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High school chronicles
Bollywood teen movies rarely have the courage to talk about coming-of-age angst. Sonam Nair's 'Gippi' may be flawed but it does not flinch from talking about the brutally lookist world of young adults.
Ever since Gippi - a tween comedy from the house of Karan Johar - opened last week, its director Sonam Nair has been inundated with compliments. The best among which were those from young adults, the film's target audience. "Quite a few of them said they felt better about themselves after watching Gippi, " says Nair, referring to the teen issues that the film sought to capture.
The story of Gippi couldn't be more familiar - it's happening all around us. Its protagonist is a 14-yearold girl, a child as well as a young adult. The film observes her as she navigates her way through hormonal changes, and negotiates the twists and turns of teenage. But in a classic high school archetype, she learns to accept herself well before the last bell.
That's the rough sketch of Gippi. But the real twist lies in the central dilemma of her life - her weight issues. Plump Gippi is mocked by other kids and her body issues have shattered her self-confidence. Nair feels Gippi's problems are relatable. "Most teenagers are facing these issues, " she says. A belly bulge almost immediately marks you as a misfit in teen circles. Being thin, on the other hand, is a sign of social power and acceptance. Modern teen tropes have reflected this reality, with every film in this genre typically addressing one or all of these FAQs: "Am I looking good?" "Am I being loved?" "What do my peers think of me?"
Gippi is a stand-in for Nair, who had to grapple with body image issues as a teen herself. "I was fat, " she says, "and the pressure to be thin was high. You know, how mean and brutal kids can be in school. They used to bully me. " Adds Nair who grew up in Rishra, an industrial town near Kolkata: "I can't imagine what kind of torture it must be for kids in cities where you are expected to be even more perfect. "
Gippi doesn't hold a candle to classics of the genre like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, Election, Terri, Mean Girls. What makes it unusual, though, is that Bollywood doesn't revisit classrooms that often. Recently, Karan Johar did do Student of the Year but the classrooms seemed photo-shopped and the actors looked like Baywatch models attending college for fun. It's thus a surprise seeing Johar's name in the credits of Gippi.
"Gippi is a courageous effort, " says filmmaker Amole Gupte. "How many movies do you see which put an overweight girl at the centre of their plot?" Director of Stanley Ka Dabba, Gupte has spent a lifetime dealing with children, conducting workshops and initiatives for his "young friends".
Gupte agrees that the high school genre is largely under-explored in Hindi films. First, he says, because we are slaves to the star system. "We haven't changed our Khans in the last 25 years. The A-listers are all touching 50 and you are expecting a film about a 15-year-old ? It's impossible. The Khans will continue to go to college, " says Gupte, clearly hinting at Aamir Khan being palmed off on audiences as an engineering student in 3 Idiots. The director rates Udaan as a great portrait of teen angst.
In America, the high school genre has for long been a box-office cash cow. Directors like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe kept the genre fresh and alive. Here, we have barely scratched the surface. It's all inescapably linked to demographics, says Elahe Hiptoola, producer of Rockford, a 1999 manifesto of boarding school adventures.
"Watching a film about campus days is like reliving youth in the USA. In India, we make films for an audience looking for escape. The front benchers do not really associate themselves with school/college stories. What memories are we tapping into, then?" she asks.
What works then? Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar plays out like an endearing romance than a nuanced, coming-ofage story. Main Hoon Na was a travesty of the genre. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was fluff. So, what are you left with? Always Kabhi Kabhi, as one critic said disparagingly, was like "attending a concert put up by ten-yearolds". Kitaab, Taare Zameen Par and Stanley Ka Dabba - all terrific accounts of school life - do not technically count because Babla, Ishaan Awasthi and Stanley are still a few critical years away from adolescence. Ages ago, there was Hrishikesh Mukherjee's wonderfully warm-hearted Guddi about a young girl's crush on a movie star.
In 1999, Nagesh Kukunoor made a film on the male teenage fantasy in Rockford. Starring a bunch of school kids, Rockford is an absorbing yarn of friendship and mischief set in an all-boys' boarding school. But, says Hiptoola, a teen film can reach out to adults as well. "Rockford was a story about children - for adults, " she says.
"Look at Iranian films, " says Hiptoola. "They retain the emotions, innocence, precociousness and curiosities of kids. Here, we try to make them what they are not. " John Hughes' memorable words could do well to remind us that Sweet 16 is actually an age of awakenings and discoveries. "People forget that when you're 16, you're probably more serious than you'll ever be again, " he once remarked.
Few writers and directors treat teenagers with such seriousness. The situation will change only when sharp stories are written about the growing-up experience. Talking of The 400 Blows, a definitive bildungsroman about a 12-year-old delinquent's descent into crime, French director Fran?ois Truffaut had said in an interview to The New Yorker: "One central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about 'the good old days', the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories. '
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