Marathi film Naal (Umbilical Chord) is reported to be the biggest box-office grosser this year in that language, and it has no blockbuster elements; it is a sweet and touching story about a little boy, set in a village in Maharashtra.
Co-produced, and co-written by Nagraj Popatrao Manjule (the director responsible for the superhit Sairat), who also stars in it, and directed by Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti (cinematographer of Sairat), the film has as its protagonist an incredibly cute and cheerful eight-year-old, Chaitanya aka Chaitu (Shrinivas Pokale), the only child of a prosperous farmer Bhosale (Manjule) and his wife Sumi (Devika Daftardar). The first hour or so of the film is full of his pranks, his helping his mother with her chores, taking tractor rides with his father, looking after his cranky grandmother (Seva Chavan) and playing with his mates.
Sumi is like any mother, over-protective and a little strict—she doesn’t like him playing rough with the village ruffians, and wants him to study well. Chaitu is mischievous and is often sent out of class for doodling in his school book.
Then, Chaitu’s life is turned upside down when a man claiming to be his uncle (Om Bhutkar) inadvertently reveals that Chaitu was adopted, and that his real mother stays in a distant village. When Sumi tells him that they haven’t yet told the child about the adoption, the contrite uncle makes Chaitu promise to keep the secret to himself.
Chaitu, however, gets obsessed with tracing his real mother.
Apart from a little girl who teases him, his only confidant is a slightly older boy, with whom he makes the morning trek to the fields to relieve himself. The friend is not unduly concerned about the adoption, but the two decide that one way of finding out the mother’s feelings is to check if she cries for him—this after Chaitu sees an old Marathi film on TV, with actress Jayshree Gadkar weeping her heart out. Chaitu decides to go missing for a night—the mother does cry, but when he gets home, he also gets a thrashing.
Chaitu’s attitude towards his mother changes subtly—he stops calling her “Aai” (mother) for one, and is always sullen around the house. The two boys hatch childish plans to find a way to get Chaitu across to his real mother’s village, and set in motion events over which they have no control.
The plot is very slim, and the film is entirely character-driven, bit does not hit one false note. There is tragedy, but no melodrama. Yakkanti has beautifully captured life in a village—the women’s working, the kids whooping it up, everybody turning up in a neighbour’s time of need. He also portrays with sympathy the agony of a cow that has just lost its calf.
Marathi cinema has enthusiastically adopted the Iranian model of making films with children, and there have been dozens of acclaimed movies over the last few years with kids driving the plots. The stories they tell are real and compelling, and the films are made on small budgets, with some subsidies from the government. Parts of rural Maharashtra are very scenic, and the DOP in Yakkanti has shot Chaitu’s village in all its bucolic beauty—the arid patches as well as the river front.
Yakkanti has got pitch perfect performances from all the actors—Devika Daftardar is outstanding-- but the real find is Shrinivas Pokale, whose innocence does not look fake, and he has none of the precociousness movie brats tend to develop. He is such an adorable child that one forgets for a moment that this is just a film, and hopes he grows up to be unspoiled, happy and kind.