The unbreakable will of a poor mother who wants to take her children to the big top is the potent force driving “Watch Indian Circus.” Beautifully filmed on the dusty plains of Rajasthan, this metaphor for modern India offers a winning mix of social realism and the innocent wonders of childhood. Helmer Mangesh Hadawale confirms the promise of his Marathi-language debut, “Tingya,” with a universally accessible Hindi-lingo crowdpleaser that won the audience award at the Busan fest. Yet to confirm a domestic distrib, the pic has the goods to score at local wickets and could even crack limited offshore playdates.
Part of the 70% of the Indian population that lives in villages, mute laborer Jethu (Nawazuddin Sidhiqui) and his wife, Kajro (Tannishtha Chatterjee, “Brick Lane”), are just scraping by on Jethu’s meager wages. In contrast to Jethu, a member of the Rabari (outsider) nomadic community, Kajro reps the modern side of Indian womanhood. Holding strong opinions on everything, she’s determined to secure a proper education for their children Ghumroo (Virendra Singh Rathod), a cheeky 8-year-old, and his younger sister, Panni (Suhani Oza).
Showing how the economically disadvantaged are made to rely on charity at a price from the ruling elite, and how politics is a circus of its own, the story takes place during an election campaign with smooth-talking candidates handing out “donations” to villagers, clearly in return for votes. After one such rally, Panni finds a flyer advertising the Great Indian Circus, currently performing in nearby Jaisalmer. Entranced by a picture of a stilt walker she calls “bamboo man,” Panni begs Kajro to take her to this magical place.
Against her better financial judgment, but wanting to bring some joy to her children’s lives, Kajro scrapes together the funds and, without telling Jethu, whisks the kids off to Jaisalmer for the day.
Themes of inequality and class divisions come together nicely in the highly entertaining visit to the big top. Beset by problems ranging from the cost of transport to the price of admission, Kajro ends up about 40¢ short of the price of a family ticket. In a lovely sequence bringing magic realism into play, Kajro sends Ghumroo and Panni to watch the performance without her before a banknote with a mind of its own suddenly changes the course of events.
Punctuated by four zippy musical sequences, “Watch Indian Circus” never allows gritty realism to become grinding miserabilism, and is anchored by Chatterjee’s dynamic central perf as the straight-talking, fiercely devoted wife and mother who only wants her kids to have a better life than her own. Child actors Rathod and Oza are utterly charming and convincing.
Laxman Utekar’s widescreen lensing of stunning locations captures all the energy and excitement of the children’s journey, and Wayne Sharpe’s score strikes the perfect notes of bouncy optimism and thoughtful reflection. The rest of the tech work is topnotch.