After everyone talking about it on Children’s Day, I just had to watch it! And it is awfully cute. And, most impressive, it made me actually like Brahmanandam instead of wanting to fast forward as soon as he appears.
This is one of the most interesting film structures I’ve seen. The whole concept of the title, “Little Soldiers”, and the happy ending we finally reach, all of that isn’t part of the first half of the film, not really. But it sort of is, it’s just there in vague hints and allusions. And the first of the film, that pops up in the second in interesting ways.
What this film feels like, more than anything else, is a family. Not meaning that a family is shown onscreen, but the way you see children imitate their parents, and parents be the same as they were as children, and grandparents be like your parents, and so on and so forth. There are little traits that carry through in surprising ways that you don’t notice right away and then suddenly see in another generation. And the process of getting to know your relatives is the process of getting to know yourself. Most interestingly, everyone in a family sees a slightly different version of everyone else. That is, you know your grandparents as slightly different people than your parents knew them as. And your grandparents see a different version of you than your parents have and so on and so forth. And that’s what makes this film work. We stay within the same family, getting to know everyone in it and how they all relate to each other.
It’s also a film which shows me, once again, that Indian films are really excellent at showing children. And child actors. Besides Little Anjali, I can’t think of a child actor that had a real “I’m ACTING” feel to me in Indian films. Maybe because most of the time they aren’t acting. That is, they aren’t on their best behavior. Dressed up with perfect hair and fancy clothes and all of that. Not allowed to scratch their nose, or move off their mark or otherwise not act like children.
Part of this is because the stories they are telling don’t rely on children being “cute”. They don’t have to say an adorable one liner, or jump out from behind a chair at just the right moment or anything like that. It’s all a lot looser and more emotion based. Baby Kavya in this, she has to just play onscreen, naturally. And sometimes scream, sometimes look sad. She isn’t a little child robot wound up to march from one half of the screen to the other, she is given emotions and a character to play. Which makes sense, kids are very in touch with emotions, they understand emotions. They aren’t so good at following directions and remembering directions. But if you tell them a story and make them feel it, like “you are having fun playing with your brother”, that will work.
The other part of why I think this works so well is the natural way that an Indian film set works. The people will be not just co-workers but literally family, the schedule is supposed to shift based on the needs of the stars, and everyone is just happy to be there doing what they love. So it’s a warm happy place for children to flourish and be children. If they don’t want to do the shot and would rather take a nap, or read a book, or play, that’s fine. Everyone else will play with them. And if they are ready to shoot, that’s okay too, everyone else will get ready suddenly and make shooting fun.
And so the kids in this movie, especially Baby Kavya who justifiably won all kinds of awards, they feel like kids. Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they get mad or sad or glad, but they also have real emotions boiling up underneath all the confusion of being a child trying to navigate in a world run by adults.
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We open by getting to see how our kids are with their parents, and how their parents are with them. Ramesh Aravind, father, is kind and gentle and fun with the kids. And with his wife, he complains about his job (writing jingles for an advertising agency), and helps her prepare dinner, and pretends to be afraid when she scolds him for playing with the kids. He is a nice father, and a nice husband, and casually competent in both roles, knows how to make the kids feel safe and happy, and how to help his wife make dinner and exchange stories about their day.
Heera Rajagopal is mother. And she is a wonderful mother. Not an “ideal” one, she gets angry and rushed sometimes. But she stays loving and funny, no matter what. And she keeps the household running, gets the kids to and from school and makes dinner for her husband and generally handles things.
And we meet Kavya, and Baladitya, who plays her brother. They are constantly fighting, with each other and with the rest of the neighborhood. Kavya is a little terror and Baladitya reluctantly stands up for her against the rest of the neighborhood kids. But at home, he is quick to wrestle with her, avoid her, try to trick her. And Kavya is quick to be irritating, teasing, not care for anyone else’s comfort, especially her brother’s.
But see, this is all because they have their parents there as the ultimate authorities! Baladitya can always complain to his mother about Kavya bothering him. And she can complain about him hitting her. More importantly, they know the other can complain. That is, they don’t have to police themselves, Baladitya knows that he doesn’t have to stop himself from going too far because his mother will stop him for him. And Kavya knows she can be a little terror because her mother will stop her before she really crosses a line. And their parents, their parents have to be responsible and reasonable and never lose their temper or raise their voices or any of that, because they are supposed to be the authorities here. It’s a happy household with a nice healthy balance of power, the kids fight, the parents make peace, everyone is happy.
And we spend a good long while with this household, so we can see how things are “normally”. Kavya is crazy, Baladitya is irritated and wants his own life, they are both sometimes worried about the local bully, and school work, and all the other “normal” stuff. And they love their parents, but not in a sappy way that makes them into angelic kids, just in a normal “Mom and Dad will always be here” way.
And so when this ends, it’s just as much a shock to the audience as it is to the kids. Suddenly Mom and Dad aren’t here. And it changes everything.
That’s one household, but there is another we visit throughout the first half. Rohini Hattangadi’s house, a wealthy woman who loves her dogs. Until she overhears a servant cynically talking about how she spoils the dogs but through her own daughter out of the house and hasn’t thought about her again. It breaks her heart, and changes her heart. She takes to her bed and sends for the lawyer to write a new will, cutting out her brother and putting her daughter back in.
Rohini is a complicated grown-up kind of character. She feels guilty about how she treated her daughter, angry for being reminded of her actions, not sure how to make up for them. And clearly lavishing love on the dogs to make up for the hole in her life without her daughter. The problems in her life are even more grown-up, her brother wants to inherit her money and is ready to kill his niece and her children and husband to make that happen. It’s a very dark thing to do, with a dark motive (money) and feels distant from the happy family we have been watching, all these strange scary adult people.
The person who is completely absent from this story is Kota Srinavas Rao, Ramesh’s father and Kavya and Baladitya’s grandfather. He only appears right at the end of this early half. The family has gone on vacation, the children ask about their father’s father, and he tells a silly child friendly version of his life. He wanted to be a musician, but his father wanted him to join the military and become a soldier like he was. He joined, but joined the military band. His father yelled at him and hit him, and just then Heera appeared with her dogs and comforted him and picked him up. And that is how their parents’ met and the last time their father saw their grandfather.
In this version, the parents’ love story is sweet and childish. They meet and smile at each other just like little kids would. And the grandfather is a child’s version of a demon. Ramesh says he is a “tiger” and the kids picture him with an actual tiger tail coming out of the back of his uniform. And Ramesh’s version of his argument with his father is the same child’s version of it. The two of them fighting with no more complexity than when Kavya and Baladitya fight, yelling and shoving and then it’s all over.
And then Ramesh and Heera die and Baladitya and Kavya are let alone, and everything changes. Suddenly the childish fighting has no place. We see that, they fall into the pattern of fighting once they are home in their own bedroom again, until Kavya goes to tell their mother and suddenly remembers that their mother isn’t there any more. And that’s the last time they fight. Not that they suddenly love each other or feel different towards each other. They always loved each other, Kavya always respected her big brother and Baladitya always protected his little sister. It’s just that now it is coming out in a different way, not hidden under the arguments and irritation, but right there to the fore at all times. This is what would always have happened once their parents were gone. When they are older and started having secrets from them, when they moved out on their own and no longer saw each other every day, all those changes of adulthood. Only their adulthood had to come a lot sooner.
And then their grandfather gave them back their childhood. Kota appears and sets their world right. He gets back their dog, takes them out of their childhood home (just as the hired killer is about to kill them there), and gives them a new home and a new sense of security. And he does all this while being the same person they saw in their father’s story, but more than that as well.
Yes, he is a strict military type. But he also picks his grandkids up and carries them to bed at night. And stays up late worrying about them and his ability to make them happy. The worst thing he does, separating them by sending Baladitya to military school, isn’t on purpose. He admits to Brahmanandam that he knows it is wrong and he worries about it, but there is no other choice, there is no school near his house at all, he has to send Baladitya away for him to continue his education. He doesn’t know what else to do.
Oh right, Brahmanandam!!!! Who is there partly just as a sounding board for Kota, so we see him through the eyes of someone besides the kids. But also there to be a wonderful warm presence, for the kids and for the audience. Things were so dark right before the interval, but now silly Brahmanandam is here, he will make us smile and laugh and remember that the world can be a warm wonderful place. I wish he always acted opposite small children, it’s the perfect co-stars for him, soften him down a bit and make us want to laugh along with the kids.
Their grandfather is a good man, and they are happy in his house, but they run away because they can’t be separated and they feel they are missing something. So they run to their grandmother, who their grandfather had written to. Again, their grandfather is a good man, feeling an obligation to inform her and to ask her help in raising the kids, keeping them happy. If her evil relatives hadn’t stolen the letter, it would all have been fine.
Rohini’s relatives really are evil, the only truly evil people in the film. Everyone else, they are just misunderstood, or misunderstanding. The authoritarian father, he is ultimately harmless and loving and misses his son. The angry mother, she is loving and motherly and misses her daughter. It’s just that those sides couldn’t come out, not until they felt like the pattern was broken, they had a second chance.
And so when the kids make their way to their grandmother, they meet a warm wonderful woman who hugs them and reads them stories and sleeps with them at night and comforts them perfectly and shares their grief. And in flashback, we see how she saw herself in the past, and their mother, and their father. Slightly different from how they were with their children. Or in the version of their story that they told their children. A girl who is rude to her mother and casually strolls out of the house with a cocky walk to be with the man she loves. A man who bravely climbs a wall to serenade the woman he loves. A couple so in love they can’t see anything else, not a couple that cooks dinner together and fights about the kids’ homework, a younger freer version their children never met. And an old woman her grandchildren would never meet, a woman who gives ultimatums and makes her love conditional and throws her power around. Very different from this old woman who just wants to hug them.
But the story isn’t about the grandmother. Even though it is her money that sets the story in motion. It is about the grandfather and his desire for “little soldiers”. While he is waiting to get word of his runaway grandchildren, he digs out the letter he got from his son after his grandson was born. And this is yet another version of Ramesh. Sensitive, more fragile than his children saw him, but also with a different kind of strength. He tells his father that he is happy in his life, even if his father isn’t proud of him. And he is proud of his father, the world needs brave soldiers. And now, being a father himself, he sees the value in how he was raised and he wants his son to have a bit of that discipline and training too. See, nothing is set. Love can always change. Ramesh was angry with his father, but he got over it, he saw that his father had reasons for what he did. And Kota was angry with his son and set in his ways, but he got over that too. The years have softened him, now he just wants to raise his grandchildren as best he can, and he has to figure out how best that is.
And so the family is reunited, happily, with a balance newly found. Their grandmother can provide the blind love and support. Their grandfather is there for something a little more active, that touch of the wild in both kids. But a fun wildness now. They are going off to the forest to pretend fight, with firecrackers and marching songs, not with orders and discipline.
Of course, the bad guys are still there too. Which is why that other side of Kota still has to be there. They return from camping to find their grandmother under attack, and Kota not only saves her, once he learns that one of their attackers is the man who killed his son Ramesh, Kota goes a little wild. He isn’t “grandpa” any more, he is an angry powerful warrior. Until he sees his grandchildren watching and suddenly is brought back to his other self.
And so the ultimate defeat of the bad people is done in a way that children can understand. They run off by themselves and fight off their attackers with tricks and firecrackers. And Kota finally joins them and helps them use slightly more sophisticated weapons. But no guns, no knives, nothing threatening in that way. Kota has been reborn, just like Rohini before him, he is now more “grandpa” than soldier. And the “Little Soldiers” of the title, the “Little” is more important than the “soldier”. They are children again, allowed to be children again because someone else can take care of all the adult problems.