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Interview Hindi

If we are not investing in children, we are not investing in our future: Tannishtha Chatterjee on Jhalki's message

Tannishtha Chatterjee speaks about the experience of shooting for Jhalki and the need for government to provide a better future for children.

Shriram Iyengar

An actress who has now turned director, Tannishtha Chatterjee is quite excited at the prospect of Jhalki. Speaking about the film, she says, "The subject is bigger than the film itself." 

The idea, reciprocated by co-star Sanjay Suri, refers to the story of Brahmanand S Siingh's upcoming film Jhalki (2019). Telling the journey of a nine-year-old girl whose brother is abducted into child labour, the film deals with the issue of abandoned children and the continuous threat of forced child labour. 

Based on the life and works of Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, the film is set for release tomorrow, 27 September. Tannishtha Chatterjee spoke with Cinestaan.com on the sidelines of the film's promotion. Excerpts from the interview follow: 

How were you approached for the project, and what drew you to it?

I have known Brahmanand [Siingh] for a long time now, and he told me he was planning to make a film on child labour. He narrated the basic backbone for the film about a young girl looking for her little brother. He wanted me to play the journalist who helps to facilitate the search. 

Furthermore, the shoot was in the summer in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh. I have always wanted to visit the place for its cultural importance and see the carpet industry. When I read the script, I thought it was very powerful. Kailash Satyarthi's association with the film also added a different credibility. So, I simply put my soul into it. 

How much do you think we, as a society, are at fault for our children suffering? 

I really think we don't do enough for our children. We do it at an individual level. When it comes to individual families, we are doing it for our children. To the extent that the middle class actually spoil their kids. We don't let them be independent.

On the other hand, as a society, we have no priority for our children. Open spaces, playgrounds, schools and amenities, we lack these for kids. Every developed country has schools that engage children to culture, language, interactions defining what kind of society we are heading towards. 

I think government investment in children is appalling. We have to push our government to have free compulsory education and health. If we are not investing in children, we are not investing in our future. These are ghost cities we will build. The first development we have to talk about is human development. 

Tell us about the research process. What was the challenge preparing for the role? 

There are 30 million abandoned kids in our country. That is just data. I don't know how many more are unaccounted for. I did a film called Siddharth (2013) a few years ago, also about a child sent for work being kidnapped. It was made by a Canadian filmmaker. 

There was also Lion (2017)....

That was an aspect, then it moved into adoption. Siddharth was mainly about a family that sends the kids to work during vacation, but they don't return at all. The father sets off in search, and it is based on a true story. The director actually met an auto driver in New Delhi who was crying and told him the story. There are lots of missing kids engaged in forced labour. 

We will never uplift our society out of poverty if we are compelling children to get into labour, illegal professions, denying them access to education and health. They will never be able to do anything to change it and remain poor. 

While we, in the urban world, see children working every day in some form or the other, we are not curious, or even caring about their struggle. Is it a lack of empathy? 

I think it is a lack of awareness and sensitization. When I grew up, my grandmothers had young girls working for them. But there was no consciousness that there was anything wrong with it. They weren't aware. At that point of time, not to explain it, there were many homes where these kids grew up. 

Now, organized exploitative labour is dangerous. We cannot let the whims and fancies of an individual dictate their lives. If someone is working at my place, and I am very nice to them, does not mean the others will be. There has to be strict laws, regulations and awareness.

But even if we do all this, and do not provide an alternative, it won't work. If we say ban child labour, but when you have a poor family, like in this particular case of Jhalki, what do they do? There has to be government investment into that space. 

Development, development, development — I would like to see what the focus on human development is. I really would want to know what the next investment on child welfare is like in the government's plans. 

How was the interaction with Kailash Satyarthi like?

It was very enriching. Somewhere, a little unnerving. The kind of danger that he has gone through, dangers to his life, his family's life, through the nexus which doesn't allow you to free the children. When you become a voice against that you are a threat to it. 

When he [Satyarthi] started, the stories are scary. But he makes it seem so ordinary when he speaks. "Oh, that time we went there, they hit me on my shoulder. It was broken." Two of his associates were killed. It is that real. And he is still doing it. That's courage! 

The way he walks, you can see it. There is movement and charge in the way Kailashji works. It is just his stature, and you can see the drive and will to change it. 

As an actress, now director, what did you take back from the film and its experience?

I think, for me, the subject was bigger than any experience. This is the first time I have worked with Bomanji [Irani]. Sanjay [Suri] and Divya [Dutta] I have known for years. Secondly, going to Mirzapur and looking at the history of carpet making. Coming across the story of how dangerous it was to shoot over there. Since Kailashji had rescued so many children from the town, if people came to know we were making a biopic on him, they could get angry.

Also, learning their perspective. As I said, it is easy for us to say let's ban it, but the government has to provide alternatives. Otherwise, it could become worse. Without access to education and better life, it could lead to crime.