A CHILD IS NO PUPPET
Viju Mane's melodramatic film Khel Mandala is based on a highly objectionable premise which the filmmaker doesn't bother to clarify beyond its sensational value. A deaf-dumb-mute baby is abandoned by her parents and found by a lonely puppeteer who lives in a slum. He adopts the girl and teaches her how to communicate by tying strings around her wrists and by writing on her forearm. But he also uses her as a 'live' puppet in his show and the tiny tot dances to his tune. The film goes to great length to show how much this man loves the little girl, but the idea of using her thus to earn a living is questionable and the scope of this film is too shallow to examine the exploitative nature of the situation.
In the vein of bad tear-jerkers (think Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black), the entire purpose of the girl's disability seems to be to use it as a convenient plot element. Her character is of no importance to the narrative -- notice how the protagonist Daasu (Mangesh Desai) has long-drawn scenes where he talks to her, while she sits there motionless not showing any sign of life or communicating with him in any way. Further, the writer (Mane himself) also throws in her biological parents who have been unable to conceive thereafter and are conveniently at hand to service the screenplay.
A television reporter watches Daasu's performance and does a positive story about how this father is struggling to raise the child -- interestingly, we only see him finding the baby and accepting her as his own and then cut to the girl, Bahuli (meaning doll in Marathi), aged about five. There's no information about how this impoverished man raised her, beyond protecting her from his lecherous, drunken friend (in cinematic imagination, raising a girl in India is primarily about guarding her izzat).
The sub-plot involving the two warring television reporters and their game of one-upmanship is equally unconvincing -- suddenly, towards the end of the film, we're told they are now engaged to be married!
The filmmaker uses the device of making one of Daasu's puppets take a human form and act as narrator. In a better film this would have been an interesting element. Fortunately Shabbir Naik's cinematography does a bit of a rescue act -- there are exquisite establishing shots of Mumbai with this hapless outsider stuck in the buzz of an unkind city and a beautiful moment of father and daughter dancing with abandon against the backdrop of the setting sun. Mangesh Desai's performance is sincere, but again, he pitches himself a couple of notches higher than necessary in keeping with the sensibility of the film.
Khel Mandala is an ill-conceived film and worse, it stoops too low to conquer.