Narrative Reviews

QUOTA (2019) – 3 stars

Director: P. Amundhavanan

Writer: P. Amundhavanan

Cast: Bhavas, Chella, Appa Ravi, Saji Subarna, Niharika

Running time: 1hr 30mins

When I first came to the Netherlands, I caught a screening of Train to Busan at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. I remember about a minute in, realising with a sinking feeling I had walked into a screening of a Korean film with Dutch subtitles, and that I spoke neither language. Fortunately, the film was such a wonderful distillation of the zombie horror sub-genre, very little was lost in translation – if anything I left elated, marvelling at the fact people so far away from me could still communicate their ideas and feelings about the world to me.

This brings me to what Parasite Director Bong Joon-Ho recently said. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” he told the Academy Awards. While I agree with that sentiment for films as complex as his, I would go one further, and say that there are films out there which you can be moved by without having to understand the dialogue. Just as was the case in the silent age, our shared experience as a species of storytellers means that some themes really can be universal.

Quota is a rather lovely example of that. The film’s distinctly ropey English subtitles could be seen as something which will hamstring its potential with Western audiences – and for a film with a $65,000 production budget, it’s arguable its creators could have afforded to do better – but I am happy to look past that, because its message doesn’t need translating at all. This is a film in the tradition of Billy Elliot or even The Karate Kid – a timeless coming-of-age story in which a disadvantaged youngster who has grown up being told what they can’t do chases their dreams against all the odds.

Paari (Bhavas) is a care-free boy from rural India, who we bond with in the early scenes of the film as he races through the streets with his friends to compete for a free ice-cream given up by the weary but civic-minded Ice Alagesan (Appa Ravi) – who he barters with ruthlessly for further treats. Paari is part of a poor but loving family, and scenes of him play-fighting his father Manickam (Chella), are adorable.

Unfortunately, we know how this story plays out – films about working class childhood sadly have to deal with the facts of life – or rather, late capitalism. Those facts are that if you don’t have money, you won’t be afforded any of the opportunities needed to live a happy and healthy life. Paari’s parents cannot afford to keep shoes on his feet – something which sees him kicked out of school, and ultimately leads to a far greater tragedy.

True to the genre, however, just as his family suffers an extremely traumatic event, Paari learns of a gymnastics contest where he could win them some much needed money. The problem of an entry fee is dealt with as his friends – and the gruff but caring ice-cream salesman – each contribute to see him take part. Without going into too much detail, you and I know how this plays out – our hero might not walk away with the trophy, but he will obviously win a greater victory than that.

In this case, as a news report on Paari’s exploits summarises in the film’s climax, his true feat is helping people to realise that, “when we give importance to talents, irrespective of caste, religion or wealth, that day will be the real victory.” As the death-toll of Delhi’s worst violence in decades – seemingly targeted at the city’s Muslim minority – continues to rise, it is impossible not to be moved by such a sentiment.

Writer and Director P. Amundhavanan has largely managed to craft a sweet-hearted, enjoyable family film then; and one with a timely message. That is not to say it does not have its flaws, however, and looking ahead, Amundhavanan has a great deal to learn for future projects.

Chief of all the film’s current sins is its utter tonal-dissonance in its mid-section. Audiences will feel they have been eased into a relatively safe environment, where characters might have problems, but we probably won’t have to explain the sudden and brutal reality of death to any little ones present. That feeling jolts out of view when possibly the most avoidable car-crash of all time suddenly sees one of our beloved characters suddenly snuffed out – his head exploding with the reddened splash you would expect to get by dropping a watermelon from a sky-scraper. While this would be an excellent way to deliver a public safety message, the sudden ripping of the rug from beneath the audience’s feet here is not suitable for what is mostly quite a charming and placid film.

On a technical basis, meanwhile, besides the fact the English subtitles are quite poorly translated, the dialogue is entirely ADR. It lends a rather synthetic feel to the action, which detracts notably from the film’s attempts at earthy social commentary. A degree of realism is needed for a film like this to work, or Paari’s unexpected success becomes increasingly expected, as we fail to suspend our disbelief and get beyond the idea what we are watching is make-believe – however entertaining.

Further to this, audiences will also be taken ‘out of the moment’ by the fact that many of the characters have inexplicably been green-screened into environments the filmmakers had actual access to. It is jarring for the human eye to see the father and son riding a moped through the streets of their home without the vehicle or humans reacting in any way to the changing terrain. They might as well be flying off at the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so effortlessly do they glide through the rough dirt-tracks of the village.

Cinema’s language is only universal as long a filmmaker can convince an audience to invest in their work. Practices such as unwieldy green-screening and shoddy audio work will make that much less likely – and while on this occasion Quota broadly gets away with it, Amundhavanan will not always be able to skate by on the strength of his work’s raw charm.

Quota has the potential to bring out the inner-Granny in us all. After I had seen it, even I couldn’t help but coo “Aw, wasn’t that lovely?” – and if you have read Indy Film Library for long, you doubtless have seen how nasty I often am. The problem is, on a technical level it does not bear up to closer scrutiny. If the filmmakers Quota hope to take their work to the next level, they need to ditch the green-screen and the overbearing audio editing to produce an end product that has a necessary air of authenticity to it.

Submissions for the 2020 edition of the Indy Film Awards are now closed, and the new year of submissions will open in March. In the meantime, the very best of the films sent for review will be screened at a day-long event in Amsterdam. Tickets are available from FilmFreeway via the link below.

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