The Revolutionary Optimists: Fighting Poverty in Calcutta

The Revolutionary Optimists

Opens Fri., March 29 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 83 minutes.

What’s most satisfying about this touching documentary is its modest approach. A film about breaking the cycles of poverty in India, it spends no time presenting sweeping generalizations about, or remedies to, the sex discrimination and government inaction that makes Kolkata (Calcutta) so miserable for those on its bottom rungs. A few well-placed statistics give a larger sense of the problem, but filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen—Seattle natives now based at Stanford University—spend most of the film’s brisk 83 minutes following three kids through their individual victories and tribulations. Their stories emerge during two years filming the work of attorney Amlan Ganguly, the son of a high-level Bengali official who’s devoted himself to improving the lives of India’s slum-dwellers, especially women, through his organization Prayasam. (Clean water, polio vaccinations, and education for girls are among his goals.) And as the title suggests, hopelessness doesn’t make an appearance in the film. Nor do outrage or pity. The joy I felt when one village successfully pulls off a coed soccer tournament is testament to the tenderness Newnham and Grainger-Monsen put into telling what may seem like inconsequential stories from a nation of a billion people. And I left the film with an understanding of Indian poverty that no sober recitation of the country’s socioeconomic situation could have provided.

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