Darn that Sunny Panwar is cute.
Just casting the adorable, empathetic kid from “Lion” as “Chippa,” a Kolkata street urchin probably made first-time writer-director Safdar Rahman think, “My work here is done.” His picaresque story of an orphan’s picaresque adventures and encounters on the night of his tenth birthday was guaranteed to steal your heart.
But then he gives the little boy, searching the streets for someone who can read a letter left for him by his long-missing father (it’s written in Urdu), a puppy. And that, frankly, isn’t playing fair.
“Chippa” is an utterly enchanting fantasy version of an Indian street child’s life. The system and society that failed him and left him homeless is irrelevant.
The dangers and threats facing Chippa were much more obvious in a movie like “Lion.” Chippa gets cussed out and thrown out by his by cranky Aunty (Mala Mukherjee) and takes a pummeling from the neighborhood street vendors and shopkeepers. But otherwise, his night-long odyssey is filled with characters as utterly charmed by him as we are.
There’s the taxi driver (Sumeet Thakur) who listens to his “dream” of driving a taxi. They meet after Chippa has hitched a ride on the fellow’s roof, unbeknownst to the driver. But one smile and that is forgiven.
Chippa meets drunks and a cop (Gautam Sarkar), a wise old sweet shop keeper, mailmen, hookers, a street band and the kids from a super-organized (and illegal) street soccer match, and others.
“Don’t worry, I’m not begging.”
He asks them questions, hears maybe a snippet of their lives or dreams. And then he asks the only thing he really wants out of this long night on the mostly-empty streets of the city.
“Can you read Urdu?”
“Chippa” is a movie that lets you get ahead of it, so predictable are its story beats and the places it sets him up to tug at your heart.
But Panwar is so beguiling, we don’t mind. The film’s simple artfulness — empty, light-splashed streets, a score so bubbly and wistful that Netflix should be selling downloads, gloriously on-point casting — make “Chippa” one of the hidden gems of Netflix, a charmer well-worth hunting down.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, violence, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Sunny Panwar, Masood Akhtar, Mala Mukherjee
Credits: Written and directed by Safdar Rahman. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:31