No country for children?

For young minds

No country for children?

Exchange of ideas: Participants of the screenplay lab.

The Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), a government body mandated to produce children’s cinema in various languages, has not been able to effectively develop the genre despite routinely producing films aimed at children. Most of CFSI’s films, including quite a few lovely ones (Santosh Sivan’s Malli, for example), have never been released in theatres, since the distribution network, notwithstanding the so-called multiplex revolution that apparently has allowed various cinematic voices to be heard, would not touch these films.

The only outlet for these films has been state and district-level festivals and screenings that CFSI organises for school children, even though quite a few of these films deserve a platform bigger than that. CFSI in recent years has also made a large number of its films available in CDs, but these can be bought only directly from CFSI, and are hardly available with retailers (though one can hope that things will change for the better now that an earnest Nandita Das has taken over as the new CFSI chairperson).

In contrast, mainstream cinema occasionally dabbles with films that actually have children’s subjects at their core though they are packaged as ‘family entertainers’. A recent case in point is Hrithik Roshan-starrer Krrish. The mainstream is visibly cagey about labelling such films as children’s films since they believe that would ensure a box office doom for them.

Screenplay mentoring lab
Seen against this backdrop, what comes as a whiff of fresh air is the country’s first-ever screenplay mentoring lab targeted specifically at developing quality children’s films. Something like this actually happened recently at Matheran, the famous hill station in Maharashtra.

Out of the nearly 50 proposals the lab received, seven — Sehba Imam’s The Imperfect Musical, Jyothi Kapur Das’ Extra Class, Bridget Lawless’ Jikkijandi, Sajita Majumder’s Fireflies, Jagadish Metla’s The Curse of the Rat-eaters, Ajaz Rashid’s Shejaar and Mukul Srivastra’s Atom — were selected for mentoring by a team of experts comprising German writer-director Arend Agthe, Indian scriptwriter Sanjay Chauhan and actor Vipin Sharma.
What is heartening is that the crop that came for further development comprises some really interesting ideas, proof enough that given the scope and platform there are innovative children’s films waiting to be made by talented filmmakers, provided they get the funding.

In fact, development of a proper mechanism for making of good children’s films in India has been the fulcrum around which the whole idea of the screenplay lab got developed. As the lab’s co-director Nila Madhab Panda puts it, “India is the world’s biggest film producer and Indian films are increasingly finding a place for themselves on the world stage. But the film industry has always neglected children’s films even though over 35 percent of India’s population is under 15. Today, Indian cinema is more focused on current issues, underworld criminals, sex, accidents and murders. It has no time for children. This is surprising for a country which has no dearth of folk tales, mythology, magic, fantasy and moreover, great technical expertise, especially in animation.”

A filmmaker who has been working in the area of children’s film and television content, Panda says that even though films are a great medium to raise issues about society, “for quick money, like fast food,” producers have chosen “action, emotion and sentiment.”
Jenny Thomson of PAL also says that there is great potential for production for films for young people in India using Indian stories and reflecting the real lives and concerns of children growing up in India today.

The lab this year, according to both Panda and Thomson, was a pilot project, and the intention is to expand the programme with support from Indian and international producers over the next three years. The lab saw active peer mentoring with groups guided by Agthe and Chouhan allowing the selected writers to discuss and analyse each other’s work without competition or rivalry. “By analysing reactions to the work of others, participants begin to see common problems that may also apply to their own work. Exposure to the solutions and the work of other writers is also positively stimulating,” explains Panda.

An ensemble of five actors, led by Vipin Sharma, helped out the lab participants in visualising their ideas, while a few guest mentors also specially came to offer expert advice. “By the end of the process the aim is to have developed projects to a point at which their creators feel confident to present to potential producers to seek further funding,” says Panda.

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