Director: Amol Gupte
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
There is something beautiful about the simplicity of Amol Gupte's aesthetic. The filmmaker priorities storytelling over style, which is why - despite an ace technical team - the opening credits of his latest film, Sniff, are made up of highly straightforward overhead food shots that look like something from Zee TV back in the day, not something gloriously oversaturated or mastercheffed up with slick wizardry. The story is about a young Sikh boy who comes from a family of pickle-makers, and therefore the treatment is grounded and basic and yet finger-licking irresistible.
Doing this loud smacking of the fingers is the family matriarch, Bebe, the grandmother with her face on the pickle jar. Played by the redoubtable Surekha Sikri, this wonderfully warm grandmother is full of concern for her nasally-challenged grandson. Struck by the unfairness of it all, she wonders how a child can function without being able to smell a thing.
Poorly, it appears. Not knowing how good food tastes is the least of little Sunny Gill's worries, as he literally steps in it. It, in this case, being a big pile of poo that ends up on his shoe and that he obliviously drags around school and is, inevitably, mocked for. He is a quiet, sensitive boy, one who sits alone on the bus despite having a best friend who tries to get him to mimic sweet and sour smells.
Things start off evocatively, thanks to Gupte's light but evocative filmmaking style and genuinely touching situations this hapless child finds himself in. At one point Sunny funnily, yet heartbreakingly, rhymes: "I want to vanish like a smell - which I cannot tell."
All is snot as he expects, however. After one fortuitous and dramatic sneeze, Sunny finds his life turned around and can now smell for kilometres away. This newfound ability turns the kid into a bloodhound, where he smells what his friends had for dinner the night before, which neighbourhood aunty's perfume lingers on which neighbourhood uncle, and where the Bengali policewoman next door has hidden the sweets from her husband.
This husband, played by Putul Guha, is my highlight from the film. A man who braves the intimidating glare of Ritwik Ghatak photographs as he surreptitiously sneaks out sandesh, this henpecked man is a terrific and unusual character, and Guha's performance is - impressively enough - both broadly funny and markedly sad. He is a man we see regularly slapped by his wife and, while we must question the use of this distasteful trope as laughing matter for any film, leave alone one made for children, Guha wins us over with his vulnerability. The actor is a find.
There are some fine touches - a geriatric watchman with coke-bottle glasses, a clubhouse constructed around a slide so as to ensure easy (and cool) entry, a cleverly written song romanticising surveillance - and Gupte peoples his film with natural actors. The kids are adorable, as always, but far from the striking performers like the ones we saw in the excellent Stanley Ka Dabba or the rousing Hawa Hawaii, Gupte's earlier excursions.
After setting up a mystery and a few suspects, Sniff loses its way in its attempt to become a detective story. The story about this bright child and his olfactory gift turns into a highly generic detective story, and while the film's cuteness never flags, the plot begins to feel too simple as it begins to lean increasingly on coincidence and, sadly, lesser and lesser on the unique superpower. Sniff is a brief film - less than ninety minutes long - that stays sweet to the end, but never quite recovers from this narrative drop. It's a nosedive.
My favourite thing about Sniff is the way we see the children all behave in highly mature fashion: one wonders, for instance, if fear has a smell, while others tell ghost stories in style and expertly rig up detective clubhouses. Meanwhile, the grown-ups are all petty and childish, communicating in slaps and taunts, teasing and bullying. They all seem like incompetent caricatures tugged out of sitcoms, sitting in hare-brained society meetings and haranguing each other without tact or delicacy. Films for children should never talk down to children, and Gupte's films avoid this at all costs. As always, it's the adults who get in the way of a good time.
Keep at it, Mr Gupte, our children need compassionate filmmakers like you. And like we say to someone who has just sneezed, God bless you.