Stanley ka Dabba...warm, succulent, wholesome...BUT yet...

We don’t really come across many “children films” in India.  I believe it was S S Vasan, the old doyen of south Indian cinema and founder of Gemini studios, who once remarked that there cannot be any children’s films.  For children enjoy what we as adults enjoy and perhaps enjoy more. So an average MGR film or a Rajkumar film is as much a children’s film as they are a film for an adult. 

For even if we seek to define a children’s film as a film which has a child or children as its protagonists, would Louise Malle’s Goodbye, Children, a film about a bunch of school kids in world II France be characterized as an children’s film? It would be more appropriate to refer it as an anti-war film. Similarly Vittorio de Seca’s Bicycle Theives which explores through its neo-realism the working class world of post war Italy with a child as one of its central characters can hardly be seen as a children’s film.  But let us not get into such definitions and conceptualizations of what is or what is not a children’s film.  Maybe S S Vasan was right but not in the way he intended.

Let us just say there are on the one hand films which are made with a different feel to help children to heighten their aesthetic sensibility beyond what children get to see in regular films. On the other hand such films also provide adults as well, certain appreciation of the world that children socialize in and how the world which we take for granted can be viewed afresh from a perspective not necessarily that of a child but is sensitive to a child’s well being .  

Stanley ka dabba (SKD) is one such film.  The story is well summarized in Wikipedia thus: “Stanley is a fourth grader who is very popular amongst his friends. He is talented and is liked by his teachers. However, he never brings his lunch box or 'dabba'. Khadoos (miser), as he is popularly called, is a Hindi teacher who does not bring his own dabba but likes to eat others' lunch. Stanley's friends share their lunch with him by hiding from Khadoos. Khadoos eventually finds them on the terrace and warns Stanley to bring his own lunch or stop coming to school. Stanley misses school for a few days and his absence is felt by his teachers and school mates. One fine day, Stanley brings his dabba packed with mouth-watering items for Khadoos. Khadoos realises his mistake and quits the school. Stanley's performance in an inter-school festival is appreciated by everybody. Towards the end, the reason for Stanley's lack of a dabba is revealed.”

The kids in SKD exude charm, spontaneity and innocence. Their effervescence, particularly that of the chief protagonist – Stanley,  is in stark contrast  to the seriousness, stiffness, meanness and maliciousness of its teachers, particularly their Hindi teacher – khadoos as he is referred to with contempt.  The highlight of the film is the way the tiffin box and food as well, emerges as a metaphor at several levels – importantly the love, affection and joy that this box brings and satisfies not just our physical cravings but emotional as well. So in that sense the absence of Stanley’s tiffin box (and the Hindi teacher’s as well) symbolizes the ingredient missing in both Stanley’s and the Hindi teacher’s life. SKD tries to show schools as an important social space for children where the joys of such sharing – not just food but love, knowledge, understanding, observations, collaborations etc and being together can be celebrated. It is in this context that in couple of respects that this film also falls short. 

One could be the film’s inability to draw a more nuanced characterization of the Hindi teacher and giving him the same benefit of doubt as given to Stanley. The caricaturing of khadoos was over the top and showing him as a desperate and gluttonous adult running after kids tiffin boxes was in poor taste. (pun intended)  It is possible to discern that khadoos for all his sternness and meanness was a lost and failed soul and the director could have offered the character a more sympathetic etching. For teaching itself is a failed profession, (certainly seen as one) increasingly marginalized by government policies, management practices and societal attitudes. With no support, made more appalling by poor pay (more so in private schools...and Stanley’s school is a private missionary school ) teachers are desperate trying to legitimize themselves, clinging either to a traditional type of strict disciplinarian or evolving newer teaching practices in times when technology and internet further threatens to render them redundant. So in such a context to demonize khadoos and manipulate the viewers in his derision and lampooning was offensive and infuriating. Though director Anmol Gupte (who also essays the role of khadoos) layers the other teachers more carefully, it does not redeem matters. Khadoos being the other main protagonist, a more thoughtful characterization was required in sync with the larger social context of teachers and teaching. The grace of mother Mary, whose icon permeates many scenes and shots of the film as a leitmotif was needed both for Stanley and khadoos. Our schools fail not just the kids but its teachers too.

The film also perhaps fails to suggest a scenario where if Stanley was not as smart as he is shown to be, would the same social space of school  tolerate and accept a failed Stanley? And if not, would the school then continue to be a desirable social space for children particularly of Stanley's ilk - orphaned, working and in the process brutalized at the work place? The fact of the matter is, schooling is seen as part of our contemporary modern morality, a duty that needs fulfillment. Ergo compulsory institutionalized schooling. But then for many kids schools are dull, dreary and punishing places. More so for someone like Stanley who learns, observes and explores so much, not as much in his school but working in some seedy restaurant as a cleaner. It is this learning which he brings into school that perhaps helps him to relate better to what is otherwise pedantic and textbookish based learning. These insights from work so secured, reassures Stanley and armed with all these he makes full use of the school space exuding charm, confidence and endearing himself to much of his class and teachers. Therefore work has a profound pedagogic value, something that Gandhi recognized. He thus wanted school curriculum to centre around mastering of some craft skills which apart from its pedagogic value would also equip a child with skills that can also provide avenue for gainful employment. It is not so much the fact that child labour is intrinsically bad but it is the conditions of exploitation, poor wages and often physical brutality under which child labour transpires that makes it revolting and hence shocks our conscience. So this means two things - schools should evolve its curriculum in a fashion where labour/work becomes a core/central component of it. Secondly if existing schools with its years of evolved institutional practice cannot accommodate such far reaching changes, then we need to look for non-formal spaces of learning encompassing the work place and evolve a pedagogy that does not stop with provisions of mere literacy and skills. It also needs to provide critical pedagogy which questions the dominant paradigms of knowledge which underpins the way our society with its hierarchies, exploitative power structures continue to dominate and seek alternate visions of a society where not just the exploited, changes her situation but that of the exploiter herself. (Friere)

The above suggestion/insight that emerges needs further disambiguation. Essentially SKD explores life in a school.  Schooling, we all would agree, forms a dominant part of a child’s existence, something that is seen to be a necessity. Schooling , formal schooling, prepares for adulthood in an environment which protects a child from the harshness of the world with its warts and seams.  For till medieval times the notion of childhood as understood today needing protection and nurturing, did not exist. Childhood as a category had to be ‘invented’ for a new industrialized world that was emerging where domestic and public spaces became distinct entities and new work ethics, skills were needed to work in industrial units and factories. 

Schooling at several levels then provides that space where children could be “taught” to observe the natural, physical and social world and understand them where skills of literacy and numeracy so provided facilitate such an understanding.  Effectively schools prepares a child for the world. But then as most of us as children would have also experienced, schooling for various reasons acquires a dynamic of its own and therefore the experience of schooling for a sizeable percentage of us has been anything but pleasant.  Schools evolved a curriculum – its time tables – classes neatly divided by grades and subjects; teaching methods – largely textbook based and teacher centric; evaluation – repeated exams where scoring marks is paramount and failure to do so stigmatizes you for life. Such a curriculum in that sense has delinked itself from the world the child socializes in outside the walls of the classroom and has little bearing to the world that a child is more fundamentally familiar with. – a world without any clear cut demarcations, time schedules and structures. (this is something which is more acute in the family and domestic space of rural societies) This coupled with the routines that such a school curriculum ensures results in complete alienation and indeed schooling becomes oppressive for many children.  

However the above process is seen by many as a natural corollary of the prison-industrial complex which shapes our political economies and therefore prepares a child for it. Our factories and offices too are highly structured and hierarchy based and schools mimics the same and equips a child to cope with the same.
But then as many critics contend, such a process then undermines the very notion of childhood so invented. These days, schools - its systems and structures, parental expectations and demands of the market shape its curriculum and are thus less about understanding or learning. The transformative agenda of education has all but gone. Education and schools that facilitate it are not as much about making it easy to walk out into the world and ‘fit’ in but to enable capacities to understand and change it for the better. No wonder such critics also argue that despite even improved literacy rates and ever increasing number of schools, colleges and universities, social and attitudinal change is hard to come by. (not just in third world like India but even so called developed nations of the west) Indeed today learning is not so much about understanding as much as an exhibition of the acquired literacy, numeracy and “science” skills  which will help you clear series of entrance exams and eventually secure you a job, and a ‘white collared’ job ( i.e. doctors, lawyers, engineers, managers etc) at that. 

SKD of course does not go into all these in detail (and perhaps unfair to expect one film to raise and relate to all issues related to schooling and education)  but somewhere we need to ask these larger questions and keep them in mind. This will helps us to critique not just the film in a more useful fashion but the world we all socialize in where there is an uncritical acceptance of the notion that education and schools by themselves are panaceas for a society’s ‘development’ and ‘growth’.