There’s a strange, sweet and magical film straining to break free of the pokey storytelling of “Habaddi,” an Indian children’s fantasy set in Western India, where Marathi is spoken and Kabaddi is the sport of choice.
Director Nachiket Samant manages some beautiful if not entirely vital to the story moments in this meandering movie about a stuttering child who takes up a difficult sport — especially for stutterers — so that he can track down his first crush in distant Mumbai.
In the contact team sport of Kabaddi, which has a hint of the Western children’s game “Red Rover” about it, a “raider” dashes in to tag opposing players and (I gather) avoid being tackled by them. While he’s doing that, he chants the not-quite-tongue-twisting name of the game to them.
“Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi.”
Hard enough, yes? Now try doing it with a stutter.
Manya is a bullied orphan boy of ten who often skips school and hides from the peers he should be playing with because everybody — mean kids and tactless adults — teases him about his stutter. He rarely speaks, communicating with gestures mostly.
But the lovely tween Ketaki (Vedshree Mahajan) enchants him with her spirit and bravery. She’s showing off her favorite music box, a ballerina who twirls to the tune of Beethoven’s solo piano piece “Fur Elise,” when a bully knocks it into the “haunted” well where the “Naked Ghost” dwells.
That’s the one place they’ve have been warned not to play, so naturally it’s catnip to the kiddies. And now Ketaki’s beloved music box has sunk to the bottom of it.
Manya barely gives a moment’s thought to diving in to try and fetch it. He fails, but he doesn’t give up. Being a tiny tinkerer, we see this engineering savant take apart clocks and put them back together. It’s nothing for him to swipe a pair of glasses, the barber’s scissors and the bike repairman’s inner tube to conjure up goggles to aid his quest.
Kerati moves away to Mumbai, but Manya can’t get her off his mind. It’s not until the village’s most celebrated Kabaddi player, Murati (Mayur Khandge) returns and is coerced into coaching the local kids in the sport that Manya sees a way to fulfill his quest. He’s been trying to sneak off and take the bus to Mumbai without the money to do it. But a Kabaddi team will get to travel there, if he joins it and if they get good enough.
There’s lovely underwater footage of the child diving into the aquarium clear (with turtles and blue tangs) well. The superstitious locals pray for the forgiveness of the Naked Ghost which they say dwells there.
We also see one of Manya’s adult protectors talking with him via a ventriloquist dummy, which might be a way to help the boy cope with his stutter.
But here’s the thing, director and co-writer Nachiket Samant. We don’t actually see the lad fetch the music box. The ghost, like the ventriloquist’s dummy, like the kid’s beloved donkey whom Ketaki gives a name, like his time-lapse tinkering with clocks (taken apart and re-assembled) are all non-starters.
Samant throws all this unresolved material into the movie as an excuse for taking forever to get to the game that gives the film its title and the quest that gives mop-topped Manya his purpose.
The third act just bounces along as the kid masters the game by learning a way to say the magic word over and over again while playing it, with music — much of it inspired by “Fur Elise” — singing and bouncing along with them. He meets a fellow stutterer or two, his coach’s “secret shame” is addressed and they travel to Mumbai.
But getting to Mumbai, allegedly the focus of his quest, becomes an anti-climax. I’d say “Someone took his eye off the ball,” but there’s no ball in “Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi.” And no matter how much you love “Fur Elise,” hearing that “Kabiddi” phrase sung incessantly to that Beethoven tune is sure to get on your nerves.
Not as much as the scatterbrained holes in the “Hadabbi” plot. What’s Manya got to take to Ketaki if he doesn’t fetch the music box? His impish smile and unruly haircut? I went back to rewatch that part of the story to make sure my eyes hadn’t tricked me. Was that chopped out of the US version? Why introduce X, Y and Z if these characters and story decor don’t advance the plot?
That’s why I say there’s a cute movie in this, and somebody lost the thread getting to it.
Cast: Karan Dave, Mayur Khandge, Vedshree Mahajan
Credits: Directed by Nachiket Samant, scripted by Yogesh Vinayak Joshi and Nachiket Samant. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:43