Set in the deserts of Rajasthan, director Mangesh Hadawale's Dekh Indian Circus tells the story of a village mother determined to take her excited children to the circus that has arrived at a nearby town, despite scarcely having the means to afford the tickets.
Recently screened at the BFI as part of the London Indian Film Festival, Dekh Indian Circus had high expectations to live up to, having just won the Audience Award at the Pusan International Film Festival. Although it may not live up to these expectations, it still carries the fun of a Disney film, the warmth of a Karan Johar production, but the soul of a true indie with a powerful message on Indian politics. Unfortunately, like the similar Peepli Live, the tone plays unevenly, with moments of light comedy and adventure intercut with not-so-subtle polemics on the political system.
On the most part, Dekh Indian Circus manages to escape the trap of ‘poverty porn’ that has fallen prey to so many festival films before it, wonderfully capturing the resilience of a family trying their best to provide their children with the life and experiences that they could never have. It’s a wish that any parent in the world can empathise with, regardless of their background, and if the film had focused on this aspect, it could have been all the more stronger. It hits its stride best when following the plight of Kajro (the amazingly versatile Tannishtha Chatterjee) to take her children to the circus, but this is unfortunately short-lived. The character of Jethu, the mute patriarch of the family superbly played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Gangs of Wasseypur, Kahaani), is also heavily underused, and the viewer is left wanting for him to make a return once they arrive at their destination.
The characters are all well-rounded and fantastically acted, and special kudos must go to Hadawale for acquiring such groundbreaking performances from child actors Virendra Singh Rathod and Suhani Oza as children Ghumroo and Panni. It’s just unfortunate that it’s not apparent whose journey we are following, with the story feeling like a baton passed from father to mother to son – the film initially follows Jethu as he ekes out a living for his family, switching to Kajro’s plight to take her children to see the ‘Lamboorakaka’ (Bambooman), finally ending at the circus with Ghumroo’s efforts to bring his mother inside. Of course, one could argue that this is a metaphor for the ‘circus of life’ but it lessens the strength of the film as a whole.
The film looks beautiful, successfully capturing the landscape of Rajasthan in all its glory without overselling it. It is telling that Hadawale actually hails from Rajuri, a small village in the west of Maharashtra, helping give a realistic portrayal of the environment. The musical score by Wayne Sharpe also gives much to admire, well matched to the warm cinematography on display.
Where Dekh Indian Circus scores the highest points however is in its characters. In a world filled with the glossy yet wooden cut-outs of commercial Indian Cinema, and the characters of arthouse cinema who seldom carry any redeemable features, Hadawale’s film not only features a strong female lead (a rarity if there is one!), but gives each and every character qualities to empathise with. You want to spend time with these characters and follow them on their journey, and you yearn for them all to be able to see the circus together. This feeling stays with you up to the very end of the film, but once the ending does come, the viewer is left in wonder on what Hadawale is trying to say.
According to the title song, life is but a “ticketless circus” of “empty promises” and “hungry smiles”. If this is what Hadawale was getting at, he should have remembered that circuses often finish with a grand finale, not a Powerpoint presentation. However, the film is definitely to be congratulated on the insight it gives into the difficulties of poor Indian villagers without once embracing the violin of melodrama, but one wishes that Hadawale had remained subtler with his political message. Dekh Indian Circus shows great promise for the four primary actors and especially director Mangesh Hadawale – definitely one to look out for.