'Gippi': Endearing coming-of-age saga with realistic performances

Film: Gippi; Starring: Riya Vij, Divya Dutta, Taaha Shah; Directed by: Sonam Nair: Rating: *** 1/2 (3 and a half)

At the end of this endearing film you have to admit it's not just the pre-pubescent protagonist who has come of age. So has mainstream Indian cinema. It can now talk about issues such as homosexuality and menstruation without a blush.

Meet Gippi then. She is free-spirited, unaffected, overweight and under-confident, though not willing to show it (her lack of confidence, that is). Gippi's story could well have become a trite pedestrian exercize in cliched sequences woven around the acne-ridden years of awkwardness and self-discovery. Instead , debutant director Sonam Nair gives us vibrant vignettes from a young defiant teenager's life in a posh school (beautifully shot by cinematographer Anshuman Mahaley) on the hills with her single mother (Divya Dutt, brilliant) and her kid-brother who seems to like all the girlie things more than Dippi does.

Fearless and without inhibitions, Nair's narration takes us through Gippi's life of unfettered self-discovery. The film is littered with reams of well-written scenes where we see Gippi going through situations that help her grow up. There's her mother's painful breakup with Gippi's father where Gippi must step in to defend her mother's descalating self-esteem. Then there is Gippi's own tryst with heartbreak when during her first serious crush with the campus' resident James Dean (Taha Shah, well cast in his vain though benign character) she discovers that being fat and unattractive is not such an appalling option after all.

The process of Gippi's self-exploration is lamentably not carried forward with the confidence and smoothness that one experiences in the first-half of the film when Gippi's life is shown to be a series of unplanned near-catastrophes that somehow stop short of reaching a point of no return.

In the second half, the entire chunk devoted to the school elections is comparatively tame and lacking the sparkle evident in the rest of the writing. Nonetheless there is so much to celebrate in this film, most of all the performances. 14-year old Riya Vij makes an unlikely yet thoroughly convincing heroine in a tale that requires her character to try everything, from a brassiere to heartbreak for the first time. To her credit the girl sails through all the tests put before her character. She is a prized find.

As for the ever-dependable Divya Dutta as Gippi's mother, when has she ever let down a film? As Dippi's mother she puts spunk and spirit into her well-written character. Casting in fact is the backbone of this film. Not just Riya in the main role, even her friends in school are played by girls and guys who don't seem to fake it. They wouldn't know how to!

The film also pays a homage to the songs of Shammi Kapoor in a rather gauche onrush of feelings. But then awkwardness is a predominant mood in this work . You can't escape clumsiness when you are groping around at the beginning of life's unique journey.

So a big yippee for Gippi. It's a coming-of-age saga told with a disarming lack of artifice. The film's joie de vivre envelopes you in a sunny embrace.

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