Many of us live with only an inherited memory, or at most, a third-person account, of societal violence. Incidents of considerable magnitude, but which occurred to someone else, at another place, and maybe in another time. It is then, probably beyond our scope to imagine the degree of trauma that a constantly troubled society can inflict on its younger minds, through unrelenting bloodshed over several generations.
Sikandar, a self-proclaimed tribute to the children of Kashmir, is a step in that direction. It makes a few impressive statements when it shows us how easy it is for a kid to have access to a gun, in a land that keeps army men busy at any given point of time. As an officer remarks with a sigh, if only man had never set foot on the soil of the land.
The film talks about a teenager who grapples with a gun, not knowing what to do with it when he first finds one. A shy, awkward football aficionado, Sikandar (Parzaan Dastur) is a teenager who is lovingly raised by foster parents, yet stricken by pangs of loss of his parents in the ongoing jihad, a decade earlier. His life is unwittingly drawn into the way of the gun, when he first stumbles on the weapon on his way to school.
Completely fascinated by it, he first uses it to intimidate the bullies at school, but is sweet-talked by a revolutionary into performing a 'little task'. In all adolescent fervor at having to prove himself to a worthy mentor, he gets in, but gets sucked quite dangerously into a helpless situation. His pillar of strength is a school friend, Nasreen (Ayesha Kapur).
The background has Madhavan playing an army officer, and Sanjay Suri playing a peace-talking local political leader, and there is a general bumping of heads over the peace process - among the army, the politicians, and the militants.
While the movie tries to be artistic about the impact of kids on civil strife, and vice versa, it is a very contrived attempt, and extremely slow-paced. The writing is subtle, but goes into sketchy ground, and towards the end, the movie just doesn't make any sense. What is it with Sikandar's aunt trying to protect him frantically when the army comes visiting - when did she come to know of his escapades? What exactly is the role of the maulvi in the drama? What does the colonel's reaction towards the end mean - is he trying to protect them, or is he just being kind by being indifferent?
The kids, for their part, are characterized arbitrarily - they're spoken to like adults, and there is general confusion over whether it's their innocence or their maturity that is supposed to stand out.
The performances all look labored, except for Madhavan, who is truly spontaneous in his half-baked role. Sanjay Suri is given a character that he at least looks too young for, and he goes through the entire film clasping his hands either in front or behind himself, but delivering dialogues that have no soul - thus looking disappointingly like he's trying very hard at a school play.
Parzaan Dastur's effort is palpable, but apart from a few decently-done expressions, there's nothing much he's even given to do. And Ayesha Kapur doesn't look like she's made a half-proper effort. Still, they're kids, and it really does seem the fault of the director when they come up with expressions that confuse you at times - like the scenes with the gun-spotting, for example. The kids could certainly put Sikandar on their CV if they wanted to - it's experimental cinema, after all - but it is not exactly going to be of any commercial consequence even if they did.
There is music, and there are songs, but there's nothing innovative in that department. The visuals have been shot well, though. It's not something we've not seen earlier in Kashmir films, but there's that freshness that infuses life into the story.
Sikandar is a kids' film, but the kind that is made for adults to take time out for and appreciate the nuances of. Sadly, it disappoints even on that front.