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We are not empathetic to children: Amole Gupte on making films for children with children

The writer-director of Sniff sat down with Cinestaan.com to discuss his interest in children, the challenges, and the simplicity of making films that keep the innocence of childhood intact.

Shriram Iyengar

Jovial, large-hearted, and with an innocent smile Amol Gupte welcomes you into the office. A director known for his unique, sensitive touch in portraying the complex world of children, and their childhood, without adulterating it with the sensibilities of the grown-ups, Gupte has delivered some stunning films in Hawaa Hawaai (2014) and Stanley Ka Dabba (2011). With Sniff, he returns once again with the tale of a child endowed with the superhuman ability to smell.

Talking to Cinestaan.com, in his office, Gupte mentioned that he is most comfortable around children. "I get asphyxiated by adult value systems," he says. It is a feature that shows in his work. But his sensitivity extends to the desire to protect these children from the harmful practices of the industry. Recently, Gupte spoke out against making children work in the entertainment sector, demanding a ban on children's reality shows calling them 'barbaric, cruel and inhumane.'

In a long, revealing interview, the director spoke about the challenges of working with children, the joy, and the craft of keeping the child inside alive.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

How did the story come to you?
The concept is not mine. Frankly, for the first time, I have accepted another mind. Ajit Thakur, CEO of Trinity, brought in five, at my age I should say, children. I am 55, they were 30 something. He said, "I'll just vet you with 5 concept notes, which our people have created from the Trinity writers' table."

Four of them, I found obnoxious. I was like "Where is this going? Why don't you go and meet actual writers?"

Having said that, they were young. They ran a campaign to find fresh minds, for ideas. Because apparently anyone can write a screenplay. But it is important that you write. You have to be a writer.

I have discovered that if you have not written your first poem by the age of 7; it might be a silly rhyme, chances are that you are not attracted to writing. Later, if you want to do a screenplay writing course, this is not IIT. This is not technology.

It (screenplay writing) is a very nascent art form with deep roots in actual writing.

So, Radhika Anand from their table came in with this 'pappu' idea. There is this sardar boy from Karol Bagh. She had placed it there in Delhi. Things happen, miracles happen and he begins smelling acutely. It is a caper, because they wanted to do a franchise. So I said, go ahead man, write it. Bring it back written. But it didn't move from that concept forever. What came back was trash.

Concept is one thing, but writing an entire value system, screenplay, dialogue is a different thing. My education has been in writing with Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah on Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, on Naseem.. With Ketan Mehta on Mirch Masala, Holi. So, I come from a different time factor.

I then, took a break, I was painting for 10-12 years of my life. While I was painting, or drawing, I used to keep an assistant to take down notes. Those were not even personal computer days. So, I have written such a lot with my own hands that I had a corn.

In that zone, in that space, I used to just narrate and the assistant used to take down while I painted. I did some of that writing, like Happy Diwali I wrote, which Mansoor (Khan) was supposed to make with Aamir at one point. It never got made. Mansoor himself went off to the hills, and it kind of got delayed.

Having said that, I have a history of writing. I said, 'Ok guys, if you want to go ahead with this, either I write it, or let's call it a day.'

To give it a shape, to give it an understanding, frankly this whole superpower shit, I am done with it.

What is this? A guy who wears a costume and puts an underwear on top and flies around?

That is their mythology. We have more lasting mythologies here. We have 33 crore gods alone.. What are we looking for?

Maal to andar ka hona chahiye (The product should be domestic). So, how do you separate the superpower from the superhero? It requires a philosophy. You cannot just bring tricks and show special effects to the audience.

I have been sitting with children all my life, and I feel that they are superhuman anyway. Somehow, they get converted after they become voters (laughs). They lose their superpower, which is the power of honesty.

Which is why I am most comfortable with my bacchas (children). I get asphyxiated by adult value systems which are so hard defined that you feel like it is a prison.

Despite Indian cinema's record of some brilliantly sensitive films about children, there is this perception that children's films need to be a little 'kiddish'?
No, that has always been. Surprisingly, that is the adult view of chidlren's films. It should be kiddish.

I hate the word kid. Why can't you call them children? How many alphabets are you going to save on by calling them kids?

Its an attitude. 'Oh its just a kid thing!'. Arre, What is this kid thing? You are talking as if they are dogs or cats. They are your species, yaar!

You've forgotten your childhood. That is my worry. The adult world of this nation is so full of itself that its a one way street with children. Blah blah blah blah This is how the child must be hearing your voice as an adult.

So, what is this kiddish thing? You see, the director tells the AD (assistant director), 'Jaa bacche ka dialogue karke aa' (Go teach the child the dialogues) So, he explains the child a situation, and I am sure the child would say it in a natural way, which is proper. For me, I never coach children and you see the result.

But when the kid says the dialogue in a natural way, "Papa, aap kab aaye (dad when did you return)?" he is told to redo it. He has to recreate it by watching the adult perform. The adult has coached the child, and then you see the child on screen and say, 'How precocious?' Is it the fault of the child?

A child is an imitating being. Right from the time it says 'Ma', it is imitating you as an adult. The idea is that you have to keep your child within intact. So that you don't forget, and you start giving esteem to the child. That is the day when Indian cinema with children will reach the level of Do Bigha Zamin (1953), and Masoom (1982). These are our benchmarks, I am not even going to what the foreign industries have set.

And even Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) for that matter. Taare Zameen Par (2007) is always there. But Bajrangi Bhaijaan has the little girl at the centre of the film! And she is deaf and mute. That's a challenge. The story is woven around her existence.

What are the conscious elements that you look for when creating a story for/ around children. Or is the process sub-conscious?
I would imagine that every piece of art, if you call your work artful, you should let it determine its path. No artist would want to determine the path of his/her artwork. I think, go with the flow, understand the moment, and chances are that if you don't know where the next scene is going, the audience won't either. Therefore, it won't become predictable yaar.

The reason we get dated stuff most of the time is because it is predictable.

You have mentioned in previous interviews that you picked these kids, including Sunny (played by Khushmeet Singh) from a workshop. How does that work?

Well, the entire film is a workshop. There are two places where I conducted a workshop that became live shoot places. One is St Mary's School, like I did with Holy Family in Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), and Gokul Dham in Hawaa Hawaai (2014), here I chose the comfort zone of the children themselves. Whoever came is participating. So there are no auditions.

If you see a classroom full of children, those many children had come that day. The idea is to accept what comes in a workshop ethic. Then you don't do cherry picking.

I grew up in a place called Beema Nagar in Andheri, 11 buildings, 188 flats. All of them participated in Sniff. So, if there is a society meeting, every member, apart from some actors, participated in that.

It is not like the place was used as a set, and actors were imported from outside.

You have spoken up about protecting children recently, and the quote went viral online. What is it that the industry is doing wrong?
CINTAA has now come out with a damn good rule book. I helped them import the rules from Europe and America - their artist union rules. Even if you take your own child as an actor, you are forbidden from pushing it beyond a point. There are requisite breaks, there is medical attention, etc. Things are done correctly there.

Here, you have an animal welfare board sitting if you have a dog or cat in your film. But you don't have anything for children!

Its strange, because Hollywood opened up to children's rights right after Jackie Coogan, the kid from Chaplin's films, ended up broke. Why have we not followed suit?

It is strange, because we are not empathetic to children. They are the last in the food chain. The star is the first in the food chain. That is the big whale.

These are realities. The doctor has not asked you 'Make a film with children'!. Take out that child from your film, if you can't respect the child. But you want this also, you want reality shows, celebrate them, and bring them down the next day. You use their failures and tears for your TRPs. It is kind of grotesque.

Sunny Gill, how did you pick the child character? Again a natural kid in his environment, like Taare Zameen Par or Hawaa Hawaai!
I didn't pick him. I knew there was a Sikh boy required to play this role. Like the other children, I took a workshop in St Mary's and I found everybody else. But there was no sardar boy in the whole school yaar!

So, I announced around in local gurudwaras saying that the Taare Zameen Par and Stanley Ka Dabba makers have a workshop in acting for children. Randomly, a lot of children came for the workshop. The workshop was basically you sit to see a film, Chaplin's The Kid, or A Red Balloon, or a Majidi film, and then you interact. You play face expression games, or voice throwing exercise.

Every child who finishes the workshop goes home with some knowledge, apart from the juice and standard sandwich-wafer combination (laughs). It is a picnic-dhamaal. The parents wait outside, Unke liye bhi aayojan hai, inke liye bhi aayojan hai (the kids and their parents enjoy). [Laughs].

At the end of the workshop, five or six of them were selected, you have to take a call. Which is the child that walked into your heart, without the other children feeling the rejection? In that Khushmeet Singh walked in. [Laughs]. Infectious virus he is!

You mentioned that you'd rather not tell a child what to do in a scene. So how do you get the emotion across for the child actor to express?
See, he is not playing a 70-year old character. Like Naseeruddin Shah ke liye role likha gaya tha lekin abhi 8-year old Khushmeet karega (like it was written for a Naseeruddin Shah and now Khushmeet is having to do it). He is an 8-year old, who is playing an 8-year old Sunny Gill.

In fact, I have to wait for them to give me, rather than coach them into giving me something. I have to create an environment for them to give.

It is like talking. You don't know what my next sentence is going to be. I don't know what your next question will be. That's cinema. That's not theatre. In theatre, you rehearse. 30-40 days you rehearse, 3 months you are rehearsing. Some plays are epic, and you rehearse for a year and then open, man. But what is key is on that day the audience's reaction. For the actor, that is the kick. To stand in front of spectators and give them a performance.

Here, all you have is a dead camera. So, what is life? That moment is life. You guard against rehearsal. You guard against the smell of having done that before. If the child is giving it (a natural performance), the magic mantra is not to carry a script. This is not your goddamn physics class or geography class.

You can check out in the eye that the child is thinking and remembering his lines by rote. Don't allow him that! Give him his own interpretation. I just kind of build the scene with the children sitting. Just a conjecture. Then I leave it to them.

The camera just catches as they bring in the emotion. Which is what makes the interaction so real in life.

That's actually a good way of doing it with everybody in the human species.

Finally, it is impossible to conclude the interview without asking about the Saina biopic. How is it coming along?

It is going lovely. It is going to be a lovely experience.

I am severely in love with Saina Nehwal. You should see her approach to life. She happens to be the only Indian woman who was world no. 1 in any sport. For badminton in 2015, she was the crowned princess.

What drew you to the subject of Saina Nehwal?

If you see, Roger Federer, these are big names who were no. 1 in the world. From Bjorn Borg onwards to Prakash Padukone. Padukone won the title in 1980 as world no 1. Saina was no 1 in 2015. So, it (the achievement) is quite a big thing.

Exclusive: I am completely in love with Saina Nehwal, says Amole Gupte on biopic

Her habit is brilliant. Her refrain is 'Maar doongi' (I'll hit it). I find that phrase so inspiring that I want to bring the tale to every girl child and her parent in the country.

It is quite a challenge to tell a story that is still unfolding. How are you approaching it?

I don't know. I am also waiting and watching. But I know for sure, she was World No. 1 in 2015. You can't take that away from her. Its like Rush (2015), you know. The battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. You are focussing on that particular year where he outdid Niki Lauda.