It’s been a while since Marathi cinema came of age, but it reiterated its maturity with its willingness to tackle a tricky subject like sex education for teenagers. Balak Palak is Marathi for children and parents but the initials BP could just as well stand for Blue Picture, the means that four teenagers in a Mumbai chawl, the one-time bastion of conservative middle-class domicile, employ to enlighten themselves on a subject that is stirring their interest.
The film starts with a man who loses his temper on discovering porn stash belonging to Shlok, his 11-year-old son. Even as the poor kid gets soundly thrashed, his mother reminds her husband, Avya, to understand, not punish, the child’s curiosity. Cut to a group of fast friends, boys Avya and Bhagya, and girls Dolly and Chiu, on the last day of their school exams. Bursting with expectations for the upcoming Diwali vacations, they return home to find their chawl caught up in a strange hullabaloo. Jyoti tai (Marathi for sister) and her family are leaving the chawl out of disgrace. The children overhear Pednekar kakoo, the neighbourhood gossip, declaring that those who eat shenn (literally Marathi for eating cowdung) deserve such treatment. Unaware of what the phrase means, the children make the discovery of the meaning the goal of their Diwali holidays. When the dictionary fails to yield the answer and their parents angrily brush their questions aside or slap them for daring to ask, they contact Vishu, a no-good under-privileged classmate of theirs whose circumstances have exposed him at a very early age to the knowledge they seek. Vishu happily assumes the mantle of a guru, offering to initiate them into the intricacies of what he refers to as dhichuk-dhichuk. They start by reading cheap editions of pornographic literature, then graduate to hovering outside the windows of newly married couples. When both methods fail, leaving them with only the faintest idea of what constitutes dhichuk-dhichuk, Vishu tells them there is only one way to get all the answers they seek. They must view a BP to complete their education. I took the trouble of looking up the meaning of Susangati Sada Ghado, a beautiful song to whose rousing rendition the quartet hustle about the important task of collecting Rs 115, the cost of hiring a VCR, the device that revolutionised home movie viewing in the 1980s, and its partner, the video cassette. The song invites children to keep good company, to listen to kind words and eschew impure thoughts, to never use their hands to do something that would defile their character. As the song builds up to a crescendo, the visuals of the film show the Five ‘Find-Outers’ reaching the climax of the evocatively named, Raat rani ki shaitani. The tryst with the forbidden knowledge alters their beautiful friendship forever and changes the innocent equations between them. As they try to come to terms with the sudden awareness of their sexuality, Bhagya develops a crush on Neha, a collegian residing in their chawl, who has always been a ‘tai’ to them. Avya meanwhile imagines himself in love with Chiu. The film offers a visually delightful look at life in the chawl, the sense of community that it represented, where doors remained open throughout the day and, whether for good or for ill, people considered their neighbour’s business their own. The chawl, which serves as a microcosm of society, is filled with its share of characters peddling sexist attitudes, reinforcing the myth that you are a bad girl if you dress in a certain way. There were several moments during which the entire audience burst out laughing spontaneously, particularly when Vishu, using a geometric compass, etches the name of Sampada, the girl he loves, across his forearm. Unfortunately, spellings aren’t his strength, and so Sampada begins to look like Sanpada, a suburb in Navi Mumbai. Later Vishu advises Avya to love Dolly instead of Chiu because ‘Doli’ is easier to spell. The imagined dance sequences, once a staple of Bollywood films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, offer a glimpse of the mindsets of the teenagers, as they seek to navigate tricky terrain through an imitation of what they see on the big screen. Incidentally, the film is set in the mid-1980s. The sub-titles are superb, enabling even non-Marathi speakers to relate to the film completely. The film makes a case for adolescents, who are driven by their curiosity to ask questions that make their parents uncomfortable. And yet those parents were once children themselves, but have forgotten what it once meant to have hormones raging, and to see the whole world differently. At one point, Kaka Kadam, a strict yet paternalistic figure whose kids have flown the coop, observes the behaviour of the foursome. He attempts to warn Avya’s father and later Bhagya’s, both of whom fail to recognise that their children are growing and that they might now need to alter their parenting frameworks and gain their children’s friendship. Another time, when Dolly’s mother hazards the suggestion that they could consider answering their children’s questions, she is ticked off by the other parents. In the end, Shlok’s father speaks to his wife about the need to find the Vishu among their son’s friends. She wisely tells him that today’s kids carry their Vishu everywhere with them, in the form of DVDs, CDs and the Internet. It was a masterfully written line, which caused an oh-so-wee upheaval in my heart. Am I prepared for when the questions start popping in La Niña’s and El Niño’s minds? She adds that when the quartet was grappling with the great mystery, they were 13; their son is 11. Strangely, she says, over so many decades, curiosity only became two years younger. At the rate at which Vishu has pervaded our lives, I wonder how much younger curiosity will get by the time today’s generation of little kids grows up. My only grouse was that Shlok’s father, the Avya of the flashback, so quickly accepted the error of his position. Having built up so beautifully, the ending of the film was a little too pat and dry. Aside from that minor quibble, kudos to the crew for fantastic direction, acting, characterisation, music, lyrics and cinematography. And above all, for bringing up an important message without sounding preachy.