New Delhi, 12 Mar 2019 9:00 IST
The film is a low-key look into the community’s life without stereotyping or exoticization, a skill that director Priya Ramasubban perhaps brings from her documentary filmmaking career to fiction.
Chuskit was screened on the last day of the 15th edition of IAWRT’s Asian Women’s Film Festival in New Delhi. The film was a part of the Childhood section of the festival, curated by documentary filmmaker Samina Mishra.
Directed by documentary filmmaker Priya Ramasubban, Chuskit is her first fiction feature that tells the story of a high-spirited paraplegic girl in a remote village in Ladakh who attempts to achieve her dream of going to school. The film was conceived in the screenwriter’s lab of the National Film Development Corporation, under the mentorship of award-winning Dutch writer Jolein Laarman.
Chuskit is inspired by the real-life story of Sonam Spalzes, a young girl from a remote Himalayan village, who is afflicted by cerebral palsy and whose desire to go to school was fulfilled when the community and social workers got together to adapt the arduous terrain for her commute. The film is dedicated to the social workers and the communities working together to help children like Sonam receive an equal right to education, which otherwise would be impossible due to their condition in the region’s harsh environment.
Winner of the Golden Gateway Award for Best Feature Film, Half-Ticket at the 20th Jio MAMI Film Festival, Chuskit is an audience-pleasing and touching film that plays out as a conventional narrative of the triumph of spirited resilience against the odds of life.
Chuskit as a feisty outspoken young girl is pitted against her traditional and strict grandfather, as the desire of the girl to go to school and the cripplingly pragmatic dictum of the old man to want her to live within the means of her abilities. Afflicted by paraplegia in an accident as a child, the film follows Chuskit’s unrelenting defiance as she overcomes her disability and her grandfather’s stubbornness, with the help of her brother, friends and the community members to realize her dream.
Flanked on either end of the reel by the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of the ‘sand mandala’, the film comments on the transitory nature of life – the good and the bad – and the perseverance that one requires to get through life. As a children’s film and Priya’s first attempt at fiction, the film is a comforting, straight-forward and unchallenging take on issues of childhood disability and tropes of tradition, modernity, community participation and local talent.
Shot in the often-challenging locations of Ladakh with a local cast, the film presents itself as a feel-good regional feature that accounts for representation of regional communities and their lives onscreen.
The film is a low-key look into the community’s life without stereotyping or exoticization, a skill that Priya perhaps brings from her documentary filmmaking career to fiction.
The film is well-acted across the board with little lapses in the local actors’ abilities. The lead is portrayed endearingly and empathetically, although moments requiring greater emotional depth tend to not come through with full force.
On the other hand, the characterization does often fall into creating stock characters and almost choric figures out of the others in the cast. Especially, the case of Dr Ahmad’s character is one of an unfledged jarring presence, that either got chopped off at the scripting concept or the editing table without much thought.
Priya’s skill at directing fiction is acceptable. She checks all the boxes of a neatly made film with sufficient padding of narrative and aesthetics. Although, Priya does indulge quite a bit in stuffing the film with commentary and symbols — an excess of figurines of birds and butterflies hanging from a thread in the girl’s room repeatedly focussed on to stress on metaphors and symbols of flight and trappings is a case in point. Aspirations for subtlety of commentary tend to lapse into distracting visual commentary due to repetition and excess.
Similarly, the script is typically formulaic, loaded with events that seem to be more connived and less fortuitous, unravelling a narrative that has been told one too many times, albeit in a different milieu this time around. Tropes of mainstream filmmaking are abundantly adapted to the regional tone that makes for a familiar and comforting flick, rather than a very novel and challenging film.
The issue with Priya’s film is simply that it is not a very novel film in narrative tropes or craft. In terms of representation, it pushes new boundaries and is indeed welcome to the foray. However, as yet another addition to the largely underwhelming, typified and ‘safe’ genre of children’s filmmaking in India, it is neither path-breaking not momentous. One may feel good and inspired by the film’s message (as important as that is), but there isn’t much here for pushing the boundaries of the under-developed genre in the country, or for the matters of intervention in the craft of aesthetics and atypical storytelling.
The Asian Women’s Film Festival was held from 5-7 March 2019 at the India International Centre in Delhi. The theme of the 15th edition was The Female Gaze. The festival screened over 50 films from 20 countries by female filmmakers in several formats, along with workshops, panels and an art installation.