By Pierre Assouline
When I was learning the skills of production years ago as the international sales agent for director-driven films by legendary directors, my catalogue counted a UNICEF-sponsored six film anthology, “How are the kids?”, depicting childhood abuse around the world. One of the films was by Jerry Lewis and another by Jean-Luc Godard. While Jerry Lewis, whose caritative generosity was known to all, refused the UNICEF offered fee, Jean-Luc Godard, whose greediness was known to insiders, came up with a demanding budget and fee far in excess of the ones allotted to the other directors.
Are we here falling into the trendy debate on whetherthe work can be dissociated from its author? Both the Lewis film and the Godard one were impactfully illustrating their respective UNICEF Child Right. Would it have made sense to shelve the Godard film because of his poor ethics at that time?
Similarly, is it not hypocritical to boycott Polanski’s last film “The Palace” because of his atoned-for sexual-abuse 46 years ago? Why does Thierry Frémaux exclude this movie gem for the current 2023 Official Selection? Not a philosophical questioning: his self-censorship seems solely motivated by fear of loosing his prestigious seat under the threat of cancel-culture brainless activists.
Indian genuine spiritual culture shows no room for that man-work-differentiation as the author-preceptor is an acharya, one who teaches by example and whose life embodies his oeuvre.
Back to the kids! In India, Nehru’s insightful 1955 initiative, the Children’s Film Society (CFSI), set the hope that indigenous and exclusive cinema for Indian children would stimulate their creativity, compassion, and critical thinking. That recognition of cinema as a unique educational and cultural medium for the upliftment of children by India’s first Prime Minister should be remembered and supported today.
CFSI was able to build a fabulous catalogue including films by some of the brightest talents – Mrinal Sen, Satyen Bose, Tapan Sinha, K Abbas, Shyam Benegal, Santosh Sivan, Rituparno Ghosh, among others. 114 feature films, 45 short animations, and 52 documentaries in ten different languages were produced over the years. Part of CFSI, the Golden Elephant has been a biennial festival bringing imaginative national and international children’s cinema to young audiences in India. As a jury member of the 2017 edition, I have had the privilege of witnessing a magical event, beautifully master-minded by Dr Shravan Kumar: the school kids festival goers were placed at the center of everything, the screenings, the debates, the discussions around a snack. They happily mingled with the adults they outnumbered, directors, actors, producers, teachers, jury members. The joy and passion given rise by the discovery of films and cultures from around the world were brightening all little faces.
Unfortunately, last year, CFSI was merged into NFDC (the national body supporting Indian cinema) officially “to reduce the overlap of various activities”. So successful was this merger that CFSI, including its festival and its mission have disappeared! In Vedic understanding, merging into the Whole is illusory, and the concealed individuals are bound to manifest again with their distinct attributes. Let’s hope CFSI in whatever garb or labelling will unmerge sometime soon as the need to nurture the nation’s children not only by material comforts, but through curiosity, emotions, and empathy has never dimmed.
Live-action children’s films are astonishingly scarce though they meet with wide success whenever released. When asked what was the last Indian live-action children’s film they’ve seen or remember, people often still mention “Taare Zameen Par”, which is already 15 years old! “Taare Zameen Par” was produced for a less than 13Cr budget and it grossed 115Cr at the Indian Box Office. A very limited release in the US and UK resulted in an additional 22Cr BO.
Today’s children mature earlier. They are practically born with a screen addiction. They can resent being treated as kids. Appealing to the sentiments of these new generations creates an exciting challenge for filmmakers: producing films at the children’s eye level, never infantilising nor lecturing them. Just answering what holds children’s known interest is no more adequate. The new wave children’s films will have to offer a break from the social-media Manichean space by arousing unsuspected multiple diversified interests.
Pierre Assouline is a producer in France and India with Selections and Awards including Competition in Venice, Competition and Jury Award in Locarno, Competition in Toronto, Official Selection in Cannes, National Award in India. Pierre Assouline currently works at establishing “The Uplifting Cinema Project”, a production slate of universal and uplifting films conveying India’s beauty to the world.