Before I begin talking about this film, I should state when it was released- 1921. The fact that we are talking about a film made 92 years ago is a tribute to its accomplishment. We have all heard about Charlie Chaplin, the quintessential funny man. We’ve seen his photos, tidbits of his short films and innumerable stars try to replicate his charm and comic timing, including our very own Raj Kapoor. But I’m not sure how many of us have seen Chaplin’s work as a director. And what better place to start than his first feature.
The Kid starts off with an opening title that says, “A picture with a smile- and perhaps, a tear”. And true to his word, we realise straightaway that this is not slapstick comedy when we see a woman walking out of a hospital, a baby in her arms, lost and forlorn. It is made clear that the woman is unmarried, the father of the child is uncaring and the world unkind to unmarried mothers and their children. All this in the first two minutes without even the use of dialogue. Chaplin’s use of shot time is minimal, but his power to convey the idea forthright is phenomenal. The mother gives up the child, hoping that somebody would care for it, and after a funny detour, the baby ends up with The Tramp. That scene is exquisitely choreographed, Chaplin’s acting making one laugh out at his utter naivety.
The tramp takes up the responsibility of the baby reluctantly but then five years pass, and the now seemingly father-son duo, share a life full of love, sharing and happiness. Chaplin, who grew up in extreme poverty, makes no effort to romanticize it. The kid and the tramp wear torn clothes, live in a desolate house and get by a meager income, but what shines through all of it is the indomitable spirit of a human to find joy even in extreme hardship. There is a phenomenal sequence where it is shown how they make money working in tandem. Despite being ripped off badly so many times, that scene still is so funny and endearing because there is no pretense involved. And it is a joy to watch Chaplin and an astounding Jackie Coogan as the kid because they share such great chemistry; It becomes so easy for us to believe that they truly are father and son.
All along in the film, a policeman becomes an integral part of the story, and is essentially shown in a positive light, as the righteous, well-meaning authority who works best with the knowledge he has. But soon, as the story progresses and takes a dramatic turn, the authorities (including the policeman), who ironically are working with best intentions, turn into villains because though they are playing by the book and trying to do what is right for the kid, they look at themselves as caretakers who have the right to moral authority, and care neither about the wishes of the kid or the tramp, whose lives they are essentially dealing with. Chaplin’s hand as a writer is so nuanced that we realise slowly what he is trying to convey, that it is easy to follow the rules, but harder to empathize It is easier to order, when we have the power, but harder to listen, understand and make a judgment. From here, though the film is funny in a few shots, we are more concerned with the plight of the tramp and the kid because we believe that they are right for each other. We haven’t seen them for a long time but the scenes involving the two are so wonderfully sketched and acted, that it seems more like we are taking a peek into the lives of a father and a son, two people happy and comfortable in each other’s company. Actually, it seems less like a father-son relationship and more like two accomplices because of the way they share work. The scene involving pancakes proves the same. And though the separation between the two is not melodramatic, it pricks us deep inside because the setup to that scene is very powerful. If and how the tramp and the kid re-unite becomes the rest of the story.
On the face of it, The Kid is an extremely simple story. But it has layers and layers of subtext packed in, and like all great films, assesses the kind of lives we live as a society. The way we look at different people, who we choose to believe, what parameters we measure as important and how we eventually become a part of the whole despite pretending to overcome the shortcomings. The Kid addresses all that. But like the poster promises, it is also quite simply ’6 reels of joy’.