Four Little Calcutta Kids Take on Polio and Apathy and Win

In ‘Revolutionary Optimists,’ street children from one of the globe’s poorest neighborhoods grow up on camera, and raise the community too.

Two boys and a girl in a classroom in India sit next to a chalkboard in a scene from The Revolutionary Optimists.

The children in Amlan Ganguly’s Prayasam program absorb lessons they will later use to improve life in their community in The Revolutionary Optimists. (Photo: Courtesy of Shadow Distribution)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

When filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen first called former lawyer Amlan Ganguly of the Indian NGO Prayasam to approach him about being involved in a documentary project they were making about facilitators of social change, he quickly hung up on them.

“He told us to call him back at what would be 2 a.m. his time because he was so busy with the children,” Newnham recalls of the first conversation with the Prayasam founder. The NGO empowers kids to change their own social conditions within their Calcutta slum community.

“We had an incredible talk with him in the middle of the night his time,” recalls Newnham, “and we were just really struck by his passion and his dedication and his creativity.”

What was the end of the working day in India for Ganguly would turn out to be start of a life-changing project for Newnham and Grainger-Monsen.

The two filmmakers would spend the next three-and-a-half-years travelling back-and-forth between India and their day jobs as filmmakers-in-residence at Stanford’s University Center for Biomedical Ethics. The end result is The Revolutionary Optimists, a compelling chronicle of four children from the streets of Calcutta.

The personal journeys of these real-life protagonists do not always go smoothly. The children are fighting against firmly entrenched beliefs that their future is futile, but are given tools to find solutions to their town’s most-pressing issues—such as clean water, polio vaccinations and establishing education for future generations.

“It’s so amazing to watch the kids be willing to take on something that the parents really have given up on.”

“We believed that if we followed [the children] in a really dedicated way across time, we would actually see the internal changes in the children and the community happen on camera,” says Newnham. “That’s part of proving to people that this kind of slow change works. It’s something that’s really hard to believe unless you see it.”

The results are truly remarkable. Newnham and Grainger-Monsen show Kajal, Priyanka, Shika and Salim growing up right in front of their lens. The youths develop both a social consciousness and an internal moral compass, keeping cynicism from taking hold.

“It’s so amazing to watch the kids be willing to take on something that the parents really have given up on,” says Grainger-Monsen. “They still have the hope and the drive and the belief that they can make a change, and they do.”

Which isn’t to say all hope is lost for adults. Ganguly’s efforts with Prayasam have been in effect for two generations. By the end of Revolutionary Optimists, Newnham and Grainger-Monsen have illustrated the truth that “knowledge is power.” The coproducers have augmented this week’s theatrical release of the film with the Map Your World project, which is intended for young people with cell phones to identify trouble spots in their communities and collectively figure out solutions.

“We’re trying to build the site such that youth groups and even individuals would really be able to take this to map their community to find what they want to try and change,” says Grainger-Monsen. “Then they can use their cell phones to collect this data that can then be used to go to the government and lobby for change. The whole idea is to put the strength of data in the hands of the community that’s impacted.”

What small change can be made to improve your community? Look around and report back in COMMENTS.

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