By Srishti and Tavleen Singh
Content warning: this article contains allusions to child abuse and neglect which may be distressing to some readers
Countless imaginaries within popular culture, across literature and film, capture childhood innocence and unbridled hope. Lacking any inhibitions or fear of judgement, and expressing themselves freely, children reflect a parallel dimension that has not yet been corrupted by the malign forces of the world. A child’s reality is essentially rooted in the support systems they have within their small circle of family and friends. The home, in this regard, is their anchor and the crux around which their identity and sense of self revolves. But what happens when this structure itself is uprooted and spun around on its head? This is a crucial question within the context of India, which has 18 million children that do not currently have a home and are often called ‘street children’.
The paper engages with three films set in India Salaam Bombay! (1998), Chillar Party (2011), and Stanley ka Dabba (2011) and attempts to understand the representations of these children and the ambit within which their vulnerability and marginalization is framed. It looks at how the idea of a ‘home’ is constructed and the plight of homelessness is understood within these depictions. The paper also looks at how the idea of ‘street children’ is normalised, often selectively celebrated through films manifesting as Althusser’s Ideological state apparatus that encourages individuals to imagine in desired ways, their place and relationship within the societies in which they live: desire here navigates subjective and ‘institutional desires’, which interpolates the homeless character, narrative subject and viewer alike. To establish these depictions, the paper draws upon concepts deriving from the Critical Media Literacy Framework created by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). The Literary Framework’s six conceptual understandings help to navigate the nuances presented in the films and inform the critical analysis undertaken by this paper. The framework helps to analyse the context of the film, the various symbols and their usage, the critic’s own position, the politics of representation, the underlying ideologies of the film and it’s engagement with issues of social justice.
The first conceptual premise states that “all information is co-constructed by individuals and/or groups of people who make choices within social contexts.” This is important, since even ‘neutral’ messages within these films are products of complex processes occurring in relation within the dynamic social and political context of India. In the film Chillar Party, the children’s mission of saving the dog from the local minister, a caricature of a goon, although seemingly neutral, nevertheless touches upon red tapism and corruption prevalent in government offices in India. In Stanley ka Dabba, Stanley’s not being able to bring a tiffin to school does not simply constitute a choice undertaken by him or his parents. It is a manifestation of the country’s reality, one that ranks 94th out of 107 countries on the global hunger index, a failed public distribution system of food and compromised implementation of child nutrition. schemes.
The second conceptual understanding is that “each medium has its own language with grammar and semantics”. This is so that one is sensitive to the signs and symbols within the films which allows observation of patterns in the larger goals and agendas of the films. The third concept of positionality allows assessment of critics’ own positions and active reflection on how meaning is negotiated. The fourth conceptual understanding within this schemata relates to the politics of representation. This considers what is typically represented and, often, more importantly, what is omitted in these films (as media texts) as well as the dominant hierarchies of power, privilege, and profit that variously determine this. This is visible when contrasting the approaches taken by Chillar Party, produced under the banner of major companies UTV Motion Pictures and Salman Khan’s Being Human Productions and Stanley ka Dabba, a low budget film undertaken by Amole Gupte who wanted to make a non-mainstream film. The former, limited by its need to make profits must appease to the middle class audience and thus only focuses on their gaze on the poor. The latter finds more space to explore child labour and hunger, questioning the power structures that enable this exploitation.
The fifth conceptual understanding corresponds to determining key (forces around, or in relation to) Institutions and apparati where such determinations help critics analyze the systems that influence the intentions and acts of creators. In turn such analyses allow critics to partly extrapolate the purposes (commercial, governmental and ideological) of media text representations and a text’s correspondence or opposition to these materialist-ideological frames. Mark Fisher in his works talks about the curated idea of capitalism as an ultimate political, economic and cultural system with no alternative to it. This Capitalist Realism has a strong grip on popular culture, education and even one’s mental health in the contemporary world. It creates a pervasive atmosphere that is not limited to ‘art’( in this case, film) but the entire atmosphere leading to it and affected by it ( the audience as well as the subject of the film). The depiction of poverty in Salaam Salaam Bombay!, a film by Mira Nair, an Indian-American film maker who specifically orientates her work towards international audiences, is careful about representation within her characters and actors but arguably still falls prey to exercising the colonial gaze that produces a dimensional conception of the fabric of society in India.
The sixth and final conceptual understanding relates to social justice. Incorporation of this discourse into the critical heuristic serves as a tool for locating and mapping out the struggles, in this case between the ‘homeless children’ and the ones with ‘ideal homes’ that perpetuate or challenge positive and/or negative ideas about people, groups, and issues. As the film Chillar Party progresses, then, depictions of the friendship between the children of seemingly middle-upper middle class families and Fatka, the poor boy, show us how ‘children’ are not a priori strictly directed by the class divide and often look at each other as equals despite interpolations. This pre-political egalitarianism is, however, absent within Fatka’s perspective on himself. On several occasions, he reminds others of his ‘place’ . While the other children were oblivious to the divide, Fatka pointedly has to prove his worth in order to ‘qualify’ for friendship.
India’s financial capital, Mumbai, forms an interesting landscape for various filmmakers and writers . Suketu Mehta in ‘Maximum City’ (2014) traces the religious and political landscapes of the city and Rohinton Mistry in ‘A Fine Balance’ (1995) narrates the experience of being a migrant and understanding what it means to belong within its melting pot of cultures. These accounts weave narratives around the simultaneous and stark contrasts that exist within this dynamic city. From criminal underworlds to the glamorous Indian film industry and from housing some of the world’s richest billionaires in skyscrapers to the temporary tenements of the largest slum, Dharavi, the city is also called the ‘city of dreams’ . In the latter sense this dream quality refers to the individual/collective motivation and what the ideological critical lens associated with Mark Fisher (after Slavoj Zizek) terms ‘dreamwork’ (2009) which explains the phenomena of thousands of rural dwellers flocking to its bustle, looking for a better life but only ending up finding the city’s sidewalks to live on. The mystification of the city as a land of opportunities draws-in mass migration despite crumbling infrastructure and abysmal support systems. Constantly trying to find an inch of space in this city, both literally and metaphorically, there is a need to continuously assert one’s presence without getting lost in the ever changing and ever expanding landscape. The three movies analyzed in this paper are all situated in this context of a city that is bursting at its seams.
Salaam Bombay!, the first film by Mira Nair, produced in 1988 is arguably one of the few Indian Indian films able to encompass the essence of contemporary life on the streets. The plot follows the life of Krishna, who after being left behind by the circus he works at, sets out for Bombay hoping to return to the mother who sold him off to the circus. However, he immediately gets pulled into the city, finding a job at one of the red light areas and navigating the milieu of sex worker, addicts, beggars, petty thieves and crime lords that exists within and define the crevices of these Bombay streets. We see Krishna journey from a naïve boy to finding his identity, even as his life gets entangled with various others constituted by multiple intersections of vulnerability and its narrative situations. The film was conceptualized and written after various discussions with street children and many of the prominent faces in it belong to street children who have undergone some training. Thus the film brings together aspects of documentary form with unsettling stories that are based on lived realities but also involve the viewer sufficiently deeply within the intricate lives of its protagonists that the viewer cannot distance themselves from these stories . In one narrative, Krishna who is fleeing with a girl, is caught by the police and taken to a juvenile home. Intended as a place for reform, the presence of juvenile homes help articulate the necessity of conceiving and constructing ‘safe spaces’ for children in the aftermath of traditional structural failures. However, the film shows the failure of such institutions to achieve this aim and portrays that the ambivalent, deterritorialized freedom associated with the streets is unparalleled.
Chillar Party (2011), named after a common phrase in India used to refer to a group of young friends, represents a more commercial approach to looking at street children. The movie features a group of eight roughly ten year old boys who live in an upper middle class gated housing community in Mumbai, and examines the way their lives change when a young boy, Fatka, is employed to wash the cars of the residents. Fatka is at the receiving end of numerous pranks by the boys. At one instance, their ‘prank’ causes damage and on seeing a grieving Fatka, they begin to question themselves. One of them struggles with understanding whether he is an intrinsically bad person for doing something resulting in the sorrow of others; his mother is quick to brush off his worries by declaring that his very guilt reflects a virtuous nature, essentially absolving him of complicity. This absolution functions as a metaphor for the filmic textic text itself, in that it refuses to engage even superficially with the underlying socio-structural issues around child labour and homelessness. The boys are quick to befriend Fatka, who lives in an old car parked in the community, depicted through a montage of the youngsters dancing and playing while a quirky song runs in the background with the lyrics ‘Ek hi thaali ke chatte batte hai’ (They are all from the same plate’). The focus of the film is solely a celebration of children’s ability to transcend class divides through affective bonds, with the immanent limits of this transcendence inscribed within the narrative structure alongside a more hopeful (even utopian) dimension: in the latter case, this joyfulness is reified or a form of ‘dreamwork’. The surface text valorizes a young child’s working and not going to school, framing this not as a social injustice but rather as a means by which Fatka manifests virtues of independence and fortitude to be enjoyed by the wealthier children and the viewer alike in a form of ‘interpassivity’, referring back to the ideological apparatus or enjoyment through the other . The boys also face some opposition to their friendship as they replicate his language, commonly known as ‘tapori’, a tongue rooted in the urban and masculine ‘street’ of the city. The shock on their parents’ faces to see their upper class children pick up what is considered a language for the poor, is often used as a comedic element throughout the film, emphasized by the background music. The film follows the boys as they take on a politician whose policies could affect Fatka’s dog; the foregrounding of this narrative device obfuscates the discrimination and systemic failures that lead to a child living in such abject poverty and deprivation. In its final scenes, the boys are seen reading from their moral science books on live television, a lesson on ‘helping a friend’ to the politician to force him to change his policies. There is brave and triumphant music as these children save their friend’s dog and in turn emerge as narratively-constructed heroes.
Fatka consequently serves as a kind of mediator, fading away into a well-worn narrative trope of the underclass helping the affluent protagonist/s achieve existential realization through transitional, short-lived proximity. That is, he serves as the one who can redeem the character arcs of those affirmed ideologically as the text’s true heroes and hence as the audience’s point of identification. As they win against the politicians, Fatka remains uneducated and his voice is never heard. The victory lies with the privileged children rescuing his dog in order for the social-ideological order to be restored through Fatka’s return to his reified place within the scheme of things, living in the dilapidated car. This defines the limited extent to which the upper class can allow those beneath to dream, in essence only till the reins of power remain with them.
Perhaps one of the more sensitive approaches to depicting these social inequalities is that adopted by Stanley ka Dabba (Stanley’s Tiffin Box) made by Amole Gupte, who borrowed money from friends to create a low budget story. He introduces the viewer to Stanley, a fourth grader equal to any of his classmates in feistiness, with the key difference being that he is pointedly never depicted as bringing a tiffin to school. While the film does not reveal the reason behind this till the end, the idea of a home is reflected in these tiffins, with various shots across the movie being used to juxtapose, through music and framing, (a) the figurative love and warmth that is packed along with the food into these little boxes, and (b) the longing with which Stanley’s gaze craves them. Set against this desire are shots of Stanley drinking water to, the film implies, keep himself full. Stanley is shown as a child who is exceptionally talented and has a curiosity for everything that inspires adoration and support from certain teachers, even as some teachers target him for not following conventional approaches to set social interactions. A unique project for his science class, using live models with fishes to generate electricity, gets him a chocolate from his English teacher but is thrown out by his more-orthodox science teacher who wants the students to submit a written assignment. Stanley has close friends, who help him at various junctures in the film, but the focus of the film does not shift from that of its young protagonist. Once the audience forms a bond with him and starts feeling all his emotions as their own, whether it is the palpable positive affect upon seeing his teacher or his pride at performing in the school functions, the viewer is gradually made privy to the hidden trials of his life beyond school, thus retroactively modulating earlier sequences and casting them in a new light. He lives in a small restaurant owned by his uncle, working as a waiter and washing the dishes, then cleaning up and sleeping on one of the tables when the day’s work is over. As Stanley lights a small candle in front of the photographs of his dead parents, statistics of the percentage of child labour in the country are shown, along with a clarion call to notify authorities and report instances of such labour. This revelation in the climax, a crucial disclosure of trials and tribulations in the life of Stanley, a character the audience is now emotionally attached to, is particularly striking: the spectator is now made conscious of the fact that these dire statistics are not mere numbers; rather, each of those constitutes a life with potential and affective substance . This confronts structural issues which curb, although do not fully negate, autonomous subjectivity in addition to expressing themselves as a specific infringement against a childhood whose normative standards are allegorised by those children not subject to the more severe impacts of capital. The audience must reflect upon the wider social phenomenon and question the problems they have been turning a blind eye to by dissociation.
The three films show that a childhood without a home is a childhood lacking substance. The normative is established here through contrast, with the lives of other children as well as through isolated moments of longing and isolation of the homeless protagonist. Salaam Bombay’s Krishna has to navigate the complexities of the city’s neglected and oppressed population, engage in petty crime himself and witness hardships throughout. His is a story of despair and hopelessness. Chillar Party’s Fatka has to soothe himself to sleep and must give up his dream of achieving an education in favour of washing cars. Stanley in Stanley ka Dabba perhaps retains a large part of his childlike innocence, but even then he has to grow wise beyond his years as he fabricates stories of his parents and does his duties diligently while still going to school. In the latter case, a split subjectivity is formed, albeit with gaps or glitches emerging from within the narrative ideology of interstitial shots and Stanley’s enigmatic (later hermeneutically decoded as poverty-fuelled) gestures: Stanley presents a minimally divergent, performance of normal childhood subjectivity whilst being secretly subject to structural and actual violence (beatings from his uncle) within in spaces outside of school’s protection.
At one level these different representations attempt to capture vulnerability and marginalization in varying degrees of affective intensity and relative autonomy as well as within varied urban spheres. Nevertheless, the unifying thread tying them is a lack of perceptual juxtaposition or what Fredric Jameson (1991) terms ‘cognitive mapping’ within the socio-political framework or an attempt to looking at the homeless children as a systemic failure of the state and society rather than depicting isolated children as the subjects of individualised tales . These are not mere childhoods lost, but childhoods snatched away and stripped by concrete exploitation.
This is because whether commercial or offbeat narratives, the audience is presumed to consist of a predominantly middle class or upper middle class milieu, necessitating that the visuals be palatable to these groups in terms of their ‘taste’. This ‘taste’ as described by Bourdieu has an underlying cultural reference, conditioned by cultural factors. This creates the ‘habitus’, a regular behaviour influenced by our social factors that defines what we like, dislike, accept or disapprove of, making us ‘who we are’. This milieu is mostly annoyed and at best, unbothered by the ‘homeless’ outside their own homes but will applaud one – to quote the title of Danny Boyle’s 2008 film about the eponymous rags-to-riches character- ‘slumdog millionaire’ (preferably enclosed in a screen) and ease their guilt. Just as films reflect society, societal understanding is also shaped by the media and the relationship that media has with the pre-existent dialectical narratives where one reinforces the other. The way narratives of children’s homelessness have been curated has allowed the viewers to alienate themselves from the failure of the system and the need for urgent intervention, including the complicity in the gross neglect of an individual’s right to a life of dignity. This procedure of visual interpolation accounts for why, as India witnessed a mass exodus of its urban migrant laborers during the stringent and sudden lockdown to prevent COVID 19, across news channels picturizations consisted of ‘brave’ individuals undertaking the arduous task of walking back. Women with children on their back and meagre belongings on their arms were compared to Goddesses, glorifying their strength as opposed to examining the patriarchal and caste-driven structures that had put them into this position. The migrants who had built the tall structures that the city called home, could not find any place within its rigid boundaries.
Examining society through the lens of the camera has the potential to be a tool for social justice: presently, however, as a means of technological communication and social reproduction (taking up an analytical position similar to that within the cultural studies work of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams) which is the preserve of an elite few, representations will continue to be serve the overt and structural function of appeasing their own egos or alleviating their own guilt through cinematic ‘dreamwork’. In conclusion, with homelessness becoming even more common due to natural calamities, diminishing safety networks and military insurgency across countries, it is crucial that media takes on the responsibility of providing a more holistic coverage of the issues: that is, one that does not shy away from understanding the political nature of it as well as raising audience consciousness of ideological-state operations to a degree which forces them to hold the state, economic structures and their everyday relationship to the above all accountable.
Srishti & Tavleen Singh, “Where Childhood Ceases: Media Representations of the Homeless Street Children of Mumbai, India”, Alluvium, Volume 8, No 3. (2020). n:pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.3.02
About the Authors
Srishti and Tavleen Singh are currently young researchers, pursuing a postgraduate degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Srishti is specialising in women centred practices, with an interest in researching the socialisation of adolescent girls in informal school settings, using Sanskrit, a classical language as a tool, in India. Tavleen Singh is specialising in public health with an interest in understanding experiences of pregnant women during genetic counselling, an emerging field in India. As part of their field work, both the authors have extensively worked with young children living in Children’s Homes in Mumbai.
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