Review: Jalpari (The Desert Mermaid)
Director: Nila Madhab Panda, Writer: Deepak Venkateshan, Actors: Lehar Khan, Krishang Trivedi, Harsh Mayar, Parvin Dabas etc.
Nila Madhab Panda deserves accolades for presenting an issue-based film in an entertaining and gripping manner. Jalpari, based on the issue of female foeticide, maintains a fine balance and never goes overboard preaching the cause. In fact, it weaves it cleverly into an adventure thriller which successfully drives the message home and is palatable to children and adults alike.
Shreya Singh is the tomboyish protagonist of the film who is brave, imaginative and adventurous. She goes on a holiday to her ancestral village with her father, grandmother and younger brother. Shreya, after performing a mermaid dance in school, is on a quest for a pond in the village where she can swim like a mermaid. But her ancestral village is one marred with severe scarcity: of water and women. Sources of water have dried up while women are ‘imported’ for marriage from other states as no girl is allowed to be born in this village. Folklore has it that a ‘daayan’ (witch) eats up girls in the village. Shreya inadvertently sets out on an adventure that unravels the mystery of the witch as well as the superstitious and orthodox nexus in the village behind the disappearance of girls.
The characters in the film are endearing and natural. Shreya (Lehar Khan) is a tomboy who finds the clothes of a girl stupid, but is happy donning them when she realizes they can get her money and sweets on a day when girls are worshipped in the village. She is accompanied by a sweet, innocent and easily-frightened brother Sam (Krishang Trivedi). Both Lehar and Krishang shine in their roles.
Dev (Parvin Dabas) is a doting modern-day father who is trying to build a hospital in the village. The grandmother played by Suhasini Mulay is broad-minded but would love to see her granddaughter wearing ribbon and bangles. Dabas and Mulay deliver restrained performances.
Tannishtha Chatterjee plays the imported Bengali wife Shabri and impresses with her performance in the small but effective role.
A surprise element in the film is the I Am Kalam kid Harsh Mayar who appears as the leader of the gang of boys in the village—Ajite. Mayar—now an adolescent—portrays a typical jat boy through his demeanor giving a fine illustration of the actor in him.
The film is set as well as shot in a village in Haryana which is arid and suffers from a heavily skewed sex ratio. The only sights one gets to see in the village are those of overbearing hills that are brown and parched and haughty patriarchs who seem to be running the village. Few scenes where one gets a glimpse of veiled women participating in community life are when they go to fetch water. The parallel between women and water is interestingly drawn.
Jalpari is a commendable attempt to make a children’s film with a message that is not dull, preachy or boring. It runs high on adventure for children and provides a not-too-heavy and interesting perspective on female foeticide through the eyes of a girl. Like Panda’s first film I Am Kalam, Jalpari too unfolds like a fable and ends with the protagonist’s wish to be a mermaid fulfilled; but is much more layered and captivating.