A Rather Critical Review: Secret Cities In “Chippa”

The film unfolds over the city in the darkness of night, which, as we know, is where we can see stray shapes and shadows in the corners. It may be the end of a workday, or it may be that those whom Chippa meets belong to the dregs of an indifferent society, people who are so invisible that they cannot help but allow Chippa such free rein.

TW: Transphobia

Chippa is occupied with the refusal to give oneself away entirely. Riding pillion with a policeman through the lanes of Park Circus in Kolkata, a young runaway (after whom the movie is named) offhandedly asks whether the cop could read Urdu. The question is posed casually, tight-lipped but with a cavalier hope; the child does not offer any explanations when the policeman replies that he doesn’t.

The Netflix film, which released in June 2020, follows the child through a small part of the city of Kolkata over a single night. Chippa (played by Sunny Pawar) meets various locals and confidently announces his ambitions, while cautiously underplaying the trigger that set him on this journey. Earlier that day, he had received a letter addressed to him from his absentee father. The letter was written in Urdu.

But why shouldn’t he be unceremonious about his quest? Safdar Rahman, the director, remarks in an interview that “Almost every child I know has threatened, at some point of time in their lives, to leave home. Sometimes you pack your suitcase, sometimes you even get as far as the neighbourhood street corner. Chippa is a homage to that spirit.”

In Rahman’s film, the letter is only a vehicle, often providing direction and otherwise treated as an excuse, for Chippa to continue his journey. Chippa had been scolded by his aunt that morning. He had left, stealing into the night with a pinched wallet, with a sense of righteous indignation.

Freedom is represented through many subtleties in the film, and a lot of these escapades depend on Chippa and his imagination. In the lashing rain, Chippa imagines a boat and in his solitude, he sketches the Eiffel Tower behind a classical colonial structure. When Chippa does give himself away, it is evocative: the masterful music of Cyrillede Haes plays, line art moves in over buildings, the focus of the camera shifts to Chippa’s back—walking away. His rough line-sketches animate many episodes, transmuting scenes of danger and inevitable peril into emotional expression and playful excess. Chippa makes the entire city his playground.

But the city too is remarkable; it lets Chippa play. Every fraught episode, every menacing shadow and threatening brawl is rendered innocuous and anti-climactic. The people he meets are not threatening, neither the pot-bellied policeman nor the taxi-driver, not the lashing rain or even the cramped truck. He is treated like a traveller, an equal during the hours that people keep aside for rest and recreation, and Chippa is just the right balance of smart and endearing for him to not be coddled or harmed. The only time Chippa’s fears are not allayed is when it arrives in the form of a myth told to children—the cheledhora or the kidnapper, often signified by a transwoman on the streets of Kolkata. Chippa runs as far as he can, and the camera never brings us back to her voice.

But it is within the mohallas of Park Circus that Chippa is left to his devices, which often is the only safety available to a child. It is this nuanced but harmless portrayal of childhood’s vagaries that makes Chippa such a delightful children’s film.

The film unfolds over the city in the darkness of night, which, as we know, is where we can see stray shapes and shadows in the corners. It may be the end of a workday, or it may be that those whom Chippa meets belong to the dregs of an indifferent society, people who are so invisible that they cannot help but allow Chippa such free rein. A friend, Ankit Prasad, remarked after the end of the film: it is an entirely different economy at night in Rahman’s film, and a different political reality. The city slows as time and kindnesses can be indulged.

Chippa is constantly surprising and surprised, but this illusion falls apart in the morning—the innocuous surprises of nighttime become work-as-usual, full of the indifferent and acceptable realities of a day in a modern Kolkata. A bhajan-chanting shop owner kicks him off the curb, and a mob slaps him around. Chippa is beaten until his nocturnal policeman, himself afraid, rescues him and takes him back to the stall and aunt that he calls home. However, even the briefest light shined on this dangerous reality has spelled controversy for the film, and battle-cries of insult and injury to the Hindu community have abounded in the nation that only recently denied citizenship to the Muslim community. At the same time, every review has celebrated Chippa as an unconventional portrait of the city of Kolkata. Cities are rarely ever the sum of their itineraries, but every yellow light and ambassador taxi has signalled for the cultural critics in Bengal to claim Park Circus as its own, and its inhabitants as their community; something to be placed alongside Feluda and Tagore.

But these claims mask the city that Chippa evokes. The denizens of the city at night belong to a losing economy: struggling corner-stores, a taxi that is all but heritage today, out-of-work marching band members, snail-mail, informal workers and stray animals. It is a city where Urdu is no longer a relevant language but a dangerous one. It is not a nostalgic Kolkata, but a Kolkata that struggles to remain alive in its mohallas. Through Chippa, we have a portrait of survival through exploitation, a changing economy and political oppression. Freedom in Chippa can only be an escape through imagination or wit, it is never change or recognition.

When Chippa finally finds the lone newspaperman who reads Urdu (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal), the danger of all the tight-lipped emotions bubbles under the surface of a mostly monosyllabic conversation. Neither the son nor the father gives anything away to each other. The language too keeps its secrets. Another abandonment lurks in the twisted spiral staircases—another minute and newfound family will be lost. Each step that Chippa takes to learn the trade of the newspaperman is another step back into dawn.

In any case, few escape when morning comes. In a nation like ours, inclusivity through a politics of respectability and art only goes so far. In this, the film lacks the gritty detail despite being committed to its depictions—its political aesthetic is not one of dissensus, but of the impossibility of sustainable community. In this too, it is a good children’s film. It keeps its secrets well.

About the author

Shinjini Dey

Shinjini has been trying not to write so she could read everything. She works as an editor, drops out of most jobs, and doesn't care for grammar. She lives in Hyderabad, India.