Amusing, at times poignant Bollywood re-creations are used in “The Orphanage” much as Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat mixed folklore with realism in her award-winning “Wolf and Sheep,” in both cases to add heightened levels of cultural significance and an element of fantasy as necessary correlatives to hardscrabble lives. While Sadat’s second feature is something of a comedown from her 2016 debut, her latest balances a clear-eyed re-creation of a teen’s time in an orphanage with a certain nostalgia for childhood innocence, augmented by the imaginative freedom of the Bollywood scenes. Though unlikely to travel as widely as “Wolf,” Sadat’s “Orphanage” will find a warm welcome at festivals worldwide.
The two films mine the unpublished diary of her friend and muse Anwar Hashimi, whose life story will continue in further projected installments. Actor Qodratollah Qadiri resumes the role of Qodrat, now 15 and first seen here sleeping in an abandoned car and peddling black-market cinema tickets together with key chains in 1989 Kabul. The date is of course key, it being the last gasp of Soviet control in Afghanistan when the USSR was crumbling and the Islamist mujahedeen was asserting its presence. Nabbed for his movie ticket scam, Qodrat is brought to an orphanage with several other boys, where they quickly learn the hierarchy of oppression.
This is the most standard-issue part of the film, and unfortunately the section that takes up the most screen time. Ehsan (Ehsanullah Kharoti) is the main bully, humiliating the other boys together with his cohort Asad (Asadullah Kabiri) and making their lives generally miserable in all the ways one expects of institutionalized peers in these sorts of situations. Friendships however develop among the others, and Qodrat does well in the first school he’s ever attended. He and the others even get flown to Moscow for summer fun and light indoctrination, but once back they face the disturbing news that their chum Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Osmani) has been transferred to a crude mental institution next to the orphanage, where the now mute boy is kept chained.
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There’s little back story to this sudden turn of events, nor is there much connection between the various currents in Qodrat’s life at this stage. Sadat treats them simply as episodes in his growing up, probably reflecting in some ways how personal diaries themselves are piecemeal recollections, “Amarcord” style, rather than developed storylines. What sets “Orphanage” apart are the moments when Qodrat’s imagination makes Bollywood-esque musical numbers out of his fantasies. Grin-inducingly fun yet clunkily executed (though barely cheesier than the clip shown from 1988’s actioner “Shahenshah”), the scenes boast the sorts of multiple non-logical location and costume changes and dubbed singing voices that are hallmarks of the industry. Crucially, they give life to Qodrat’s otherwise flat character, from a flirtation with a classmate (Sediqa Rasuli) to a celebration of friendship with his buddy Hasib (Hasibullah Rasooli).
Similar to “Wolf and Sheep,” shooting was done in Tajikistan, though unlike that earlier, more classically shot feature, Belgian DP Virginie Surdej here toys with 1980s Bollywood stylings. Hashimi makes an appearance in several scenes as Anwar, the sympathetic supervisor of the orphanage.