Subhash K Jha: Thanks Maa is a journey into lives that were born into despair

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He’s 12 and homeless. And he refuses to adopt the swaggering amorality of his friends on the street. They call him Municipal Ghatkopar because that’s the address where he was dumped as a child. But he prefers to be known as Salman Khan.

Salman, you fear may appear in this uplifting tale of street children with a mission. Happily, no Salman. Not in Thanks Maa.

Strongly reminiscent of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and far more resonantly representative of Mumbai’s slum kids than Slumdog Millionaire, Thanks Maa is a journey into lives that were born into despair.

Without the crutches of self-pity, debutant director Irfan Kamal enters the world of the orphaned protagonist Municipality who on one of those routine days of scavenging, stealing and hanging around with his friends waiting for the next meal comes across an abandoned little infant.

Before we can say ‘Hey Baby’ the narration quickly swerves away from the cute and schmaltzy aspect of find-baby-will-coochie-coo kind of feel-good cinema to show the gritty harsh reality of life on the relentless streets of Mumbai and how it toughens the tender ones. Real fast.

Director Irfan Kamal makes one helluva departure from convention. He cruises the crowded areas of Mumbai with an eye for stinging details. The festive population of Mohammed Ali Road on a Friday evening, the red-light areas with their sleazy bustle, the beachsides with gay and normal couples making out in the dark, the goons and touts, cabbies and pimps, bereaved mother and unfaithful husband (Ranvir Shorey making the best of a ridiculous character), wanton women and kind men…the crowded canvas of Irfan Kamal’s film hints hectically at the savagely insensitive quality of life lived on the streets.

Our young hero refuses to be like the routine scum. “Main tere jaisa nahin hoon,” he pleads and protests with his more street-wise pals, and sets off on a determined path to find the baby his lost mother.

It’s a heartbreaking enlightening journey undertaken by the director in a spirit of adventure, discovery and tranquility. Teeming with characters Thanks Maa still preserves a core of stirring stillness at its centre.

Often you feel Thanks Maa is a romantic homage to the unbreakable spirit of Mumbai. But then you see the bitter and brutal truth about life on the fringes, as the young brave little hero is almost molested by the warden of the reformatory, played by Alok Nath. Moving so far away from his Sooraj Barjatya image of benign family values, you salute the actor for his gumption.

Thanks Maa is a tender yet ruthless look-see at a city that claims to have a place for everyone but somehow neglects looking after children who are vulnerable to every form of attack on the streets. Quite frequently we look at Mumbai through the eyes of the little boy and his companions as they encounter a gallery of weirdos and wackos…an alcoholic hospital attendant (Raghuvir Yadav), a doped-out cabbie (Sanjay Mishra), a paedophilic reformatory warden (Alok Nath), a cheesy incestuous upperclass father (Yateen Karyekar, gives you the creeps), an imposing eunuch (Jalees Shrawani) who offers to take the baby out of Municipality’s shoulder…an offer the boy firmly refuses.

The young hero, heroic in the truest most basic sense of the word, and his shock and dismay when he finally finds the baby’s mother are so palpable they reverberate in our hearts long after the film is over.

The film has its flaws, the most glaring being the constant struggle to keep the homeless children’s story credibly contoured on the bustling streets. In many sequences the young actor Master Shams can be seen carrying a doll instead of a baby. Also, because of the inherently dramatic nature of the theme some of the characters and situations lose self-control. The kinky sado-masochistic customer in the brothel is clearly not in-sync with the rest of the characters.

The jagged edges do not undermine the film’s unique and thoroughly unorthodox blend of realism and social message. While the veterans pitch in brave cameos that take the narrative forward to its heartbreaking conclusion, it’s the child actors who proudly occupy centre-stage. All of them are so in-character you wonder which came first, the slums or the camera!

With its hard unsparing situations and expletive-carpeted dialogues you’d expect to be repulsed by the world that Irfan Kamal brings on screen. Far from revulsion you are completel sucked into the Mumbai belonging to these street children.

Some of the editing (Amit Saxena) is uneven. But the camerawork (Ajayan Vincent)and background score (Ranjit Barot) add an extra dimension to this heartwarming tale of an orphan who won’t let another newly-born suffer his fate.

Thanks, Irfan Kamal.

Rating: ****

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