A quintet of independent Indian films, all feature debuts, will be pitching for global breakthroughs in Marche du Film’s ‘Goes to Cannes’ section
Five films-in-post, all debut features, constitute the ‘NFDC Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes’ selection for the Marche du Film, which will this year be a wholly digital platform.
The Indian quintet will join 15 other films – five apiece from Hong Kong- Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), Poland’s New Horizons International Film Festival and the Thessaloniki Film Festival – in vying for the attention of sales agents, distributors and festival curators at the premier event scheduled from June 22 to 26.
Two of these titles – Ajitpal Singh’s Hindi-language Fire in the Mountains and Natesh Hegde’s Kannada film Pedro – were NFDC Film Bazaar 2019 Work-in-Progress (WIP) Lab winners.
Prasun Chatterjee’s Bengali film Dostojee (Two Friends) was part of Film Bazaar Recommends last year, while Ashish Pant’s Uljhan (The Knot) and Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies, two Hindi films set in Lucknow, were in the WIP Lab lineup.
Dostojee, an independent Bengali film, has taken seven years out of the life of young writer-director Prasun Chatterjee. All the effort and time have borne fruit: the film is now on the Cannes bandwagon.
It is set in the early 1990s in a rural Bengal outpost, as far away as one could have got from the reverberations of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent Mumbai serial blasts.
Through the prism of an “innocent friendship” between two village boys, Palash and Safikul, Dostojee examines how two cataclysmic events that took place three months apart impacted the two boys and their village.
Chatterjee, who has designed the film’s sound without banking on music, wrote the script in 2013. “I have been travelling in the area for the last 12 years. I even lived there for two-anda-half years to understand the struggles of the exceedingly poor people there,” he says.
Besides a few theatre actors, the cast of Dostojee has 150-plus villagers, all non-actors. The two main roles are played by boys from the border village, Ashik Sheikh and Arif Sheikh. One is the son of a migrant worker; the other’s father works as an earth-digger for a local brick kiln. To help them ease themselves into the unfamiliar job of acting, Chatterjee would sit down with the two schoolboys every day and assist them with their homework.
Ashik and Arif weren’t the only ones who learnt on the job during the Dostojee shoot. Director of photography Tuhin Biswas did, too. Biswas is an award-winning photographer (and primary school teacher in Ranaghat, Nadia district) who was hired to click working stills. He took over as the cinematographer. His work is earning accolades on the evidence of the trailer alone.
“We shot the film in different seasons. A rain-making machine cannot produce showers to replicate natural rain,” says Chatterjee. “Also, in the period that Dostojee is set, there was no electricity in this village (which is located in the last subdivision on this side of the India-Bangladesh border between Murshidabad and Rajshahi). Everything had to be filmed in light from natural sources and from candles and lanterns.”
Chatterjee says he will be pitching Dostojeeto both festival heads and sales agents.
The Hindi-language Fire in the Mountains, directed by Ajitpal Singh, is set in an Uttarakhand village where tradition still hinders the path of modernity.
A woman saves money with the intention of making life easier for her disabled son. Her husband, on the other hand, has his eyes set on her savings. He has a shamanic ritual in mind as a means to curing the child.
Fire in the Mountains is produced by Ajay Rai of JAR Pictures, who came on board after seeing Singh’s 2018 short film Rammat Gammat. Veteran French cinematographer Dominique Colin (who has worked with Gaspar Noe and Cedric Klapisch)is the film’s director of photography
A personal tragedy triggered Singh’s first narrative feature. The filmmaker lost a cousin because her husband believed she was possessed and therefore refused to take her to a hospital. “I was angry and dealing with the shock when the idea struck me,” says the writer-director. “My cousin was a progressive woman married to a conservative, old school guy.”
It is a similar clash between tradition and modernity that Fire in the Mountains explores. “In Uttarakhand, I found out about shamanic practices like ‘jaagar’ in which gods and spirits are summoned to cure ailments. It was the perfect setting for this kind of film.” Debutante Vinamrata Rai (she has been in short films before) plays the female lead opposite the NSD trained Chandan Bisht. Fire in the Mountains also has Sonal Jha in a secondary role.
About the Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes programme, Singh says: “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have had a clear picture, but now I am going along and trying to figure out what is really happening in the market.”
The Marche du Film participation, he hopes, will help him know what the industry’s strategy is going to be in the current situation. “I just want to know where we stand and how we should plan ahead,” says Singh.
Pedro is directed by Natesh Hegde, a filmmaker based out of a small village near Dharwad in Karnataka. The project won the WIP Lab’s DI Support Award at the 2019 NFDC Film Bazaar.
The film is about a middle-aged electrician (played by Hegde’s father) living with his mother and his brother’s family in a remote village. The man commits an act that upsets the villagers and elicits an unexpected reaction from them.
“My father is an electrician. The film is based on some incidents in his life,” says Hegde. “There is a great deal of fiction in the film although the characters are real. They are from my village, and some are even relatives. In Pedro, I want to navigate between documentary and fiction.”
Hegde hopes, first and foremost, to tap the Goes to Cannes section to land a good festival premiere. “I will, of course, also be looking for distributors,” he adds. Hegde, a self-taught filmmaker, regards the late G. Aravindan as his principal creative lodestar. “I have been aspiring to be a filmmaker for 6-7 years now,” he says. “The director who inspires me the most is Aravindan. “In his films, the line between the real and the imagined is blurred.”
Hegde cites Aravindan’s Thampu, a film about circus performers shot in documentary style, as a case in point. “It is hard to fathom how he managed to shoot the close-ups of those people. His films were disarmingly simple but they had important things to say,” says the young filmmaker.
Set in early 1960s Lucknow, Shankar’s Fairies is based on “the childhood memories” of director Irfana Majumdar’s historian-mother. The film is about a nine-year-old child of a senior police officer and her bonding with a family retainer, Shankar.
Majumdaris a Varanasi-based theatre director, teacher and solo performer.“ In terms of aesthetics, visuals and the film’s spatial feel, I’ve relied on the instincts that my theatre training has given me,” she says.
The cast of the film has a mix of trained performers and non-actors, with whom she did a lot of work for several months before the shoot. “The main actor lived in the house and worked as a servant in preparation for the role,” says Majumdar.
The short synopsis of Shankar’s Fairies on the Marche du Film site reads: “A little girl belonging to a privileged family and a village man who is the family servant share a relationship based on imagination and stories. Underlying their innocent bonds are divided worlds: city and village, master and servant, adult and child.”
In Shankar’s Fairies, Majumdar has used her mother’s recollections to craft a non-linear, fictionalized film in which most of the incidents in the film take place in houses similar to the Lucknow Cantonment bungalows that officers of the Uttar Police Force lived in. “The setting is very real,” she says.
Her expectations from the Marche du Film? “This is our first feature film and we’ve made it completely independently. We are looking for anyone who might partner with us to help us get the film seen and get it out to the world,” Majumdar says.
The second Lucknow film in the NFDC Film Bazaar selection, Ashish Pant’s Uljhan (The Knot) homes in on a middle-class couple whose car is involved in an accident one night. The conflicting reactions of the two to the incident drives a wedge between them and turns the spotlight on their values and beliefs.
Produced by Kartikeya Singh (Anhey Gorhey Da Daan, ChauthiKoot, Soni), Uljhan is Pant’s first feature. He is a writing and directing alumnus from Columbia University who worked in theatre, assisting a lot of directors. He now teaches film in New York.
The Knot (Hindi, Urdu, Awadhi) has its genesis in a real-life car mishap that happened when Pant was seven years old. He says: “Within a few minutes the car was surrounded by people banging on the windows. They assumed that we had made a mistake. I was terrified. That image stayed with me.”
“Lucknow,” Pant says, “has always been portrayed on the screen in the historical context. But my film is totally contemporary.”The central character in Uljhan is a small businessman. Says Pant: “It is very much about the class structure but the difference is that we have restricted the perspective to the middle-class couple.”
“The third character,” he explains, “comes from outside this class, but any judgement that the audience will make will emerge from the perspective of the middle class. My intention is to get the viewer to think what they would have done had they been in a similar situation.”
Vikas Kumar (Hamid), Saloni Batra (Soni) and Nehpal Gautam play the three main roles in Uljhan. “The film is pretty much complete, so we are looking for festival slots,” says Pant. “But we will also explore sales and distribution opportunities.”