Amole Gupte is back in home territory, handling children with precision and ease, to craft a collage so lightweight and simple for most part that when the film takes shape and changes gears in the last quarter, it leaves the unsuspecting viewer soaking in its waves of sentiment.
Stanley is a regular fourth grader: popular, talented, liked by most teachers. But he is a boy with a secret. Because this mystery is not solved till the very end (it is also a little predictable), there is very little conflict in the film until the second half. You’re languorously treated to the life of young students in Holy Family High School as they busy themselves in mocking teachers, playing football, and above all – eating lunch. And then there is Khadus the Hindi teacher whose insatiable appetite costs him his self-respect as he targets dabbas of teachers and students alike.
Magical moments abound: the teachers’ interactions with their class, the camaraderie of the students helping and supporting each other, the moment Khadus’ hits his point of no return, Miss Rosy’s partiality for Stanley, every time the nameless teacher offers Khadus a sandwich, … it’s a long list really. Gupte captures school life – in the classroom and the staffroom – with astounding honesty.
However, a couple of scenes seem strangely out of place in the climax, dissonant to the pace and sensibilities of the rest of the telling. Also, the film doesn’t say anything beyond what it shows, even though there is a heavy message at the end. The story is too simple. One wonders what would’ve happened had Khadus discovered Stanley’s secret at some point.
Stanley ka Dabba is shot on a Canon 7D, a still camera now increasingly used to shoot feature films in HD. And while the image quality still has some way to go in matching 35mm film, the advantages of maneuverability, low set up time, and no raw stock cost, outweighs look and feel in such a project. Filmed in a manner intrinsic to the material, even the pace is unhurried and the stylistic choices, basic. Nominal background score and good songs conform uniformly to the mood.
Partho, Stanley, is a natural who effortlessly wins your sympathy. Amole Gupte the actor is in his element as he drawls on about food slurring words he speaks from his paan-stained mouth. And Divya Dutta has never looked lovelier or more assured than in her English teacher avatar.
It seems Stanley ka Dabba was shot over a period of a year and a half on weekends alone with minimal crew. There was no dialogue script, and no set plan. The film emerged from workshops and scenes, edited in parallel. The kids had no idea they were even part of a film. Entirely true or not, this endearing little experiment pays off handsomely.
Rating: 3.5 stars