CHILDREN ARE FASCINATING entities on stage or screen. Rogue in their sense of instinct, they can be either fundamentally defining for a work, or they can simply reduce it to a morass of precocity, doing damage to the artistic product and probably to their own self-esteem, by blowing it too high, making the old adage that warns about the danger of using cute children in theatre resonate. Sadly, Judy Naidoo’s Kings of Mulberry Street fits the latter description.
Meet Harold (Shaan Nathoo): he’s about nine years old and is possessed of a round tummy and big lashed earnest black eyes. Surrounded by sadness and a sense of dispossession, he and his freshly bereaved father are relocating. There’s a back story of his father’s career as a journalist and his mother’s death which are left without development. It’s an essay in KwaZulu-Natal dynamics, but not a strong one.
Harold’s meeting with Ticky Chetty (Aaqil Hoosen), a runabout neighbourhood kid of about his age, the child of no-goodniks, with a rogue fringe and a spooky granny, is at best, traumatic. It involves theft and subterfuge, of a nine-year-old stripe.
Gradually the boys make friends and what unfolds in narrative terms is a mash-up of Bollywood flippancy and a ‘Hardy Boys’ type of adventure involving wily young whippersnappers averting crime and cheating the bad guys, ultimately overriding the grown ups with feeble and cloying humour. Already the film falls a notch or two if you’re not an out-and-out Bollywood groupie. And indeed, if you are a Bollywood connoisseur, it may fall further. But as it develops you realise one of the key issues in this work is its lack of introspection.
When you think of films which feature children, such as Garth Davis’s astonishing film Lion or Capernaum which takes you into the heart of Lebanese dispossession, Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age masterpiece Stand By Me or Volker Schlӧndorff’s unsettling 1979 work The Tin Drum, there is a level of underlying history and narrative, enabling you to delight in the mysteries and earnestness of childhood adventure, while holding on to an adult context. The distance created by the to-and-fro where the adult is allowed to reflect on his much younger self, is what lends these pieces the integrity they have.
You do not find this in The Kings of Mulberry Street. Rather, what you find, is poor and squeaky articulation on the part of the child performers, sometimes with the words themselves the biggest casualty of all. As this bubblegum- and glitter-flavoured story unfolds, you find yourself wishing there were subtitles, even though the work is in English.
And while there are a few utterly gorgeous moments which feature the two boys playing hooky and conniving with movie house rules, confronting the magic of the silver screen in a life-turning way, ultimately, the whole work lacks potency. Unless, of course, you understand the Bollywood rhetoric it plays with, and walk into the movie theatre pre-armed.
- Kings of Mulberry Street is directed by Judy Naidoo and features a cast headed by Kimberly Arthur, Keshan Chetty, Chris Forrest, Aaqil Hoosen, Rizelle Januk, Hamish Kyd, Kogie Naidoo, Thiru Naidoo, Shaan Nathoo, Neville Pillay and Amith Sing. It is written by Judy Naidoo, and, produced by Bianca Isaac and Judy Naidoo, it features creative input by Brendan Jury (music), Quinn Lubbe (editing) and Edward Liebenberg (production design). Release date, in South Africa: June 28 2019.