The film, which has two child actors as the main characters, shows kids as kids and remains charming till date.

Made 23 years ago Telugu film Little Soldiers is still charming Heres why
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, June 15, 2019 - 13:52

As someone whose cinematic pet peeve is watching kids pretend to be adults, I am rather relieved by Telugu cinema’s disinterest in making a movie for children. So, when I decided to revisit Little Soldiers, a film I loved as a child, I had my doubts. But, much to my relief, the film is still as affable as I remembered it to be.

In fact, watching it as an adult made me see the film differently. For instance, a scene where the kids escape the bad guys because they know how to swim and the evil men don’t is very funny to watch, but also telling. By centering the film on two reasonably self-sufficient kids who seem like they have everything in control, the film lets its audience relax (it would’ve been a sobfest if it had been about two traumatised, helpless kids instead) and it also gently advises parents to follow its example.

When anyone brings up Little Soldiers, most people are reminded of the song ‘I’m a Very Good Girl’. A song about a hyper-active kid who is trying to convince her family, and, in a way, the audience that she is a well-behaved kid, despite the incriminating evidence. She is civil enough to bring a gift with her while attending a friend’s birthday party, but not nice enough to let the birthday boy cut his cake before taking a slice. A smart four-year-old girl who decides when to care and when not to. So, it is understandable that our collective memory mostly recalls her and her antics whenever the film gets referenced—She buys a toy plane for her brother with fake money and when the shopkeeper says, “Paapa, ivi nijam dabbulu kaavamma” [Girl, This isn’t real money], she retorts “Idhi nizam plane aa?” [Is the plane real?].

Little Soldiers, written and directed by Gangaraju Gunnam, released 23 years ago. At a superficial level, it is about two siblings (Sunny, a seven-year-old boy played by Adithya, and Bunny, his four-year-old sister played by Kavya) who are orphaned after a car accident. Their parents, Aravind and Anitha—Ramesh Aravind and Heera—eloped 10 years ago, so they have nowhere else to go. They are forced to grow up overnight, and while dealing with the concept of loss, they also have to keep themselves safe from a man who is trying to kill them.

A story that seems rather heavy-hitting, outlandish even, on paper turns into a charming ride by staying true to its protagonists. The overwhelming nature of emotions like fear and grief somehow feel less powerful in front of a child. And the film takes its cue from their reckless bravery and moves along as joyfully as a kid does, instead of giving in to emotional manipulation.

Little Soldiers plays a rather tricky yet ultimately rewarding game of perspectives where the audience is made to empathise with the character that’s on screen in the scene they're watching. The way Gangaraju writes the characters—small and big—gives them all a backstory, no matter how small, and a motive to be the way they are. He enriches his film with as many viewpoints as possible, and with the help of Rasool’s diligent camera even a dog and a snake get their very own point of view shots. If the film also reads as a dark comedy where the bad guys are inexplicably making us laugh, this is why.

Yes, these men are trying to murder children for their future inheritance and it is deplorable. But look beyond their evil plan, and you will see a son trying to impress his father by coming up with a plan to kill children—the 'Robinhood' song written by Sirivennela is a hoot—and a father who is making sure that his muddled and middle-aged son survives after he is gone.

The familial and intergenerational conflicts are throughly explored as well. It is easy to understand a military man’s insistence that his son should join the army like him, while also being able to sympathise with a son who wants to be a musician instead. The old man only knows purpose when he is putting his life at risk for his country, but his son’s purpose comes from elsewhere.

Similarly, a panicked mother asking her daughter to choose between her and the boyfriend isn’t unreasonable, it’s instinctive. So is the daughter choosing the boyfriend over the mother. These aren’t people who don’t love or respect each other. These are just people—fallible, flawed, proud, and stubborn. Not just that, notice the way behavioural traits are passed along generations—the grandson inherits his grandfather’s bravery, while keeping his father’s light intact, and the granddaughter is all bold and spunky thanks to her mother and grandmother.

When the kids find a home with their paternal grandfather, he wants the boy to join a boarding school. He is old and mourning his son’s death, but he is still the same. Losing one kid to discipline isn’t enough, unlike the maternal grandmother who is already shrinking in regret. She senses a chance at redemption and grabs it with both hands. Women learn faster than men, says the film ever so subtly. Details that enhance an experience without shouting their presence in our faces make for a pleasant film-watching experience.

More than anything else, the film is open. It is open to interpretation and it is open to be boxed and categorised, depending on the viewer. You can call it a dark comedy or a dramedy or a thriller or a kids' movie, and you’d right on all counts. Personally, I’d like to think of it as a musical. Not just because it has great music—Sri is the music director—accompanied by greater prose. No. It’s because the songs are how the move marks a milestone, how it processes a plot point and moves ahead.

While one song—'Oho Vendi Vennela'—opens a page into the parents’ romance, another—'Sarele Uruko'—wraps a blanket around the kids and asks them to be brave. If ‘Maa Father Oo Tiger’ is how the kids are introduced to their grandfather, then ‘Ek Do Teen’ is all about the kids and the tiger striking a compromise. Even the charming ‘Adagalanundhi’ is not there to just be charming. It is a heartbreaking glimpse into a future the kids and their parents were harshly removed from.

The film also benefits from a great ensemble cast filled with legendary actors—a role as small as a house-help who is there to just get fired is played by the great Rallapalli. And even though Kavya and Aditya rather capably carry the film on their fragile shoulders, the supporting actors all need a special mention—Kota Srinivasa Rao, Brahmanandham, Rohini Hattangadi, Ramesh Aravind, Heera Rajagopal, Giri Babu, and, the indispensable Sudhakar—for they add credibility to an already strong script.

At the end of the day, films are a matter of choice. Why an individual likes a film depends on where they are coming from. And if you ask me why this film? What makes it stand out in a line-up of movies dipped in nostalgia that threaten to bring back memories from your childhood? If I have to name a singular thing, then it’s the film’s agelessness. As a kid, I enjoyed the film’s lack of condescension. The film treats children as individual beings. They are kids behaving the way they are supposed to—at times smart, and at times bratty. [If a kid comes running at you saying, ‘I came first’, you should know better than thinking that she is talking about a competition. She did come first, out of her classroom that is.]

And when I watch it now as a parent who might fail in the future, I still appreciate its non-judgemental gaze. Most of all, I am a relived mother who finally found a Telugu movie that she can share with her kid without worrying about the consequences and, sadly, that’s rare to come by. 

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