Adolescence is a minefield for storytellers. Think about your own—looking back, the absolute artlessness and agony of it won’t inspire anything but tragedy, will it? Or dark humour, if you’re capable of it.
Adolescence has inspired all kinds of movies: immensely enjoyable feel-good comedies, mostly from Hollywood, as well as masterpieces about its indispensable darkness. François Truffaut’s tormented Antoine (The 400 Blows) and Catherine Breillat’s Anaïs (Fat Girl), quietly in rage, hurtling to her stunning end, are riveting portraits.
There aren’t many films about adolescence and teenage in Hindi cinema that go beyond campus romance and rivalry, into its emotional struggles—barring Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan and Sanjivan Lal’s Bubble Gum which were also about the conflict between the adult and adolescent worlds.
So the premise of debut director Sonam Nair’s Gippi, the journey of an overweight 14-year-old dealing with her peers and coming to terms with herself, is refreshing to begin with. Written also by her, the film is about Gurpreet Kaur or Gippi (Riya Vij), who studies in a co-ed school in Shimla. She lives with her mother (Divya Dutta) and brother (Arbaz Kadwani), and the estranged father (whom the children still meet) is about to marry for a second time.
Gippi is the target of ridicule. Her friends, Anchal (Doorva Tripathi) and Ashish (Aditya Deshpande), are like her, and the overachiever of the class, Shamira (Jayati Modi), challenges Gippi to run for head girl. Gippi meets boys who break her heart. She frowns and fumes her way through embarrassments and her father’s wedding party. She consoles her embittered mother. Nair borrows heavily from Hollywood romcoms, which makes it an odd Indian-American mash-up—think about a traditional, Punjabi-speaking lady (Gippi’s mother), heartbroken by abandonment, attending her former husband’s wedding party and posing for a “family photo”.
Gippi’s anger is about things obviously and literally played out. Every humiliation is exaggerated. Wearing a bra for the first time, reaching out for a Stayfree (Stayfree gets more than one mention in the story, as brand placement)—these are crucial pointers; important details of Gippi’s journey. Nair’s story is set to famous Shammi Kapoor songs—supposed to imply, perhaps, that like Shammi, she is overweight, frumpy and romantic.
There are some sweet moments in Gippi. But the film’s problem is the character itself. Gippi is not adolescent enough—she begins as a girl seething in her own awkwardness and jealousies, and ends as a saint almost, in love with everything about herself and her life. Laboriously performed by Vij—most actors, except Deshpande and Kadwani, can’t effectively bring out the foolish convictions of a 14-year-old—Gippi’s end will strike a chord more with the middle-aged than with girls her age.
The film has the universally acceptable message that most self-help books will give you: Love your flaws, love yourself. A film needs some more meat; it can’t thrive on a message. When storytelling, characterization and performance are lost, all is lost.
Gippi released in theatres on Friday.