Critics are raving about 10-year-old Partho who plays the lead in 'Stanley ka Dabba'. The film is directed by Amole Gupte, earlier known as the writer and creative director of 'Taare Zameen Par'. The father and son are here in conversation with Consulting Editor Anna M M Vetticad.
All right Partho, how have your friends reacted to ‘Stanley ka Dabba’?
Partho: Many of them have said they liked it a lot. Some friends who I would expect would say no to the film also said yes, so it was a surprise for me.
Why did you think some of your friends are the kinds who would not like the film?
Partho: You know, there are some of my friends who are very like emotional, soft, who can understand the film. And others, I thought they’ll think of the film something else only. Like they see all these weird comedy movies, so I didn’t know they would understand it so well. I thought they would say, “Aye, mazaa nahi aaya.” But they were laughing on the comedy parts, I didn’t know that.
Amole, at what point did you decide that you want to cast Partho in this film?
Amole: There was no confusion in my head at any point. Because I’d not promised myself a film this time. It was a workshop, it was understand cinema sessions at Holy Family High School. I had studied in that school which is why I took the workshop there. Partho has been with children with physical and mental challenges, with financial challenges, so he’s been a part of the sensitised zone. Therefore he knew Stanley like the back of his hand because he also does sessions with me in the non-privileged sector of children, the municipal schools.
I must point out that our workshop for ‘Stanley’ was only a Saturday exercise, and only for four hours in the morning with two recesses built in. We’re trying to enforce some amount of reality logistically, that when you’re filming children, you can do it benevolently. You need not have a 12-14 hour rubbish shift, and you need not cash cow them in reality shows and films and advertising films. There was no light used. The children were kind of instinctive. They were not getting into a shooting space, they were in their own space.
Amole: No make-up, no styling, no nothing for the children. As is where is. Their own uniforms.
Is this the reason why you didn’t want Partho to give any interviews in advance?
Amole: Ya, because I don’t want to put him up. Because you have asked for it, I don’t want to act snooty about it you know, but truthfully I would not like a child to kind of grow out of there. Let him be there. I think it’s very necessary to preserve that childhood.
But when the kids in Holy Family knew they were going to be in a film, were they disappointed that there wouldn’t be make-up and lights? Because you know, that’s the expectation about films, that there will be all these glamorous things involved.
Partho: Actually, the truth was that none of them knew it was a film. Even me, till it was finished. Dad just told them that in every workshop we just have this camera to remind you that you are in this workshop. When the film was done, Dad suddenly said, “It was a film.” So all of them were like, really shocked. But none of them were like, it was the other way round, they were happy that they didn’t have to put make-up.
Why? Would they have found it weird if they had to put on make-up?
Partho: Ya, boys will find it weird to put make-up. Boys aren’t used to all that kaajal-vaajal, foundation and all, it will look weird na? So they were toh very happy.
In your own life, have you had experiences that have been similar to Stanley’s?
Partho: See, actually, Stanley and me are one. We aren’t separate, only for one quality, that is innocence. I tell stories, stories is a part of acting. I tell stories in class regularly if I don’t do my homework, if I’m late to school, it’s usual. Stanley eats from other’s dabbas, when I’m bored of my food I eat from other’s dabbas. But Stanley has a certain innocence with which he does everything. I don’t think I have that.
You’re not innocent?
Partho: (Clicks his tongue) No.
Why do you feel that way?
Partho: Generally, because, suppose sometimes … okay this happens always, whenever the school bell rings, if I’m still out of my school I should be running in, but I walk. I don’t think Stanley would do that at all, from what I know of him.
Why do you say that’s a lack of innocence? Maybe you are being a little lazy?
Partho: Ya, even I guess so. It’s time I stopped being lazy. I think so.
How old are you now?
Partho: Now I’m 10, and in the 6th standard I’ve decided I’m gonna be in the students’ council.
So are you in Class 5 now?
Partho: No, now I’m going to Class 6. I’ll try my best to be in the students’ council?
So if you want to be in the students’ council you have to stop doing things like walking slowly when the school bell has rung?
Partho: Ya, you have to be good.
Amole, you haven’t let it be widely known that Partho is your son. Why is that?
Amole: Ya, otherwise we’ll miss the point. Every time we cash cow a film for its tasty peg, “Oh this guy is this guy’s son.” It’s not important. What the child is doing in the film is more important than whether he’s related to me or not. (laughs).
When you were saying you didn’t want him to do interviews, and the children didn’t know it was a film until the shooting was over, were you concerned about protecting their innocence?
Amole: That is the truth. In fact I’ve counseled with the parents and children alag se, that please if there is an opportunity coming your child’s way, please take it up. But the opportunity should be child-friendly, it should be on a free day. I’ve invested my time and energy in trying to enforce this. Not a single child among the 500 children has lost a single day of school. This is unheard of. When I started this workshop and I said that perhaps it would become a film, there were friends who were laughing at the logistics. Now that it’s over, they’re taking cognizance of it. Because that is the political correctness of being with a child, that is the bigger story actually, that there are reality shows which are cash cowing children, parents are pushing them forward regardless of the time frame, children are waiting for 12-14 hours for their turn to come to become little wonders in this nation, and parents are putting them right up there in the front. One little opportunity to shine and show the neighbours your little baby is driving people completely crazy in overdrive.
But then it’s a bit of a dilemma for the parent of a child who, for instance, is talented enough to be in an Olympic sport...
Amole: It’s not about the parents. It’s about the system. There are parents in the US also who have hugely talented children, but if there is a child on a show, there are rules, that you can’t shoot more than five hours with a child, the child should not lose school time. It’s not about academics, it’s about the bonding with same-age children. You cannot provide that on a film set where a child is playing a son or a daughter and they’re all the time with adults. And their time might come whenever the lighting happens. I didn’t have lighting in my film. I shot with a little 7D camera which is a still camera. So the children could move around freely. They were not waiting on us, we were waiting on them. Normally children keep waiting on adults, ‘arrey lighting ho raha hai, yeh ho raha hai, arrey wait karo’. They get fried, ya. So these political processes need to get augmented in our nation. You have an Animal Welfare Board person mandatorily sitting if there is an animal in your film. But there is nobody to supervise children and their usage. And then we talk about child labour. Our entire media is responsible for all these little wonder shows. What happens after that? How is the reality show working? Is it working on the child’s ability? No, it’s working on the child’s defeat because then he or she will cry and the parents will cry, and the cameras will keep licking those wounds and that is where the show is. It’s not a simple Bournvita Quiz contest from 40 years ago.
What is the difference though? We participated in quizzes and things like that as children. For a parent of today, I suppose the next step would be sending the kid to a TV reality show because the kid can’t get that kind of visibility in an inter-school show. Isn’t that a dilemma for a parent?
Amole: Of course that’s a dilemma. I’m with the parents. I’m saying, change the rules. If you have a five hour show which is comfortable for the child, then damn good, why don’t you show off your talent. But I’ve seen the reality. So I said, the best way is to put your money where your mouth is. You enforce it for yourself, and let people feed off it. Let there be an example, then it depends on the person or a fraternity, whether they want to follow it or not.
A system can correct some things. But what if a parent were to realise that their child is good enough to be in an Olympic sport. That requires much more than just a controlled 3/4/5/ hours. It might require the child to leave school. Is a parent being unfair or is a parent doing what a child might be grateful for when s/he grows up?
Amole: I have no esteem for a father or a mother who is a power freak in order to make a child shine, make the child go through what the Williams sisters went through if one is talking about tennis. I wouldn’t. You have one life and in that one life you have one childhood. I don’t know how good it is to make a child slog in order to see some great achievement which is going to be in the annals of history. I don’t know whether that barter is a very profitable barter for the child while the child is a child. Later of course you’re going to sing paeans in honour of your father who saw the talent in you and honed you and this and that. But what about the precious childhood which is going to last only up to 12 before you start your teens?
All right Partho, if nobody in the school knew that this was going to be a film, and after the workshop was over some boy had said he doesn’t want to be a part of a film, what would you have done?
Amole: That question should be for me.
No, let Partho answer.
Amole: That question is for an adult ya.
Partho: Frankly, after all the shoot, at the end of the whole film, if the boy would have said, I don’t want to be in a film, man I would have slapped him. Seriously.
How about yourself? At the end of that long workshop, when you discovered that you had actually been shooting for a film, were you happy or were you confused about whether you want to be part of a film or not?
Partho : I was happy about it.
Do you realise that now everyone will start recognising you? Life might change a lot. Are you comfortable with that?
Partho: Mixed feelings. I’m not too comfortable, I’m not too uncomfortable. I’m frankly, you know mixed. Because if this film is a hit, it will not only be good for me but it will be really good for Dad, because Dad will be really happy that he actually made this workshop into a film.
When Dad said he was making a film from what we did in the workshop, I was wacked out of my, like I got scared man. I said, “Dad, for so much time you never told me?” Today I understood that if Dad had told me and my friends, it would have made an effect on our performances. We would have faked it.
Faked it? But then, while the workshop was on, you were still acting right? Why do you feel…
Amole: You are not getting the point, Anna. You’re not getting the point he’s trying to make here. He’s saying, loaded with the burden of a film responsibility, children would have faked their enactment because they would be complexed by the nature of a film being made vis a vis ...
I do get the point, Amole. I’m keen to get it in his words.
Amole: No that’s what he was saying. He’s already said it.
No, I was going to ask him another question. Partho, you were acting in the workshop, right? Why would it have been different if you had realised those cameras were for a film?
Partho: Because, see, everybody has seen films and TV serials. Now, these children na were like small. We were all in fourth standard. So now if dad had told us, “Suno bachcho, yeh film hai”, everybody would have faked it, they would have completely faked it, they wouldn’t have naturally thought about the scene. They would have, like you know in some of the TV serials how they act? Like that they would have acted. Then it would have not looked nice, would it?
Did you boys discuss these things amongst yourselves when you discovered that what you did in the workshop was being turned into a film?
Ya, when we came to know, it was in the end, completely completely after the last scene. Dad shouted “Wrap”, then the next day he called us in our normal clothes ha. And then he told us, “Bachchon yeh ek film hai.” Then we all were like surprised, we were shocked, so we ran down all of us, we asked Dad if we could play. Then after playing we like made a gang together and we were all discussing, then many of the boys said, “Mujhe pata tha ek film hoga” but I know that they didn’t know it was a film because it was very surprising. You saw the camera on which it was shot? Very small camera. They normally shoot on those huge huge cameras.
Did you feel sad for Stanley?
Partho: Ya, we went to that hotel called Crystal. It was a damn, very dirty place. So, when there were photos of Stanley’s parents, naturally I felt bad because he’s a child who doesn’t have parents and upar se his sir and miss also shouts at him, and when he comes home his chacha who is the owner of the hotel also slaps him. What could be worse than that? And he doesn’t get food also. Now what could be worse than that? So I felt very bad for him.
Do you want to become an actor when you grow up or have you even thought about this?
Partho: Ya, I’ve thought about this. But I think this is not the right age to become an actor. I’ll just do one more film and I’ll stop, and I’ll start acting directly when I’m 18 or 19.
You’ve decided you want to do one more film and then we’ll see you as an adult?
Partho: Ya, I want to do Dad’s new film but I can’t reveal the title.
Okay Amole, Partho’s amazing in ‘Stanley ka Dabba’. Once people see the film obviously there will be other offers. How will you handle that?
Amole: One is not there to handle it or not. Because that option doesn’t arise for us.
You’re very clear in your mind about that?
Amole: Completely and 100%
But what if he tells you that he’s tempted?
Amole: No, it’s not about his temptation. It is about reasoning it out with him ki he cannot miss a single day of school. If it’s in the vacation, and if it’s in a convenient place and time that it does not start at 3 in the morning, and it is in the morning time where he’s fresh and comfortable, then one can give it a thought so as not to override all arguments which he places. If that argument is sturdy enough, then of course as a family we’ll think about it. But I don’t think he’s up for grabs.
In the past whenever I’ve interviewed child actors, their parents have always specified that the serials they’re doing, or the films they’re working on were shot during the summer holidays and all that …
Amole: But those timings will again be 12 hours, no? Whether it’s summer holidays or winter holidays, the shift cannot be 12 hours.
Is there no film or serial that you’re aware of in which they’re shooting with children and they’re being more humane about it?
Amole: Not to my awareness, not that I’ve researched about it too much.
Amole, with ‘Taare Zameen Par’ did you insist on just four hours a day of shooting with the children, and the other things you are talking about right now? (Amole Gupte was supposed to be the director of TZP before producer Aamir Khan took over that job.)
Amole: No, I had no powers to say that because I was not the producer. I have enforced it now because I’m the producer of ‘Stanley ka Dabba’. I would not like to be judgmental and be unfair to other people. I’m not talking about what other people are doing here. I’m saying, let me do it and if somebody wants to follow my example, then they may.
One of the questions I had for you once I watched ‘Stanley ka Dabba’ was: you know the kids are all very sweet, but children in schools are not uniformly sweet. There are children who can be extremely nasty and make personal remarks. With a boy like Stanley who comes to school with marks on his face, doesn’t bring tiffin and so on, how come not a single kid in the class was mean to him or bullied him?
Amole: Maybe there might have been those bullies, and they might have made those remarks, but that’s not part of this film. We’re talking about children’s bonding. We’re not going into a microscopic slide of what happens in a class. At the end of the day one wants to tell a story about children’s bonding, and an adult who does not look at children as children was for me a better device than finding a nasty child among them. It would have unnecessarily sullied a child actor who had to do things which are not good to do for the camera. I’m not trying to give you a slice of life. ‘Stanley ka Dabba’ is a screenplay which is talking about the movement of a spirited child despite his background.
But Stanley feels like a real kid. So would it not have been more real if, just like there were some great kids in the class who were being so kind to him, there were also…
Amole: No, that would be your film then, not my film.
Okay so you’re saying that there might have been such children in that class?
Amole: There’s a certain positivity about children Anna, that I’m talking about. It is so important to keep the esteem of the children and the positivity as an example, so in that if I sully a child character who is nasty, how would it help my storyline is what I’m asking you?
It would feel more real. Because everything else in your film felt real.
But these kids wouldn’t be nasty to Stanley because he’s a hero. He’s shining bright, and if somebody is not good to him, there’s a ratio of it you know so why bring it out unnecessarily in a story like this. I’m trying to celebrate the goodness in children. If I put in a slice of life of a nasty child that’s another story.
Okay, so Partho, would you find it funny if I say you could become a star with ‘Stanley ka Dabba’?
Partho: Ya, I find it a bit weird and funny. Because I’ve just done a workshop, that’s the truth. This is still not exactly a film for me, so being called a star would be too much.
Who’s your favourite star in the Hindi film industry right now?
Partho: I like many types of films. I like emotional films, masaledar films, comedy films.
And the actors and actresses you like the most?
Partho : So in masaledar films, the best that anybody any person can do any masaledar film is Salman Khan. He acts too well in those type of films. Emotional films is a bit difficult for me to think because the truth is that the Hindi film industry doesn’t exactly understand emotional films. So in other types of films I like ‘Children of Heaven’, ‘Colours of Paradise’, ‘Majidi’. In Hindi the best types of films you can find is comedy films.
Well, I’m looking forward to your next film after ‘Stanley ka Dabba’. And then I’ll wait for you to turn 18 so that I can see that film also. Okay?
Partho: Okie dokie.
(‘Stanley ka Dabba’ is currently in theatres. Anna M M Vetticad is on Twitter as @annavetticad.)
Click here to read the review of 'Stanley Ka Dabba'.