Lucknow- "Guthlee Ladoo," directed by Ishrat Khan, sheds light on the sub-human conditions endured by the Valmiki community, while highlighting the issue of the Right to Education. Guthlee (Dhanay Seth) is the son of Mangru (Subrat Dutta) and Rania (Kalyanee Mulay), who belong to the Mehtar (sweeper) community and live in a village in Bundelkhand. Guthlee is an aspirational child with a strong desire to study in school. He, along with his friend Ladoo (Heet Sharma), secretly learns at the village school, as being a Bhangi, he is prohibited from attending the only school in the village run by Chaube (Arif). Sanjay Mishra plays the role of Harishankar Bajpai, a sympathetic principal bound by caste and duty.
The anguish in Guthlee's mother's words, when she says, "Agar padhna Hote toh oonchi jaat mein paida hotay, humari kokh se kahay janam liya" (if you wanted to study, you should have been born in an upper caste, not from my womb), carries a poignant nonchalance. She seems resigned to her fate. Meanwhile, Guthlee's father, after meeting a contractor of his caste, feels inspired and displays a progressive streak. He understands his son's yearning for education. Guthlee is a quick learner and is eager to acquire knowledge, but his friend Ladoo, though desiring to study, complies with his father's demand to help with cleaning.
The film takes aim at the caste nepotism prevalent in Indian society. In a sub-plot, the mother of Harishankar (Mishra) says, "agar Bajpayee na hotay toh Headmaster na ban pate" (Had you not been a Brahmin, you would not have been able to become Headmaster).
A powerful scene depicts Mangru being brutally beaten when he attempts to replace the dripping cup reserved for untouchables with a common glass. This emphasizes the daily struggles faced by India's untouchables. If Mangru was beaten for attempting to use a glass, his son is beaten for desiring to attend school. The protagonist's tattered clothes underscore the deprivation he faces, evoking sympathy.
Guthlee's numerous attempts to gain admission to the village's only school prove futile, as Chaube cunningly obstructs every effort. Meanwhile, a tragic accident claims Ladoo's life as he accidentally falls into a gutter while helping his father. Guthlee, deeply affected by his friend's death, innocently asks his mother, "Can he now study if he is born from the womb of an upper caste in his next life?"
The film employs symbolism masterfully when the tottering mother of Harikishan asks him to plant the Guthli (kernel) to grow into a tree. After his mother's death, Harikishan resolves to grow a tree from the Guthlee.
With the support of a sympathetic headmaster, Mangru mobilizes fellow untouchables to gain admission to Saraswati Vidya Mandir. However, Chaubey's machinations thwart their efforts at every turn. Chaube appears to be a staunch casteist when Guthlee's parents finally approach him for admission. His remark that "No matter how clean the toilet is, it is only used for defecating" underscores the rigidity of the caste system.
In the film's climax, the headmaster manipulates the situation so that Guthlee's fate for admission to the school is determined by a race. Unfortunately, things are stacked against the young learner as he is asked to step back from the starting point due to casting a "shadow" on other students. To make matters worse, he is given an oversized shoe, at Chaubey's behest, to hinder his chances of entering the school. Nonetheless, Guthlee perseveres and overcomes all obstacles, emerging as a winner on his path to the school.
The film could have reduced the repetitive use of irony and the portrayal of lower-caste people as gullible voters who accept notes and other freebies. Appropriate references have been made to the Right to Education and the constitutional rights of every child to receive an education.
Technically, the film boasts excellent cinematography, with drone shots capturing the Bundelkhand landscape beautifully. Overall, the film conveys a powerful message and effectively tugs at people's heartstrings.