Maren Grangier-Monsen and Nicole Newnham’s The Revolutionary Optimists centers on Amlan Ganguly, a former lawyer who runs a school for children living in the various slums of Kolkata, India. At the school, children of all ages not only receive a fundamental education, but also instructions on how to demand and maintain their basic human rights, a course of action that makes sense given the daunting numbers presented by the filmmakers: 47 percent of girls in India are forced into marriage before their 18th birthday; nine million Indian children work in brick mills earning $1.42 a day in exchange for backbreaking, dehumanizing labor while forgoing a proper education; and just one clean water tap for every three slums. Suddenly, it seems Ganguly’s efforts are not only commendable, but crucial.
The filmmakers depict the fruits of those efforts by chronicling the exploits of Ganguly’s students, including Priyanka, the 16-year-old choreographer of the school’s dance troupe and an advocate against arranged marriages, and Salim, an 11-year-old community organizer whose efforts to provide his slum with drinkable water leads him all the way to India’s parliament. Because of their frankness and emotional transparency, children can be fascinating documentary subjects, willing and able to divulge their feelings in ways self-conscious adults seldom are. The wide-eyed precociousness of Salim, Priyanka, and the rest of the students is nothing short of heartwarming, a beacon of positivity and determination amid surroundings that smack of despair and hardship. Newnham and Grainger-Monsen are tastefully observational of their subjects, allowing their actions and behavior to unfold naturally while keeping documentary clichés like talking heads and voiceovers to a minimum.
Filming over the course of a few years, Newnham and Grainger-Monsen chronicle the ups and downs of these and other children, accounting for victories and failures alike. Some of the stories, particularly Priyanka’s willful defiance of her parents’ constant demands that she marry, are the stuff of high drama, but the film never feels exploitative. Indeed, the filmmakers display a genuine reverence for their subjects, evident even in the intimate but never intrusive photography. The Revolutionary Optimists could have easily stooped to the level of cultural voyeurism, but the doc never strays from its central mission, which is to give Ganguly and his students a virtuous and deserved platform.
But structural issues abound, as some subjects are given more screen time than others; storylines tend to weave in and out of one another with little rhyme or reason, which hampers the film’s pacing and causes some stories to go disappointingly unresolved. This problem is most evident when Newnham and Grainger-Monsen shift the spotlight to the children’s parents. The decision makes sense conceptually, as the filmmakers intend to illustrate the vastly different ideologies held between different generations, but the abrupt shifts in the narratives are jarring. Formal quibbles notwithstanding, the final product is affecting, engaging, and thoughtful.