In July of 2018, the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi launched a radical initiative: in classrooms all throughout the city the students were to engage in emotional and life skills education in addition to their regular schooling. By the time the initiative had been fully implemented, it was reaching 1.2 million students and more than 50,000 teachers in 20,000 classrooms in more than 1,000 schools. Dubbed the “Happiness Curriculum,” it was an effort to counteract rising and upsetting trends in an array of problems (SCERT & DoE, “Happiness Curriculum”), from a slipping ranking on international happiness studies (Solanki) to suicide related to academic performance (Mukhopadhyay). By integrating periods of mindfulness, reflection, and moral exploration – based not on examinations, but on stories and activities – into the conventional curriculum today, the Government hopes to create a happier and healthier generation of students inheriting the India of tomorrow.
The Happiness Curriculum shares an essential framework with the Life Skills Education espoused and practiced by Dream a Dream (“Dream a Dream – Empowering At Risk Children – Our Strategy”). At their cores, both strive to instill in young people the mechanisms and capacities to navigate the obstacles of everyday life. The similarities aren’t coincidental – Dream a Dream is the sponsoring NGO of the Curriculum, and the anchor of its construction. It was through this partnership that I came to be involved, an American filmmaker very familiar with life skills who can present a unique perspective.
Despite being less than a year old, the positive effects of the Curriculum are already manifesting in the classrooms and homes of the city. From a policymaker’s or development sector practitioner’s perspective, this first year is a crucial time to be vigilant and involved; as with any venture, impact has to be assessed. As a result, with my camera in-hand I was invited to dive headlong into an education system undergoing radical transformation to direct, produce, shoot, and edit a film that explores, interprets, and conveys the stories of positive impact sprouting up throughout the city.
The film will premiere at the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Curriculum, and will mark one year of a government championing life skills education to cultivate happier, more self-sustaining young people.
The message of the film weighs heavily on me because on the day I sat down to start editing, my social media news feeds were lined with articles on the 20 Indian students who committed suicide following the release of failing, possibly erroneous, test scores. An appeal was made by the Chief Minister of Telangana to dissuade further students from considering the act (Aaro), but change needs to also rise from the ground. Institutions are slowly waking up to the importance of life skills education; we think a film like this could help.
A CURRICULUM OF HAPPINESS
The Curriculum utilizes a model called the Triad of Happiness as a foundation for its objectives and syllabi. This model presents three iterations of happiness as strata:
- Outermost is “momentary happiness,” or happiness that is derived through the senses – such as eating a delicious meal or listening to a good song – and is therefore physical and fleeting;
- One level inward is “deeper happiness,” or happiness stemming from external emotions and healthy relationships that provide feelings of respect, love, gratitude, and affection, among others, and, while more deeply felt, is dependent upon those needs being met;
- At the core of the model is “sustainable happiness,” or happiness that is self-generated by feeling purposeful, mindful, and free of internal conflict, and can come from understanding new concepts, gaining knowledge, or expressing oneself creatively, and is much more deeply-rooted and long-lasting.
The Curriculum guides students as they explore happiness at the deeper, more sustainable levels, a paradigm shift away from external signifiers of happiness and toward internal values of happiness (SCERT & DoE, “Happiness Curriculum”). The equipment for this exploration are life skills – among them skills like active listening, conflict management, taking initiative, problem-solving, and communication and interaction; indeed, the same life skills comprising Dream a Dream’s pedagogy and mission (Kennedy et al., “The Life Skills Assessment Scale: Measuring life skills in disadvantaged children in the developing world”).
In a consistent weekly calendar, students engage with mindfulness exercises, values-based storytelling, activities, reflective discussions, and opportunities for self-expression, all built upon central values or themes (SCERT & DoE, “Happiness Curriculum”). The stories are fictional, but they pull elements from the lives of students so that, to the students, they seem real and are therefore relatable. For example, the characters often covet common items like scooters and cell phones, just as a student in contemporary India would. The parents hold occupations and jobs common in the lives of the students. The stories, then, act as modern parables, embedding morals- and values-based lessons in anecdotes that could just as feasibly come from within their communities today.
The film is a mirror for the Happiness Curriculum, a reflection of the Curriculum’s impact and achievements one year after its launch. Its structure stems from the framework of the Curriculum itself: each chapter of the film explores a component of the Curriculum through the story of a young person whose life has changed in ways big or small as a result of their participation and engagement. Let’s examine a few of those chapters.
“THE BOY WHO FOUND HIS VOICE”
A week in the Happiness Curriculum starts with mindfulness, which grounds the students in the moment and fosters confidence and clarity of thought. The film, then, too, opens with mindfulness. In the first chapter, “The Boy Who Found His Voice,” we meet Ashwini, a young boy with a passion for poetry and a desire to share his words who faces nervousness and anxiety when speaking in front of others. By practicing the mindfulness techniques the Curriculum taught him, he is able to manage those feelings and find his voice.
The chapter opens with Ashwini nervously waiting to be called to the stage to deliver his poem to his classmates and school community. In the background, beyond the safety of the curtain, we see a crowd of boys and teachers. Ashwini paces agitatedly; he peaks around this curtain to see the crowd, and the resulting expression reveals his nervousness. The story begins in medias res, a narrative technique that places the audience in the midst of the story without immediate exposition, and then uncovers the events leading to this moment; in essence, starting midway through, rewinding to gain insight and perspective, and then continuing onward to the conclusion. Doing so accomplishes two things. First, it embeds the positive benefits of mindfulness in his journey, cementing it as the change that helps him overcome his obstacle. Second, it creates tension for the audience by way of the uncertainty in how the dramatic situation will unfold, uncertainty stemming from Ashwini’s own headspace as he waits to perform his poem. The film’s conclusion features Ashwini’s successful delivery of his poem, to the applause and cheers of his teachers and peers.
As the crux of the chapter, the practice and philosophy of mindfulness informed the construction of the narrative and its filmic language. To be mindful is to be free of worries past or future; to be mindful is to be grounded in the present moment, accepting the feelings, sensations, and thoughts as they come. Mindfulness comes from a concerted effort to breathe, to be still and quiet. To match the experience of attaining a mindful state, I sat amongst the students and with a long lens on my camera (which creates shallow depth of field, or a high level of difference in clarity between foreground and background objects) I slowly shifted the focus from the shoulders of the students all the way down the row until finally resting on the teacher. The eyes of the audience yearn for the focus to move quickly, as the human eye naturally would; the slow shift from the shoulder in the foreground to the teacher at the back heightens that yearning, forcing an acknowledgment of time, of detail and shape and texture. It is purposefully slow and deliberate, and it is through this deliberate slowness that I force the audience to breathe and focus on the moment, as well.
It was a busy, hectic day filming “The Boy Who Found His Voice.” Ashwini did his absolute best despite his feelings of nervousness that had spurred our interest in his story in the first place. Sometimes, however, the pressure of working with the film crew and delivering his interview proved to be a little overwhelming. With the flurry of his interview shoot being set up around him, and with seemingly nobody watching him, the young man closed his eyes and breathed deeply, grounding himself in the moment to ease his fears. But, at that moment, I just so happened to be recording – proof positive that the Happiness Curriculum is working and is being embraced and utilized in the moments these young people need it the most. And this, thankfully, is captured in the film.
In another chapter in the film, “Bada Aadmi,” we meet Anshu, a young girl who undergoes an awakening of gratitude toward her parents after internalizing the messages of the Curriculum’s story “Bada Aadmi,” which is about a young boy who learns the value in appreciating the things he has and realizes the follies of being selfish after accidentally discovering the debt slips within his father’s wallet for items this young boy had demanded his father buy. It’s a story about acknowledging and appreciating the sacrifice others make, and about valuing and being grateful for the things one already has.
The film presents a duo of narratives that coalesce in support of the theme of gratitude. In one, we watch Anshu as she writes a note for her Gratitude Wall, which she had established in her family’s kitchen. The Gratitude Wall is a Happiness Curriculum activity that promotes the recognition of the support and care students receive from parents and community members in a collection of notes displayed on a wall that act as physical reminders for sustained awareness (SCERT & DoE, “Happiness Curriculum”). She then attends to a meal she’s preparing. In the second thread, her mother returns home, tired and arms full of bags. As she makes her way up a flight of stairs and sets her bags down for a moment of rest, we realize Anshu had been preparing the meal for her. The camera focuses on Anshu at the kitchen counter, then racks (or shifts) focus to the note to her mother hanging on the wall. The shift of focus compels the audience, in turn, to first focus on the act of giving, and then focus on the Happiness Curriculum activity that inspired and manifested that act.
It was important during the production of the film to always consider ways to promote and maintain the dignity of those featured. A great example of this came while filming a class during a session of reflection on the story “Bada Aadmi.” It was an emotional session filled with sentiments of appreciation, care, and happiness; when one girl stood to deliver her answer, however, her voice became fragile and her eyes shimmered with light, and she soon started to cry.
While in the field, a documentary filmmaker relies on a playbook – much like an athlete would use during a match, or an improv comedy performer would use during a show – that is fluid, contextual, and adaptable. The play that I felt was appropriate is as follows: in response to the heightened emotion of the moment, I chose to kneel before her so that the camera was pointed upwards at her. This imbued her with power; the audience is “looking up” to her, just as you would to someone whom you respect and admire, a phrase which has entered colloquial vernacular. It also captures her story honestly. Ultimately, the sequence is a poignant example of the influence the Curriculum is having on its students, an influence encouraging reflection and growth.
AN OUTSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE
In order to tell the seven stories of positive change made possible by the Happiness Curriculum, the five production crew members and I, by the end of filming, had accumulated over 300 hours of footage from seven schools across New Delhi. We interviewed 35 distinct individuals; in total, we estimate we had the participation of around 570 students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members. Of those featured in the film, 60% are girls and women and 40% are boys and men.
The project was an ethnographic and sociological deep-dive predominantly centered around education reform and practice. Education, however, acts as a bridge between multiple sectors of society; indeed, a classroom is a microcosm of society, an interaction between various factors and influences manifested by the interaction between teacher and student, between student and curriculum, and between the students themselves. In the chapter “The Watch” we investigate consumerism, class issues, and aspirational culture. In the chapter “Home Remedy” we explore domestic relationships, authority dynamics, and gender roles. In the chapter “Stephen Hawking and Me” we tap into ablism and inclusiveness. The Curriculum is the umbrella spanning over all of it.
Throughout the production of the film I was often acknowledged and thanked for providing a new perspective in telling the story of the Curriculum – an outsider’s perspective. In many instances an outsider can be valuable in this way because it more reliably ensures a perspective free of biases or conflicting interests. For all intents and purposes, I was an outsider. When in the classrooms filming the Happiness Curriculum sessions, which are conducted in Hindi, I could not rely on language to guide my lens to the story unfolding in real time. I had to turn up my awareness of the emotions and dynamics of the group to discern where to seek the revealing moments. This was highly creatively liberating. Being outside of the verbal exchange positioned me to tap into something deeper, into the emotional communication the Happiness Curriculum strives to impart, because that was all I had to work with. Thankfully so; through practical limitation came creative freedom, and from an outsider’s perspective came an intimate understanding.
The more I engaged with the students, the teachers, and the Curriculum itself, the more I realized how universal the call for life skills education should be. These skills are certainly useful in the context of the Indian education system, but by no means are they an extension of problems exclusive to India. If anything, my prolonged engagement with the Curriculum and its impact reminded me of all the similarities we share; it shines a light on the struggles we all face, from establishing and navigating healthy relationships to managing anxieties to simply learning how to express oneself. I stopped feeling like an outsider – when it comes to something as fundamentally human as happiness, there aren’t any outsiders. Nobody is given a guidebook upon birth outlining what a happy life entails. What we can do, though, is connect with one another to share in this human experience and collaborate on ways to make it a little easier, a little more fulfilling, and a little happier for everyone. And that’s exactly what’s being done in New Delhi, with a world of impact to come.
- Aaro, David. “20 Indian Students Commit Suicide after Exam Results.” Fox News, 28 Apr. 2019, www.foxnews.com/world/20-indian-students-commit-suicide-after-exam-results.
- “Dream a Dream – Empowering at Risk Children – Our Strategy.” Dream a Dream – Empowering at Risk Children – Our Strategy, dreamadream.org/our-strategy.
- Kennedy, F., Pearson, D., Brett-Taylor, L. & Talreja, V. (2014). The Life Skills Assessment Scale: Measuring life skills in disadvantaged children in the developing world. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, Vol 42, No 2 (2014)
- Mukhopadhyay, Ankita. “When Will India Address Its Student Suicide Crisis?” Fair Observer, 25 Feb. 2019, www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/india-student-suicides-mental-health-south-asia-news-75495/.
- Solanki, Nehal. “India’s Happiness Ranking Drops to 140; Way behind Pakistan, China, Bangladesh.” Business Today, 22 Mar. 2019, www.businesstoday.in/current/world/indias-happiness-ranking-drops-to-140-way-behind-pakistan-china-bangladesh/story/330018.html.
- State Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi (SCERT), and Directorate of Education (DoE). Happiness Curriculum. State Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, 2019.