Sixteen might be sweet but it is ‘a tough place to be’. In debutant director Raj Purohit’s sparkling little gem of a film, that home truth isn’t a mere homily.
It takes the shape of genuine concern articulated through the means of a quartet of intertwined stories about the trials and tribulations of being on the cusp of adulthood in today’s India.
Sixteen is a rare rites-of-passage drama that does not treat its characters as cardboard cut-outs incapable of being individuals with minds of their own.
It tells the story of a group of Delhi high school kids – principally three girls and a boy – who hit unsettling emotional road blocks as they navigate a minefield created by constant peer and parental pressure.
The dilemmas that the young characters face are believable, shorn as they are of undue narrative artifice.
Raging hormones and runaway dreams are at the centre of this niftily scripted film about a trio of 16-year-old girls and boy in their class whose lives are thrown into disarray.
As each of them grapples with the challenges of growing up in an era where temptations are rife, they are pushed to the edge of the precipice, one of them quite literally so.
The girls discuss sex and lapse into profanities without the slightest trace of guilt. The film also has passages that border on the dark and disturbing.
But at no point does Sixteen look or sound exploitative, manipulative or judgmental.
It is a sensitive film that never ventures beyond the real and the tangible. Matters of the heart and body aren’t dealt with in the misleadingly cheerful manner of a typical Bollywood romance.
In fact, one of the characters in Sixteen advises another: “Stop watching romantic films. Watch good cinema.”
Sixteen is certainly good, if not great, cinema. It takes the viewer into a world that one can easily identify with, a world where the shenanigans of youth often threaten to snowball into full-fledged crises.
Anu (Izabelle Leite), bold and sassy, aspires to be a fashion model. Tanisha (Wamiqa Gabbi), cool and confident, is in search of a soul mate though she is acutely aware that nobody is perfect, and certainly not at her age.
And Nidhi (Mehak Manwani), an embodiment of innocence and rectitude, is willing to await her turn to lose her virginity even though every other girl around her seems to have done as much.
On the other hand, the quietest, most diffident boy in class, Ashwin (Highphill Mathews), is constantly browbeaten by an overbearing dad (Zakir Hussain) who wants him to crack the IAS exams. The boy resorts to an act of rebellion that goes completely against his grain and has disastrous consequences.
The pursuits of the foursome are fraught with grave risks but they are unstoppable. Nothing is able deflect them from the urge to make the last years of school count on the personal front. They are all left counting their losses.
The main characters are etched out with subtle, empathetic strokes, making it difficult to buttonhole any of them. They are driven as much by circumstances as their own natural impulses.
Especially striking is the manner in which Sixteen addresses the generation gap – sans fuss and with just a little fury.
The wannabe Miss India is a free bird who realizes that her seemingly compatible parents are actually not quite what they appear to be.
The least rebellious of the three girls has a domineering mom, but her dad is a man who trusts her implicitly. She lets him down and is filled with a sense of guilt. But no fulminations follow – the scene plays out in a neat, restrained arc that strikes a chord.
The most rounded of the three girls is the spirited Tanisha. She has lost her parents and lives with her young and single bua (Prabhleen Sandhu) in South Extension.
She develops a rapport with the paying guest, a fiction writer (Keith Sequeira) who has flown in from London to experience the vitality of Delhi for the benefit of his next novel.
We have seen many a Bollywood film set in Delhi in recent times. Few have used the characteristic contradictions of the place quite as evocatively as Sixteen does. One can vividly feel the ethos of the city, warts and all.
One might justifiably argue that teens would be the same in every big city, but thanks to the manner in which the writers weave Delhi’s urban tapestry into the story, the city doesn’t remain a mere backdrop. It plays a key role in the narrative.
Sixteen is a starless film but it has an entire array of stellar performances. Wamiqa Gabbi is wonderfully nuanced as the girl who knows what she wants but constantly feels thwarted by destiny.
Izabelle Leite lends an air of brittle insouciance to the character of the young model. Mehak Manwani, too, is perfectly cast as the cautious and doubt-stricken Nidhi.
Highphill Mathews as the troubled Ashwin, Keith Sequeira as the wordly-wise writer and Prabhleen Sandhu as the spinster-aunt are so in sync with the characters they play that none of them appears to be acting.
Sixteen pulls no punches when it matters. But it remains a warm, endearing film even when it gets down to tackling the bitter truths of life.
Simple but never simple-minded, this is a must watch.