Children trying to make a difference in Calcutta's slums

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

"The Revolutionary Optimists" is a big title for a small documentary. But it's not false advertising. It does seem revolutionary that the boys and girls whose lives are chronicled here have retained any sense of optimism at all. They're poor children growing up in Calcutta, India, where about a third of the city's 4.5 million people lives in slums.

That's not to say that this film, directed by Maren R. Monsen and Nicole Newnham, is irrepressibly rosy. It spends three years tracking four children, and the stories don't all end happily. Of course, they don't end at all, since even the oldest is still a teenager at the film's conclusion. But it's clear some children end up having a better chance than others of getting out of the slums that swallow so many.

Salim Sheikh might be the most charismatic of the four. The 11-year-old seems like any other kid his age at first. We watch as he refuses to follow the orders of his mother and take a bath. But we soon see that little Salim is going places -- or at least we hope. In between lessons and kicking around a ball with his friends, he works with another 11-year-old, Sikha Patro, to improve their impoverished neighborhood.

On screen
'The Revolutionary Optimists'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Amlan Ganguly, Salim Sheikh, Priyanka Mandal
» Directors: Maren R. Monsen, Nicole Newnham
» Rated: Not rated
» Running time: 95 minutes

"Sikha and I work everywhere together. Our partnership is very good," Salim says, sounding like a Fortune 500 executive. "He really understands the issues," Sikha says, "but he's a bit of a slacker."

The city has been promising for years to have all taps in Calcutta provide clean water. But they don't. So residents in some slums must walk a long way to get tap water -- the lines can be hours long. That's one of the problems the two 11-year-olds are trying to change. With their friends, they also organize a day for polio vaccinations and spread the word about it through the neighborhood.

These two children had help and inspiration, of course. Amlan Ganguly is a lawyer-turned-activist who in the late 1990s formed the organization Prayasam, which translates as "Their Own Endeavors." "If you want any kind of change," he explains, "start with the children." He's not just putting ideas into their heads, though -- he's also putting beauty into their souls.

"When I first joined, I thought this was just a dance school," 16-year-old Priyanka Mandal says. Ganguly uses art to teach and inspire. Priyanka is a very good dancer, but a career in the field doesn't seem in the cards. She can choose between staying with her abusive family and escaping via a prospective abusive husband.

Ganguly works a lot with the girls of Calcutta. He relates to them. "A man in our society who dances is not respected," he says -- though he's quick to point out that the Hindu god Shiva is also known as the Cosmic Dancer. "In Indian society, the girls are looked down upon, too. They are the second sex."

The activist doesn't baby these children, who often have to grow up quickly -- 14-year-old Kajal Kahar is her family's main breadwinner, making bricks. "The dialogue was a weakness. We need to work on that," he tells them when he's unimpressed with the work they've put into a puppet play.

"The Revolutionary Optimists," with so many stories to tell, can be rather unfocused at times. But what's clear -- and most important -- is the good work Ganguly is doing and how desperately it's needed.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
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