the Children’s Film Society, I suppose it can be categorized as a children’s film, although as with most good children’s movies it is entertaining for adults too and a little bit dark. Children may not entirely understand what’s going on, although in my personal experience they understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. The movie weaves together fantasy and reality as lonely Amal—trapped inside the house by the local pandit-doctor’s (AK Hangal) orders—chatters with an assortment of passersby and villagers, and daydreams about venturing forth and seeing the world beyond his horizons. As the story unwinds fantasy gradually takes over from reality as Amal fades, much to the distress of his adoptive father Madho (Satyendra Kapoor). The sets are deliberately “stagey” and candy-colored which enhances the fairy tale effect, and the photography is lush, with lovely music by Madan Mohan (lyrics and dialogue courtesy of Kaifi Azmi).
I must above all thank Raja for subtitling this for me—if anyone has this film and would like the subtitle files, please let me know and I’ll send them to you. Thanks Raja!
At dawn, the village chowkidar wanders through the village striking his bell, waking it up. As little Amal sits up, bars descend in front of him: his daily prison of illness and enforced isolation inside begins.
Amal is an imaginative and inquisitive little guy, who makes sour faces at the bitter medicine the prescribing pandit forces down him and who opens the windows to the sunlight and air as soon as nobody is watching. From his perch by the window, he calls out to people passing by and talks with them until their daily routines force them to move on. Several of his neighbors throughout the film—a man at his loom, and an old woman grinding flour—never change position or expression, heavily symbolic I suppose of those who plod along doing their duty, keeping to their habits.
Amal’s liveliness, in contrast to them and in defiance of his illness, is effervescent and captivating.
The first person to stop and talk with him is Sudha (actress?), a young flower seller who wears ghungroos and promises to come back and see him again when her work is done. He is such a little charmer!
It’s very evident that Amal chafes at his confinement and longs for the freedom of roaming outside. He is continually bargaining with Madho: “Can I go as far as…?” with no success. Madho just as clearly adores Amal, but his love has also paralyzed him with fear, and he sticks stubbornly to the doctor’s strict rules. Another somewhat eccentric denizen of the area called Baba (Balraj Sahni) (fond of children and quite child-like himself) disagrees with the doctor’s harsh methods, but can only visit Amal in various disguises to cheer him up. One such disguise is a pair of thick false eyelashes which he presses haphazardly over his eyes, pretending to be a blind beggar. He asks Amal what he wants to do when he grows up.
“Andhe Baba” takes his leave after gifting Amal a kaleidoscope, and the boy starts thinking about what he wants to do when he gets well again and grows up.
Later he tells his father a story about another crazy man that he had met that day, a wanderer looking for work. He is taken by the thought of traveling around looking for work, and decides that’s what he wants to do. When the man asks him what he’ll do if he doesn’t find it, Amal says: “Even better!” He’ll just keep going.
Every adult he meets encourages him to study and to read: he wants only to travel. Some of them are also a bit irritated when he calls to them from his window and pesters them with questions in the manner of little boys, but all go away completely beguiled by his curiosity and wistful enthusiasm. Everyone describes his particular work to Amal, all jobs sound exciting and exotic to him and nothing they say can dissuade him. Following each encounter he fantasizes about it through songs which are very cute indeed, pretending to be a dahiwala like Mukri (who gives him some sweet yogurt as he leaves):
The chowkidar explains the new building across the road from Amal’s house where people go in and out all day: it’s a new Post Office belonging, he says, to the Raja. Amal is thrilled at the thought of going to visit the King beyond the hills, and even more thrilled at the thought of getting a letter—although of course delivering those letters would be even better.
Children’s stories have to have at least one scary adult figure, and this one has the fiercely mustachioed village chief, Chaudhary (actor?). I love the shot of him responding to Amal’s call to him and I also love how sweet Amal catches on quickly to his personality, but is undeterred from asking his usual torrent of questions.
As the film progresses his real encounters with the outside world become fewer as he spends more time in bed, and it becomes clear that he is getting sicker—dark circles under his eyes appear and the lines between reality and dreams begin to blur. The pretty kaleidoscope patterns dissolve into flowers and a garden where Sudha dances.
And Amal becomes increasingly fixated on getting a letter from the King, and becoming a postman himself so he can…what else, travel! This is probably my favorite of the songs, so I uploaded it for you (I don’t see any of them online):
As the chowkidar bangs on his gong, signaling the end of another day, shadows gather in Amal’s house as do the people he’s endeared himself to over the past couple of days.
Will little Amal finally get his letter from the King? Will he escape from the house to wander over the mountains that so intrigue him? Will he get to meet the King, to whose court Baba says he goes to beg?
There are no big surprises in this movie, but do be warned now that there are SPOILERS ahead if you don’t want to know any more!
I just loved this unusual (and only one hour long) film; it tugged at every heart string, and completely—despite cameo appearances from the likes of AK Hangal, Balraj Sahni and Sharmila Tagore—belonged to Sachin. His natural performance so perfectly combines Amal’s sweetness and mischievous qualities with the pathos of his confinement that when he does finally slip away at the end it isn’t sad, you are so glad that he is free to roam as he’s dreamed of. It is very much a film about taking advantage of every moment of life as espoused by Amal and Baba, the only adult who doesn’t try to contain his dreams. The progress of Amal’s illness is subtle and the pace of the story beautifully choreographed; sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between what is in Amal’s head and what is actually happening, but it grows more and more clear as time passes. I recommend this one highly if you are in the mood for a reflective and enchanting movie with heartwrenching moments—but a lot to smile at as well.