The documentary “The Revolutionary Optimists” offers a lesson in current events with a glimpse of everyday life in India. But a more important takeaway can be gleaned from the film’s subject, Amlan Ganguly, who keeps his chin up even when the setbacks keep rolling in. He chips away at the obstacles before him, giving children tools to challenge the status quo in the slums they call home.
The movie, by directors Maren R. Monsen and Nicole Newnham, weaves together a few stories connected to Ganguly, who started a nonprofit group called Prayasam. Ganguly’s philosophy is that the most efficient path to societal improvement is by empowering a community’s youngest members.
One thread follows 11-year-old friends Salim and Sikha. They live in a Kolkata slum where residents make an hour-long pilgrimage and wait in a line for hours to procure potable water before lugging their heavy containers back home. Five years after the government promised a community tap, the residents remain without easy access to drinking water.
For most people, the result of so many forgotten guarantees is an exhausted and apathetic acceptance of the current state of affairs.
But children, Ganguly wisely recognizes, have a grander sense of possibility.
Not only do Salim and Sikha make necessary steps toward gaining access to drinking water — including making the neighborhood’s first map and addressing parliament — but they also focus energy on increasing awareness for polio vaccines and rejiggering their area’s persistent gender inequality. Just because girls have never played soccer, for example, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t start now.
The movie is not all so straightforward and rosy, although that doesn’t affect Ganguly’s frame of mind. Another tale follows the child laborers at a Kolkata brick field. The uneducated 12-year-old Kajal spends her days transporting huge loads of bricks atop her tiny head. Her greatest aspiration is to become a tailor. That hope seems attainable when Ganguly’s group gives area children access to education. Complicating factors constantly materialize, and for each dilemma, Ganguly comes up with a methodical solution.
Even when one of his mentees, 16-year-old dancer Priyanka, contemplates a path that’s more passive than progressive, Ganguly keeps his positive attitude, hoping that one day he will have the chance to mentor her offspring.
Prayasam’s goals are impressively vast, but that can make the film feel less-than-cohesive. There is a sense that perhaps one of these stories could have carried an entire film. And while Ganguly and his bright disciples make great subjects, the filmmakers sometimes rely too heavily on their strength as characters rather than working to craft a strong, integrated narrative.
Even so, these are inspiring anecdotes, not necessarily because of what these people have accomplished — sometimes they don’t come close to attaining their goals — but because they never give up. Most people could learn a lot from these little activists.
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains nothing objectionable. In Bengali and English with English subtitles. 83 minutes.