Right within the first few minutes of the film, Babar Naam Gandhiji manages to do something that contemporary Bengali Cinema inevitably fails to achieve. Moving the camera in, out and around the narrow lanes and by lanes, crowded streets, sun burnt riverbanks, dilapidated rooms in the slums and shanties, the film succeeds in carefully constructing the milieu for the narrative to unfold. It is indeed refreshing to see outdoors being explored in a Bengali film, which has almost become synonymous with chamber dramas with soap opera aesthetics!
And then there is the merry band of street urchins, a dynamic pack led by charismatic Kencho, the protagonist, played beyond perfection by newcomer Surajit Mukherjee. The plot deals with his daily antics and how a particular turn of events leads him to believe that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, is indeed his father. Such tall claim inevitably leads to taunts and jibes from many quarters and especially from one Bidyadhar Swami (Koushik Sen) who is a teacher in an eminent convent school and a particularly mean piece of work. Consequently, Kencho takes it up as a challenge to study and get admitted in his school.
The film somewhat suffers from a loose screenplay which often strays and rambles with certain characters and situations including the Good Samaritan’s (Parambrata Chatterjee) personal life and the evil local councilor and his goons, becoming completely redundant to the main focus of the narrative. And even in terms of cinematic communication, particularly the sound department, the film appears to be under planned. Resorting to background music when it comes to underline emotions seems to have become a staple for Bengali films! But every time the film slumps, Surajit Mukherjee comes to the rescue carrying even the dullest of scenes on his little but firm shoulders. This little actor is apparently endowed with the natural ability and flair usually found in the most seasoned movie stars. It is a riot to watch him do a jig or throw his one-liners; it is in fact even delightful to watch him sit quietly, lost in thought or maybe smiling a little!
But the film’s biggest drawback unfortunately lies in the message itself. Throughout his search for a father’s name, nobody raised the question why! There was no critique of the system that requires the name of the father to ensure the education for an abandoned orphan child even in a 21st century democratic state! And with all the talks about the life and work of Gandhiji, borrowed heavily from the Munnabhai films by Rajkumar Hirani, education was not perceived as enlightenment but reception of discourse from an institution meant exclusively for the rich and elite. Why is a convent school considered to be the Holy Grail of education? And finally, it is only through the benevolence of the powerful (the Almighty principal and his magical clout) that the underprivileged can have access to the education! The film’s feudal-patriarchal spirit is an abomination in a modern context!
On the surface, a socially conscious film dealing with the subject of education for the underprivileged children is indeed commendable. But unfortunately these films inevitably tend to fall into the trap of what can be called the Steven Spielberg syndrome, which is dealing with significant socio-historical issues, diluting them down for easy audience consumption and providing a tailor made solution in order to escape any kind of historical responsibility. Case in point, Schindler’s List, which tried to state that if only a benevolent German Capitalist had another piece of gold jewelry, Holocaust could’ve been averted! That easy…huh!?
Arup Ratan Samajdar