Kafas – A Cage That Is Forever Locked
The film showcases the difficult subject of child abuse
Way back in 1990, an 80-minute documentary by Dilip Ghosh called ‘Aadhi Haqeeqat Aadha Fasana (Children of the Silver Screen)’ won the Special Jury Award /Special Mention (Non-Feature Film) at the 38th National Film Awards. It also won the Jury prize at the second international film festival for children's films in 1991 at Cairo. It was part of the competition at the Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival in 1991.
The film dealt with how child actors in Hindi cinema were constantly exploited by their parents, for their earning potential. Though the film skirts the reality of child sexual abuse, it was an ‘invisible’ area at that time. It focused on how these children were stripped of their childhood by their own parents.
Baby Guddu’s mother insisted that she put her little girl in films because the child loved to be in films and always stood first in class! ‘Children of the Silver Screen’ captured the price child stars pay for glory.
For example, Daisy Irani, a much-in-demand child actor, said that she was pulled out of school by her mother when she flunked three times in the same class. Child actor Naaz said that her parents were quarrelling so much all the time that by the time she came home after a day’s work, they did not bother about serving her dinner and she slept hungry.
Sadly, none of these child actors made it big when they became adults. Their lives and careers were destroyed forever. That film did not get into the issue of child abuse. This dark area is the central focus of the web series ‘Kafas’ directed by Sahil Sangha and writer Karan Sharma, currently being streamed on SonyLiv.
My problem is not so much with the subject of the film, which is caught somewhere between the impact on the victim Sunny, and parental culpability to the abuse through hush money. My problem has to do with the question of child actors like Mikhael Gandhi who plays Sunny and what actually motivated his parents to allow the child to enact the role of a sex abuse victim in the film.
The script underscores that the parents remain silent because of the hush money of Rs. 10 crore Vikram Bajaj’s (Vivan Bathena) team pay them. The parents quickly use the money to leap into an openly luxurious way of life. The mother Seema (Mona Singh) quits her beauty parlour job and sets up her own parlour. The father Raghav Vashisht (Sharman Joshi), a manager at a multiplex film theatre complex, buys a posh apartment in a plush society and a luxurious car worth Rs.22 lakhs.
They have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before they are handed the money and the boy, Sunny, is shocked into silence. Anger simmers inside him, waiting to burst. It does, when school mates in the new posh school he has recently got admitted to challenge him to tease some girls.
Sunny is aware of the NDA signed by his parents, and is almost permanently damaged, both physically and emotionally. Sunny’s elder sister Shreya (Tejaswi Ahalawat) is also busy chasing one audition after another for roles in films and comes back disappointed.
Was she pushed into this by the same parents who are so proud of their star-to-be teenage son? The mother Seema’s back story is about quitting as a dancer in a film chorus before she met and married Raghu. Raghu has a son from his earlier marriage and his former wife has brought him up by herself.
The elder sister remaining completely oblivious to what is happening to her kid brother leaves a massive gap in the script. She learns of it much later when Sunny faces one crisis after another and no word of appeasement by his parents have any effect on him because he knows that the new-found affluence of the family has been acquired at his cost.
He gradually becomes arrogant and rude to his parents when he asks them to hire a driver as he needs the use of the car everyday. “After all, it is my money with which you have bought the car” he declares and walks away.
When Sunny’s maternal grandmother (Zarina Wahab) who spent a luxurious holiday in Sri Lanka while accompanying her grandson for the location shoot of the film ‘Super Dad’ instead of staying with him, learns what happened, she is deeply apologetic. She feels so guilty that she distances herself from the family. Does this not amount to one more form of escape? Does that strip her of her guilt?
What does the bad publicity do to the abuser Vikram Bajaj? Nothing, except driving a deeper wedge between him and his slowly-turning-alcoholic wife (Preeti Jhangiani). The wife, however, stays by his side during television interviews, about their predicament and denying the crime of child abuse.
I have not seen the British series ‘Dark Money’ which is said to be the inspiration for ‘Kafas’ but independently too, the main focus of the film, using a talented child actor to portray a victim of systematic sex abuse raises ethical questions pointing right back at the director, the script writer and most importantly, the parents of the actor Mikhael Gandhi.
Sexual abuse of a male child is a rare step into rather fragile territory. The video clips captured on his cell phone by Sunny amounts to nothing except a couple of dialogues on the sound track which could easily have been ‘manufactured.’ Nothing is seen so how could the guilt be proved?
The character of the journalist who Sunny’s father chases and then withdraws from is rather grey and far from reality. By the same argument, Bajaj’s wife throwing a birthday party in a five-star hotel where anyone can approach her is also far removed from the reality of star wives.
The final press conference where Raghav Vasishtha decides to spill the beans is too melodramatic and unreal. The videoclip actually has little to offer. The other exaggerated melodrama is when the school principal calls the parents of some offending boys and shockingly, asks them to read the messages exchanged by their wards on the cell-phones. This is just not done and a top star like Vikram will never attend a parent teacher meeting without his bodyguards standing beside other ‘normal’ parents, will he?
What is real is Sunny’s sister fighting with her mother and walking out to sleep with her boyfriend. What is real is Bajaj openly suggesting “good times” with Sunny when they travel on the international publicity tour for their film. The two emotional touches in the film are, the bond between Sunny and his step-brother, and the slow but steady friendship between Sunny and Augustya who is Bajaj’s son, which Sunny’s parents fail to understand or deal with.
The acting by the entire cast is what holds the series together. However, Mikhael Gandhi as Sunny does seem awkward at places which one cannot blame him for. Playing a child abuse victim, can be mentally taxing .
The focus on child abuse happening to children from broken homes or from single-parent homes is not logical. Abuse does not have any caste, class or status schisms.