At one point in Avinash Arun’s debut, Killa, Bandya (Parth Bhalerao), a seventh grader, disconnected from what’s being taught in class, casually hums a song. “Chandrakanta ki kahaani maana hai poorani (The story of Chandrakanta is indeed old),” he goes, while looking upwards at nothing in particular. Chandrakanta, a popular fantasy television series that aired on Doordashan nearly two decades ago, is barely remembered today. But it’s only fitting that the series resurfaces in Killa, a film that’s as much about the bittersweet pains of growing up – of looking forward – as it is about peering into the past, a heartfelt missive to a time that no longer exists. And yet, Arun never slots that period; he doesn’t resort to a title card that locks the film in a particular year. Maybe he doesn’t need to, because the signs are clearly present: Besides Bandya breaking into that Chandrakanta song, Killa has characters who use landline phones, write letters and visit their neighbours. Arun’s frames, meditative and quiet, do the talking for him. “This is how it felt like to grow up in a small town in the early ’90s,” they say, and you wonder about that wonderful drug called nostalgia. Time in Killa, much like our memories of growing up, is fluid.
But Killa is not just about remembrance; it’s also about initiation into a new world – adolescence – and the difficult possibilities that come along with it: the strange sight and sound of unfamiliarity, the fear of being left out, the curious companionship of acquaintances. In Killa, these motifs come to life through the journey of its “hero”, Chinmay (Archit Deodhar), an 11-year-old who moves from Pune to a small Maharashtrian town on the Konkan coast with his mother. Chinmay, like most 11-year-olds, is oblivious to the mysterious ways of adult life. He can’t wrap his head around why his mother had to leave Pune, and why they can’t go back soon. He doesn’t understand the kids at his school either – loud, jovial Bandya; wealthy, uptight Yuvraj (Gaurish Gawade); testy Omkar (Atharva Upasni). And these differences, meant to showcase Chinmay’s isolation, come alive through quiet, contemplative scenes. One such scene in the film has Chinmay stepping into the class on his first day at school. He stands at a considerable distance from his classmates, who appear happy and noisy. Chinmay keeps looking at them, unmoved, trying to understand this cacophony of unfamiliarity. And this small scene – of Chinmay being an outsider – encapsulates much of this boy’s anxiety. Similar scenes follow soon: when Chinmay defeats Yuvraj in the bicycle race, Bandya can’t help but complain that “someone from Pune, and not Yuvraj (who’s from his town), won the race” ; Bandya also frequently calls Chinmay “scholarship from Pune”. The fear of being excluded has caught up with Chinmay a little too soon.
Throbbing with universal themes, Killa could have easily revolved around anyone, anywhere in the world. But by subjecting an 11-year-old to several uncomfortable questions that even adults find difficult to answer, Arun is asking a rather uncommon question: Should kids, who are anyway about to enter a much harsher world in a few years, be primed for disappointment? What would you rather have them choose: blissful ignorance or dispiriting awareness?
Killa, buoyed by Bandya’s over-the-top histrionics, is also sufficiently funny, but it conceals a much sombre world view. The scenes underlining Chinmay’s sorrows, for instance, point towards what’s yet to come: these experiences are just first of the many disappointments, that sadly there’s much more in store, that this whole business of living life won’t be easy.
In the hands of a lesser director, though, this material could have led to a monotonous film, but Arun skillfully varies the mood. The darker, uncomfortable truths in the film are mitigated by humour and hope. The kids in the new town are not out to get Chinmay. He slowly finds not only acceptance and joy but also something that’s eluded him for quite some time: a home. Arun fleshes out this plot point with another wonderful scene. One evening, Chinmay opens a wooden chest, takes out a pen and a sheet of paper, and presumably begins to pen a letter to his cousin in Pune, something he had done before in unhappier times. This time, however, he finds himself unable to write that letter. The 11-year-old has begun to understand the virtues of moving on, of finding the old in the new, of letting go.
Arun, who studied cinematography at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), has also shot Killa, and the film’s visual language is both consistent and, often, aids the story. Consider the film’s opening scene, which unfolds through a slow tracking shot, the camera moving inside a picturesque and verdant lane of the new town, showing us what this new world looks and feels like, which Chinmay will soon try to befriend and understand. Now, contrast this scene to one of the final shots in the film, when Chinmay is moving to a new place once more. This time, the camera tracks outside his house, exhorting Chinmay to come out, to move on yet again, to find new experiences, challenges and disappointments. The circle of this particular disenchantment is complete but the quest for a new home is still pretty much alive. Killa manages to ask this of us with unwavering sincerity: What does it really mean to be homeless?
Does it mean you can never be lost? Or does it mean you are lost all the time?
This piece was originally published at DailyO