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Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan: a child, a donkey and some other stories

Santosh Sivan's Tahaan: A boy with a grenadeSantosh Sivan’s latest film Tahaan: A boy with a grenade will tell the fable of an eight-year-old Kashmiri boy named Tahaan and his struggle to reclaim his pet donkey poignantly named – Birbal. The film stars mainstream actors like Rahul Bose, Anupam Kher and Rahul Khanna; while Purav Bhandare, a boy from Mumbai plays the young protagonist of the movie. The film (earlier tentatively named Dastaan) shot in Kashmir last December, in certain sense marks the return of Indian filmmaker to the subject and the locale of Kashmir. Of course, Santosh Sivan is not new to the subject of Kashmir, remember, he was the cinematographer for Mani Ratnam’s critically acclaimed Roja. Roja may not the kind of movie that I would like to see on the subject of Kashmir but considering that it was made in 1992, a period that marked the peak of militancy in Kashmir – it certainly was a brave attempt at the divisive subject by one of India’s best film director.
In a previous post of mine, I wrote about the subject of remoteness and most obvious trashiness of Indian films made on the subject of Kashmir; in case of Tahaan, a cynical me is itching to scream:
There are no donkeys in Kashmir! Why a Mumbai boy! Why a title like “a boy with a grenade”! What about the Hindi diction!
And after watching the movie, I am sure I could come up with at least hundred more rants. Maybe, I will! I am sure I will have reasons. But, maybe I won’t go up that nutty track.

The Reason:
Somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that Santosh Sivan isn’t new to the genre of Children’s film. I am glad that he has made a children’s film based in Kashmir instead of trying something else (remember his Ashoka. Now, Forget it!). The last children’s film from India that I really liked was Halo (1996) and it made by Santosh Sivan, and I was a child when I saw it so naturally: a good judge of the matter. Set in Bombay (which had recently been renamed Mumbai), the subject of the film was simple: A little girl on discovering that her God sent puppy (that she aptly names – Halo) is missing, gangs up with her neighborhood friends and launches a little search; the film reaches a touching climax when she finds the missing pup and realizes that someone else needs that pup more than she does. Halo is rightly among the best picks from Indian Cinema on and for Children. Santosh Sivan’s next film Malli (1998) told the story of a young girl’s search for a magical blue pill. Now with Tahaan, Sivan again turns his camera toward the domain of children, a domain whose myriad yet simple hues he has the ability to capture well.
Children's film are simple. Or are they!
The world of Children's film is a precious little paradise that is continuously shrinking and may soon be seen only through CGI.
Invariable, children’s films tend to be about things that children love, lose, and then try to get back. Invariable, in these films – at least when they are not about out and out fantasy: a magic coat, a magic conch, a pari, a supernatural friend from space(no not jaadu but Raghuvir Yadav as Trishanku) etc. – a child’s world is centered around: a street pup, a chicken, a croc, an elephant, a goat, a monkey, a parrot, a pony and now – a donkey. Now, Tahaan isn’t the first Children’s film set in Kashmir, the first Indian Children’s film set in Kashmir was 1983 film Kashmira. Incidentally, this film too had a four-legged star: a pony. Made at a time when peace prevailed in Kashmir, this film told the tale of a parentless and destitute young girl named Kashmira who makes a living thanks to her dear pony named Kesari. Kashmira remembers her parents by the trees that they had planted in their lifetime. When young Mohan, whose father is a tree-felling contractor, meets Kashmira, inspired and sorry for his father's profession - he too starts liking trees and plants a tree in the name of her dead mother. The film, directed by Sukhdev Ahluwalia renowned for his Punjabi flicks, starred many local Kashmiri actors and Mohanlal Aima – the original composer of the now famous Kashmiri song Bumbro Bumbro – gave his music to the film. Incidentally, this film too belonged to a four legged actor - the film in its climax sees Keseri chase and capture a Jewel thief.

Didn’t I say, There are no donkeys in Kashmir!’
Every Kashmiri knows that.
Apparently, during the shooting of Tahaan in Kashmir, Santosh Sivan also came to realize that Kashmir is rather more abundant in mules. He wanted two donkeys for shooting the film and they were nowhere to be found; providentially, after much search and with some local assistance, he did manage to find his star donkeys who also had the right attitude for starring in films. Indian Express tells the fascinating story of the making of Tahaan. In the same article it is written that [the story of the film is not] the usual concoction of violence and politics.

Knowing Santosh Sivan – what can a viewer expect from the film?

Expect great cinematography – Kashmir and Sivan both at their best. That beautiful snow song from Roja was never shot in Kashmir, those were not the ‘hasi waadhiya’ of Kashmir and that militant hideout of a village with its strange stony pathways, again certainly wasn’t Kashmir. Now that Sivan has finally managed to take his camera to Kashmir, it would certainly be something special.
What else is there to look forward to in this children’s film.
In the words of Santosh Sivan:
“When I looked through my camera, it was strange, unsettling. There was no violence while we were shooting but I could feel that strange mist of conflict. Kashmir’s beauty looked wounded […]’’
For those who remember Halo well(it did win Best Children's Film Award at the 1996 National Film Festival), the film wasn’t simply a tale of a girl and her lost pup, the shadow of 1993 Bombay riots was always looming subtly in background. In Tahaan, the child’s father is shown to be ‘missing’, missing people is a grim fact of Kashmir, the outcome of now almost 19 year long ‘recent’ Kashmir conflict. In one of the promotional stills released from the film, one can see women and children including Tahaan carrying the placards having the name of the ‘missing’. Something tells me it is not going to be a simple tale of a boy looking for his donkey, it would be tale of a boy with a grenade looking for his lost donkey.

For once, the cynical me can take a long hike in the beautiful mountains of Kashmir.


Some more news on films on Kashmir:

Last year there was talk of Iranian film maestro Majid Majidi making a UTV produced film on Kashmir called Kashmir Afloat. One report said that the film was named ‘Flood-Stricken Kashmir’ and another report said that it was going to be a documentary about boatman of Kashmir. Don’t know where it is heading.
Sudhir Mishra produced Foot Soldier is being shot in Kashmir and may or may not be a children’s film.

Read more about these at The Telegraph

Some more on Children's film:

Critically acclaimed film director Vishal Bharadwaj is another from the dwindling tribe of great filmmaker who continue to make films for children even after experiencing success elsewhere. This seems to be a bit of a tradition in India: great film makers making Children’s film, some of the names of yore that can be recounted are: Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, M.S. Sathyu and Satyen Bose. Names of Vishal Bharadwaj and Santosh Sivan will indeed find great company in that list.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s Makdee(2002), that told the story of a gritty young girl who takes on the might of a ‘witch’, was entertaining enough to count grown-ups among its spellbound audience. More recently, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Blue Umbrella (based on a children’s story by Ruskin Bond) told the story of a young girl growing up in some village in Himachal who acquires a marvelous blue umbrella that soon becomes the subject of envy of a conniving shopkeeper (played out brilliantly by Pankaj Kapur); when the umbrella disappears, she sets to find the thief who stole her dear umbrella.

Children’s films do tend to be about lost and found. I remember a film – whose name and details now escape me – that I saw many-many years ago on Doordarshan (the patron saint of Children’s Cinema and good Indian films of yore). The film was set in some village in the hills of northern India (or maybe it was a Nepali film) and told the story of a boy who finds some priceless gems that were long buried in his farmland and undertakes a perilous journey out to city to try and sell them for his family. It was something like that, rest I forget.

My Previous post on
Missing Children in Popular Hindi Cinema

In Kashmiri:
A Khar is a donkey
A Khachru is a mule
And both of them are used as surname.
A Khar’kal is an idiot
This of course is of used as a surname.
A surname Kher still draws a smirk from a Kashmiri because he knows that the surname is actually Khar. Over the centuries, Kashmiris have perfected the coveted art of converting nicknames into surnames. It isn’t without reason that a Kashmiri Dhar family on relocating to a canal near Allahabad got the family name Nehru. A Kashmiri surname can tells many stories to discerning ears. Most of the times these surnames were nothing but the outcome of extensive jovial (maybe, not always) verbal fencing exercised thorough indulgent name-calling that could be inflicted on a person on account of: his profession, or his great grand father’s profession, his hair, or his lack of hair, or may just dandruff infested hair, his dietary habits, or just his favorite vegetable dish, his village, his district, or maybe the stinky pond next to his house. According to the moral of a famous Kashmiri fable: no matter what you do with the mulberry tree going in your yard - whether you cut it down, bury the stump or dig out the stump - people will always find a new moniker for you; there was no escaping it, and in the end you just accept the new name.
Update (4/8/2008)

If this wasn't enough already. Here's more on Trailer of Tahaan


  1. Surely there are donkeys in Kashmir, otherwise where would they have found one and shoot it??? to quote a wise man "Neither an ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of cinema "

  2. Sanju,
    Thanks for the comment :)
    Of course there are donkeys in Kashmir, how else (as written in the post) would some Kashmiri families have a surname Khar that means 'donkey'.


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