Sniff and the Smell of Nostalgia

Pop Culture

Sniff and the Smell of Nostalgia

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

L

ittle Chandni Bakshi was nine years old on this particular day when she was playing hide-and-seek during the school recess. It was her turn to hide and time was running out as the seeker was finishing the count. So Chandni ran and hid underneath the last lunch table in the corner, not noticing a rotten lunch box kept on that table. She stayed there for quite some time, when eventually her friend found her, and asked her why had she chosen such a smelly place. Chandni’s response was one of uncertainty: “Smelly? What is smelly?”

Advertisement

That day Chandni realised she had anosmia – a clinical disease, which results in the full or partial loss of the sense of smell. Chandni realised why she loved the smooth slipperiness of pasta over the corrosive homemade sabzi, why she always chose texture over smell. She suddenly got super conscious of the smells she emanated, as she couldn’t detect her own body odour or breath. She wasn’t sad about it though. Like all of us who don’t know what we lack, she didn’t know what she was missing out on. There was nothing to be sad about.

How Chandni dealt with the absence of olfactory senses is quite the opposite of how the protagonist in Amole Gupte’s Sniff deals with it. Little Sunny, played by Khushmeet Gill, plays his part as the “adorable Sardar boy” with big eyes and eminently edible cheeks very well, honouring the hoary tradition set in the time of “Tussi ja rahe ho?” Tussi na jaao.” But Sunny’s pretty sad about not being able to smell anything. He doesn’t like it that boys in the school poke fun at him for not realising that he’d stepped on shit; his grandmother’s laments that he can’t take over the meagre family business of manufacturing aachaar disheartens him. Amol Gupte fills the screen with Sunny’s dread, accompanied by long shots of him meandering in solitude, trying to wash his shoes alone in a giant school, or looking longingly outside the window, with the background score propelling the quiet confusion of his heart.

Sunny wakes up one day and after a chemical accident in the school lab, his olfactory senses suddenly go into overdrive.

Image Credit / Eros Now, YouTube

Amol Gupte’s world in the film has, unlike Chandni’s in real life, forced Sunny to think of himself as inadequate and different. And this great weakness brings him down. It’s not different what I, and many others, felt like while growing up. I was very tiny (still am!) and wished to wake up one day as a tall giant, who would excel at sports. We all tend to allow ourselves to be defined by one thing – we are too fat or too skinny, too short or too dark. We all dream of waking up one day, hoping to turn our weaknesses into strengths, to show the school bullies or the asshole Hindi teacher or the bickering aunties that we’re better than that.

Amol Gupte has been trying to indulge his idea of reminding children of the possibility of an ideal childhood; when possibilities were endless and we believed hope could spring eternal.

What amazes me is how well Amol Gupte understands this feeling, and turns Sniff on its head, from reality to fantasy, metamorphosing Sunny’s life into every child’s dream. Sunny wakes up one day and after a chemical accident in the school lab, his olfactory senses suddenly go into overdrive. He can catch a smell that is emanating from a place two kilometers away, and suddenly he’s the cool kid in school, making even his parents proud. He then fulfils every child’s most desired dream since the dawn of time: Setting up a detective cave with his best friends and solving mysteries – a car-stealing racket wreaking havoc in Mumbai. The plot of Sniff is the stuff childhood dreams are made of.

Sniff, in a way then, is The Metamorphosis in reverse, as the transformation is one that Sunny’s heart desires, not like that of Gregor Samsa who wakes up as vermin. But just like the vermin in Kafka’s story, Sniff struggles to articulate its central idea.

There is no Ram Shankar Nikumbh-type character to connect with – there’s not much interest in the lives of adults in the film.

Image Credit / Eros Now, YouTube

Amol Gupte has been trying to indulge his idea of reminding children of the possibility of an ideal childhood; he keeps on doggedly engaging in that specific point in our childhood, when possibilities were endless and we believed hope could spring eternal. Old people, with their well-crafted receptivity of bullshit, don’t interest Amole Gupte. His most recognised story yet, Taare Zameen Par, wasn’t supposed to have a big role for the teacher. It was meant to remind children that every child is special, not sermonise on parenthood like Aamir Khan’s Ram Shankar Nikumbh eventually did. In Sniff, Gupte’s focus rests simply on the tenderness of Sunny and his friends.

Which is why then Sniff is a children’s movie, made entirely for children, leaving adults at a loss of how to interpret it. In Sniff, there is no sermonising and it lacks exposition of its main character. Other than staring out into the emptiness, only if Sunny found a way to express his moroseness or happiness. Perhaps adulting has divested me of the belief in the supernatural. Or maybe there is no Nikumbh-type to character to connect with – there’s not much interest in the lives of adults in the film. The answer then, for who is at fault for an adult’s average cinematic experience, perhaps lies with me, for ageing and losing my sense of wonder.

In real life, my friend Chandni eventually internalised her “smell problem”. But now, living alone, she wishes she could smell; she fears she may not know if the gas in her house is leaking or something’s on fire. Sunny goes the other way: He dreams a dream and comes out triumphant, highlighting Sniff’s childlike filminess opposed to the grimness of a gas leak or a fire. It’s why Sniff is fantastical, telling the story of growing up with an oddball problem, and how with some little chemical luck, we might wake up one day and go from being Princes of Darkness to Kings of our Little Kingdoms.

Comments