In spite of its flaws, of which there are many, “Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid” wins your heart with its simple fluid storytelling and characters who seem to have taken birth in the deserted village in Haryana, long before the camera was switched on.
There is a fascinating play of light and shade in Deepak Venkateshan’s screenplay. It manfully tries to incorporate several genres and perhaps ends up being neither here nor there.
But the heart, oh that wondrous creation, is constantly in the right place. Director Nila Madhab Panda takes two city-bred children Shreya (Lehar Khan) and Sam (Krishang Trivedi) with their father (Parvin Dabas) and grandmother(Suhasini Mulay) to their ancestral village, a dry godforsaken land of non-productivity suspiciously bereft of girl children.
From there, the film follows a scattered craggy path culminating in a finale which doesn’t quite hold up, but nonetheless offers us a heartwarming insight into the harsh reality of life in many parts of rural India where a female child is still considered a liability. While applauding the attempt to yoke a children’s adventure story into a sombre issue, we must also stop and wonder at the film’s end-narration where we are told that if Dev (Parvin Dabas) had stayed back in his village, his little girl may not have been born.
There are some strained attempts to pitch Dev’s children’s progressive upbringing against the backwater superstitious village. Shreya calls her father by his first name and is proudly declared “on a par with any boy”. This isn’t really the kind of gender equality that we should be espousing in our prejudiced society.
Girls need their identity. They don’t need to behave like boys to be given gender equality. It’s naive to expect the two genders to behave uniformly and thereby achieve equality for the girl child.
The child performers are good but no patch on Harsh Mayar and Hussan Saad in Panda’s “I Am Kalam”. Mayar in fact, has a role as a rough village boy, which he struggles to give an identity to. But somehow, the characters in the village remain shadowy, under-sketched. The only exception is Tannishtha Chatterjee, who as a rural migrant from West Bengal brings her trademark spunk into her character.
The flaws do not eclipse the film’s efforts to tell a story about the absence of equal opportunities for children of both sexes.
The indigenous music by Midival Punditz and Ashish Chauhan roots the narration to its milieu, while the cinematography by Savita Singh Puri transports the film to an international level.
Apurva Asrani edits the scattered material with room for the characters to breathe easily.
“Jalpari” is a little gem, with a message on female foeticide that is so critical, and a heart so large that the narration could easily have been submerged in the social statement.
Panda has carved a miniature gem on the past imperfect and the present tense of the girl child. “Jalpari” should immediately be granted tax exemption and made accessible to every Indian who loves his daughter and to every womb breaker who ever thought of snuffing an unborn life out.