'The Fort (Killa)' : Mumbai Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Colombo
A charming and believable coming-of-ager never makes a misstep

A boy is forced to move with his widowed mother to a lush Indian coastal town in an outstanding first feature

In The Fort, Avinash Arun’s outstanding first feature, an 11-year-old Indian boy who has just lost his Dad is forced to adapt to a new school in a small village. It’s the simplest story imaginable but the director’s grasp of child psychology grippingly depicts the boy’s anxiety and feeling of being different, while his sensitive cinematic language sets these in the wider context of a coming of age story. It won the Crystal Bear for best film in the Generation K-Plus section in Berlin this year as well as a special jury award in Kyoto’s children’s festival and has just picked up silver honors in Mumbai’s Indian Gold section. This is the kind of quality film that knows no age borders, though it’s easy to see why younger audiences would tune in.

Set in a tropical paradise of a small coastal town in Konkan, the film is intimately interwoven with forests, animals, a lake and the sea. These essential elements become the stage on which young Chinu (Archit Davadhar) struggles for acceptance and identity when his mother (Marathi actress Amruta Subhash), who works for the government, gets promoted and is transferred from their larger native town of Pune. His father has recently died and the two are on their own in a small house. Fatherless, uprooted, far from his best friend and forced to adapt to a new school, Chinu has a lot on his plate. Young Davadhar depicts him as a moody, even prissy introvert but a smart student who has a tendency to look down on the local kids, so making friends is tough. The local lads seem like unruly delinquents to him when he first encounters them trying to set fire to a puppy. This is followed by a scene of total chaos in the schoolroom that could have come out of Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.  Each child is carefully drawn in vivid colors, like the irrepressible scamp Bandya (the delightful Parth Bhalerao, who has a leading role in the Amitabh Bachchan film Bhoothnath Returns) too poor to have a bike, or the pudgy, well-off Yuvrag (Gaurish Gawde) who styles himself their leader. When Chinu passes Yuvraj some answers in math class, he is welcomed into the little band.

His mother, meanwhile, has her own adjustments to make with the local corrupt bureaucracy when she’s strong-armed into helping a local building contractor get a project through without bank approval. Far from her family, she has no support while mourning her late husband and worrying about her son. Subhash, an expert stage and film actress, projects strength and fortitude in a performance that is more affecting for being delicately understated.

The climax comes early on, in a genuinely spooky scene in the ruins of a British fort, where Chinu undergoes an ordeal that becomes a rite of passage.  Screenwriters Tushar Paranjape and Upendra Sidhye wisely forego an over-the-top drama, which is set up but never explodes, in favor of realism, making it a better, less conventional film with a subtle take-away message that is positive and uplifting.

Arun contributes his own atmospheric cinematography and uses it to weave a believable if exotic world around the child and his mother. Naren Chandarvarkar and Benedict Taylor’s score is beautifully listenable.

Production companies: Jar Pictures, M R Filmworks
Cast: Amruta Subhashg, Archit Davadhar, Parth Bhalerao, Gaurish Gawde
Director: Avinash Arun

Screenwriters: Tushar Paranjape, Upendra Sidhye
Producers: Madhukar R Musle, Ajay G. Rai, Alan McAlex
Director of photography: Avinash Arun
Production designer: Prashant Bidkar
Costumes: Sachin Lovalekar
Editor:  Charu Shree Roy
Music: Naren Chandarvarkar, Benedict Taylor
Casting director: Omkar Barve
Sales Agent: 3 Monkeys Film Sales

No rating, 107 minutes