With no new movies on the horizon, it’s time to catch some old ones.
Retro is in: the movie-listings pages in newspapers are overrun with titles that were first released months, or even years, ago. As everyone knows, the reason for this state of affairs is the battle of attrition between multiplex owners and movie producers, but this hasn’t prevented the subterfuge that “classics” such as Fanaa and Jodha Akbar are being re-screened because of nothing other than “popular demand”.
Still, one good thing about the stalemate is that it’s led to a few solid little movies — movies that would otherwise have vanished from halls within a week — getting some extra multiplex time irrespective of whether bums are actually filling the seats. In Mumbai last week I noted that films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! were getting a well-deserved second airing. And a fortnight earlier, I got to see Sooni Taraporevala’s wonderfully engaging Little Zizou in a plush south Delhi hall occupied by exactly eight people. (Note: the film still ran for a further two weeks!)
Little Zizou is a slice-of-life story filtered through the perspectives of a young Parsi boy named Xerxes — a Zinedine Zidane fan, hence the nickname that gives the film its title — and his older brother, the nerdish Art, who fantasises about Russian troops taking over their neighbourhood. Through them, we are introduced to a gallery of characters, including their authoritarian father Khodaiji, a self-styled evangelist who is obsessed with retaining “purity” within the community; his nemesis Boman Pressvala, a newspaper publisher; Boman’s daughters, the beautiful Zenobia and the outrageously precocious little Liana; and the Miss Havisham-like Majestic Grandmother, who owns a dilapidated beachside hotel. There is also a band of geeks who are trying without success to build an airplane simulator, and an amusing cameo role for John Abraham as — what else — a beefcake who is very much an outsider in this milieu.
I happened to watch this film shortly after reading Firdaus Kanga’s book Trying to Grow, a droll but moving story about a young Parsi boy with brittle bones, growing up in 1970s Bombay. Experiencing these two works in quick succession was a reminder that no minority community in India lends itself to as much cheerful stereotyping as the Parsis do — and also, that most of the best representations of the community in popular culture are self-portraits. This insider’s view is important: Kanga’s fluid writing brings alive characters who live up to every endearing Parsi stereotype (such as the ability to talk — or holler — unselfconsciously about things that would be taboo in most Indian households; youngsters addressing their parents by their first names and using cuss words in front of them) but who are never less than believable, multi-dimensional people. Taraporevala’s screenplay, and the warm performances of her cast, helps Little Zizou to achieve much the same thing.
There’s a temptation to err on the side of political correctness when it comes to artistic depictions of a particular community — broad strokes and seemingly exaggerated behaviour are discouraged. One understands the reasoning behind this: if badly executed or done with malice, it can spread misperceptions and negativity. But films like Zizou show that it’s possible to portray the whimsical traits associated with a group of people without discarding sensitivity, empathy and good taste. It’s a useful lesson.
You probably won’t find Little Zizou playing in the halls now, but maybe we can expect a re-release if the producer-multiplex feud continues for some time. And if it carries on for a few more months, we could even get to re-watch all the treasures we missed out on while we were busy comparing the number of box-office weeks logged by the latest Shah Rukh and Aamir starrers.