Few films have the heartwarming impact of Stanley Ka Dabba, which takes you right back to the wonder years of your school life. Those hushed whispers in the back benches, sharing sandwiches out of each other’s tiffin boxes, ganging up against a cruel teacher…it all comes back to you in a flash, as you sit there watching this film unfold on screen.
Director Amole Gupte (writer of Taare Zameen Par) leads you once again into the classroom. But while you knew from the outset exactly what point Taare Zameen Par was making, the lesson in Stanley Ka Dabba is woven in seamlessly. So engrossed are you in the story of how Stanley must tackle his dabba problem that the climax creeps upon you and catches you unaware.
Stanley (played by Partho) is the most popular boy in Class 5. His friends want him around all the time, whether it is to play football after school, to bellow out the Kaminey song, Dhan tan tan at the top of his lungs, or to listen to those wild stories that he spins without a blink of an eye. We learn early on that Stanley does not bring his own tiffin lunch. The director doesn’t spoon-feed us with the reason, only giving us a shadow of pathos in the scene where we see the boy secretly quenching hunger pangs by drinking straight out of a tap in the school toilet.
Amole Gupte himself steps in as Stanley’s bête noir, playing the character of Hindi teacher ‘Verma Sir’, who picks on Stanley for sharing his friends’ dabbas at lunchtime everyday. Ironically, Verma himself is obsessed with food, and so overpowering is his gluttony to dig into their tiffin boxes that he scurries off in search of the students each time the lunch bell goes off. When he discovers they’ve been hiding from him, he vents his anger at Stanley who unlike him, is always welcome to their food. The spirited boy does retrieve his dignity by the time the film reaches its bittersweet finale, and you’re left with a lump in your throat. There is a touching message in Stanley Ka Dabba, but Gupte tells it with the love of a true storyteller, never bludgeoning the audience on the head with it.
There are moments when his screenplay lags — like that extended interschool concert scene — but it’s saved by strong performances. Stanley is played astoundingly well by Partho, as an endearing, bright boy who creates a wonderfully imaginative lighthouse as a science project, only to be chided by his disapproving teacher for not sticking to his notebook. Partho makes you believe that Stanley is both resilient and vulnerable; you’re spontaneously drawn to his side. Divya Dutta is the teacher we all know, the one who believed in your talent and who egged you on gently despite everything. As ‘Rosy Miss’, she lightens up Stanley’s life and the screen each time she walks into class. Gupte too is brilliant as ‘Khadoos’, the teacher who lashes out at his students to feed his own ego and avarice.
But one of the most vivid characters in Stanley Ka Dabba is the food itself. I was reminded of Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese film Eat Drink Man Woman, where food forges relationships. Here too, we see it in the love with which each mother prepares her child’s lunchbox, or how it binds together Stanley and his friends.
I’m going with four out of five for director Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba. This is a film with the perfect ingredients; made with honesty and a touch of innocence. No wonder it leaves you feeling very rewarded.