The first month of 2022 is all about children: an oft neglected demographic group, whose interests do not often make it to the high table of culture or policymaking. At long last, however, children in India are now getting the vaccine shot to sail them through the COVID-19 pandemic that has been lashing their lives, wave after wave.
In keeping with the spirit of childhood that needs to be protected, let's dedicate the weekend to some of the finest on-screen iterations of what being a child means.
Abbas Kiarostami's 'Where Is the Friend's Home?' (1987)
This 1987 classic by the celebrated Iranian filmmaker is everything that one needs on a cold winter evening. Heartwarming, simple, and masterfully crafted, this is a hot chocolate of films. It shot Kiarostami to international attention and acclaim.
Kiarostami's cinema is a rich blend of documentary and fiction elements that transition the viewer from their world into that of the characters. He often uses children in the onscreen depiction of his parable-like plots that disarm the viewer with their simplicity. But bubbling underneath this simplicity and everydayness are explorations of human mind and nature, quest for and questions of morality, and a model for our world that yearns for noble deeds and words.
Ahmad, an eight-year-old boy from an Iranian village called Koker, has mistakenly brought home his friend Raza Nehmatzade's notebook. Already having irked the class teacher, Raza risks expulsion if he doesn't appear with his homework done "in the notebook" the next day. Ahmad must rectify his mistake by returning Raza's notebook but this seemingly simple task is made monumental by the very fact that he is but a child.
Ahmad is Ulysses-like in his resolve reach his friend's home. But where is it? The boy's odyssey has tragi-comic elements, all scattered around his everyday existence, and the viewer is forced to root for him.
Babak Ahmadpour as Ahmad has such a set sorrowful of eyes that a look into them is enough to make you fall in love with him and make him your heir. Exaggerations aside, Ahmad's obsessive quest to return the notebook is rendered epic-like through Ahmadpour oozing vulnerability and sincerity in equal measure.
Where to Watch: Mubi
This extraordinary musical from Leos Carax opened the 74th Cannes Film Festival in July 2021 and received extreme reviews. Some raved and some ranted and, eventually, Carax walked away with the Best Director's award.
Over the top and certainly not a crowd-pleaser, the film can frustrate you with its whimsicality, but so does parenting. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play a celebrity couple and parents to a little girl. The eponymous child is the most striking thing about this film that revels in the bizarre and the fabulous. Played by a CGI marionette doll, baby Annette tugs at the viewers' conscience almost every time she appears onscreen.
Annette operates at multiple levels and there is something there for everyone. For serious cinema lovers, the film offers a satisfying exercise of peeling through the layers of intertextuality and self-referentiality. You get glimpses of classic fairytale The Beauty and the Beast, Oscar Wilde's masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray, and several Hollywood and Indian films like Lady Gaga-Bradley Cooper starrer A Star is Born and Amitabh Bachchan-Jaya Bachchan starrer Abhimaan.
The casual viewer will not be disappointed with the grandeur of visuals and sound design. A simple storyline of love, stardom, loss is made complex by crime: real and metaphorical. Adam Driver's in-your-face, almost brute-like physicality is juxtaposed with Marion Cotillard's breezy, almost ethereal, presence. She plays diva to Driver's dude.
Carax has collaborated with Sparks, an American pop and rock duo formed by the Mael brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) to develop Annette. As befits the artificial world of a musical, Driver and Cotillard are seen singing at the oddest of moments and places. Like, in the middle of love-making and on the deck of a sinking yacht. Music is seen as the primeval mode of communication. Obviously, then, the child is bound to inherit this.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime (US), Mubi
Andie MacDowell and Her Daughter Margaret Qualley in 'Maid' (2021)
Streaming on Netflix, Maid is the story of a young mother who has vowed to not let her baby girl suffer a childhood of neglect, uncertainty, and violence. A simple, and pretty basic, parental wish which is not to be, thanks to the broken "system" and an apathetic society that turns its back to the most in need.
The narrative keeps moving back and forth in time to show the adventures of Alex (Margaret Qualley) and her toddler Maddy. Alex chooses her beau over a coveted college acceptance letter and becomes a mother in no time. Maddy's father, Sean, is an alcoholic and picks up fights. That Alex does not get any support from her trailer-park dwelling, hippie artist mother Paula—brilliantly portrayed by Andie MacDowell—does not make things easier for anyone.
The series starts with Alex and Maddy fleeing their home in the middle of the night. The only way Alex can ensure that she and Maddy are safe and independent is by taking up a job as a cleaning maid on extremely exploitative terms. The 'system' is rigged against her and everyone like her.
The beauty of Maid lies in the exploration of the idea of perfect parenthood that is contingent on several factors extraneous to the father or mother figures. It takes a village to raise a child but why does it so often fail the child? Alex's relationship with her manic mother on one hand and with her daughter on the other represent the entire spectrum.
How Alex, the maid—daughter of an artist mother—manages to keep her own daughter's head above water is the essence of the series. The series has enough moments of comic relief just when the narrative begins to get too dark.
Where to Watch: Netflix