Is Cinema Propaganda? It certainly is argument. The clearer the visual images are the better framed they are , the better cinema is at making its visual argument.
The next question is , is a narrative argument propaganda? It certainly is a way of writing your history. The more simplified a narrative is, the more focused is your historical narrative.
Is education propaganda? If you have ever been a parent you’ll know the simple answer to that question. Yes and we’re damn glad that we can propagandize to our children. They’d end up learning Nothing other vice. This is also the reason why noone but US is allowed to propagandize to our children. They MUST learn our ideology. Our heritage and historical narrative and the way we tell our historical narrative. Because when the power to contextualize is lost, culture is lost. Civilization is , then merely a decent people whose only monument was the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls.
It’s all, ultimately, about your donkey. Tahaan realizes. Tahaan is the name of an 8 year old in Kashmir. His father has disappeared, and his mother goes daily with a passport size photo to the police fence, hoping she’ll see him. Tahaan’s Donkey is taken from him because his grandfather owed a moneylender and the Donkey was pledge. But because it’s Tahaan’s donkey, Tahaan has to get it back. So he tries employment, terrorism persuasion and “talking to good people” (which is anyone that would care to listen) in an effort to get his Donkey back.
The donkey’s name is Birbal. (Birbal is also the name of an Indian Sufi poet). And Birbal is lost somewhere in Kashmir, because someone’s father’s father pledged away the donkey to someone, who sold it to do work across the border, in the Pakistani side of Kashmir. The film tells of how Tahaan was a good boy for persisting and winning birbal back through the right means , even though he has to face many moral dialemmas in the process.
There is a simplification in the story of the issues, but because santosh sivan is speaking to children(or at least the child in us) it seems that this is acceptable. This is a very useful narrative device. Harry Potter and Disney films employ it to very good use. These simplified narratives are speaking not only to children but also to the child in all of us. The child in us that loves beautiful images and looks for a miracle in a beautiful sunbeam.
Santosh Sivan’s most complex work is in his Children’s films. I have seen three. (these Sivan films are not easily accessible in the US.) Halo is aout the search for a lost puppy during the communal riots in Mumai following the “Black Friday” attacks. Malli is the film about a little girl and her deaf mute friend. And Tahaan is about a little kid and his lost Donkey..
Common themes apart, the trope of the lost and the deaf mute friend comes in good use to Sivan in his visual storytelling. It evokes in us a sense of loss, about everything we gave up as we aged into pragmatic adulthood , while we watch the well framed, perfectly lit, manicured portraits of the world we have stopped looking at seriously. It must be realized that the cinematographer’s sleight of hand is not lost on us. We buy in to the myth that Sivan’s creative camera represents our reality, and therefore we buy in as a part of the cinematographer’s magic reality, as narrated.
And the visual imagery is awesome if influenced by too much education. The film looks like every Santosh sivan film Ive seen.. dil se, terrorist, Ashoka…and many international classics. The Donkey is Balthazar (bresson) the child is straight from Satyajit ray;s children(heck he even looks like Ray’s Appu) and Truffaut’s Small Wonders. The outdoor shoots in Kashmir scenes evocative of Tarkovsky’s Rubelev and the close ups are bergmanesque. There is an entire last scene with the children in a dollhouse that comes ,visually, straight from Fanny and Alexander.There are also shades, in the way the film is scripted, of Khiarostami’s 1995 White Baloon (bandonoke safid), from which this film seems to have stolen its donkey…uh…spirit. It feels , after a while that Sivan’s imagery employs crutches that are substitute for real creativity, even though to people that haven’t seen so many films, the experience can be magical. For a children’s film, I guess that’s acceptable.
Tahaan gets to keep his donkey.