The Revolutionary Optimists: Film Review

The Revolutionary Optimists Film Still - H 2013
Shadow Distribution

The Revolutionary Optimists Film Still - H 2013

Doc about easing the burden of urban poverty, though modest, deserves the overused label "inspiring."

Nicole Newham and Maren Grainger-Monsen celebrate attempts to change the status quo in Calcutta's slums.

A documentary about urban poverty in India that offers immense cause for hopefulness without becoming Pollyannaish or downplaying the serious challenges its protagonists face, The Revolutionary Optimists lives up to its name, provided viewers understand "revolutionary" in the small-r sense of societal change via highly localized improvements. Word of mouth should be enthusiastic for a film that recalls 2005's Calcutta-set Born Into Brothels while putting less emphasis on its subject's darker aspects.

Rishi Aurobindo, one of 5,500 slums in Calcutta, is home to 9,000 people, but seems not to exist in the consciousness of city government. It has no potable water taps, leaving residents to make hours-long treks every day; it doesn't even show up on Google Maps. At least that was the case when filmmakers Nicole Newham and Maren Grainger-Monsen began documenting the remarkable efforts of a non-profit called Prayasam determined to better the community by forcing local children to expect more out of their lives.

Rather than introducing us to Prayasam in a straightforward, journalistic way, the film lets us encounter it the way kids do: We're taken to puppet shows, dance rehearsals and soccer games, each activity subtly (and, occasionally, unsubtly) pushing participants' notions of what is and isn't acceptable. Girls play a boys' sport; a man leads instruction of an "effeminate" dance form.

Most importantly, young people learn how to express their needs to others: We watch 11-year-olds Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, having honed their communication skills with marionettes, taking to the street to rally adult neighbors, conduct surveys, and hold meetings with the neighborhood's adult leaders, who seem less equipped to get the attention of city officials than their children are.

We meet Kajal, whose family has lived for generations in a plantation-like brickyard. At 12 years old, she's hauling 1,500 bricks a day (stacked on her head) for a daily wage of $1.25. Prayasam's Amlan Ganguly convinces the brickyard's owner to let him start a free school on the site, and then arranges home tutoring when Kajal must quit school to support her mother.

Ganguly is even more wrapped up in the future of Priyanka Mandal, a bright teen who joined the group when she was eight -- given her age, she's our best window onto the phenomenon of child marriage. (We're told that 47 percent of Indian girls marry by their 18th birthdays.)

Ganguly, a former lawyer and "mother's son" who appears to have made these kids his life's work, is the do-gooder heart of the film, and Newham and Grainger-Monsen present the passionate nature of his involvement while leaving many of the particulars out -- from the history and structure of Prayasam to the darker biographical experiences, alluded to but never explored, that appear to have inspired Ganguly's determination to steer these kids to a safer world with broader horizons.

Production Companies: ITVS, Stories For Change

Directors-Producers: Nicole Newham, Maren Grainger-Monsen

Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Cara Mertes

Directors of photography: Ranu Ghosh, Ranjan Palit, Jon Shenk

Music: Marco D'Ambrosio

Editor: Andrew Gersh

No rating, 85 minutes