Indie Resurgence

By Pickle  August 29, 2019

Driven by a fresh burst of energy, a new breed of independent filmmakers are delivering films based on their own individualistic visions, erasing the gap between the socially meaningful and the commercially viable Indian cinema – By Saibal Chatterjee

Mediocrity is mainstream Indian cinema’s comfort zone. It has always been. But today, being middling is more than just an old habit for filmmakers seeking easy ways to achieve runaway commercial success. It has become a necessity. Low-grade, star-driven commercial cinema and its purveyors are being gleefully embraced by both the masses and the official agencies charged with the promotion of film culture in the country.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an unabashedly misogynistic film like
Arjun Reddy hits the box-office bull’s eye. Its Hindi remake, Kabir Singh, made by the same director with a different actor, does even better.

Another easy-to-sell category of cinema has emerged, especially in Mumbai, over the past few years: adulatory biopics and puff jobs. These are films that are either aggressively jingoistic (Uri: The Surgical Strike, RAW: Romeo Akbar Walter) or are unabashed extended, fictionalized public service adverts (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha). Taking the line of least resistance pays instant dividends. These films not only make pots of money but also often go on to win national awards at the cost of essays that are leagues ahead in cinematic terms.

But for a new breed of independent filmmakers who are consciously pulling away from the crowd and following their own individualistic visions to deliver films aimed at erasing the gap between the socially meaningful and the commercially viable, Indian cinema today would have worn the looks of a hopeless wasteland.

Mercifully, even filmmakers working in the mainstream space – Pa. Ranjith and Vetrimaaran in Chennai and Anurag Kashyap and Anubhav Sinha in Mumbai – do not shy away from hitting political hot-buttons and questioning gender presumptions in stories couched in popular narrative formulations.

When Vetrimaaran makes Vada Chennai, he ensures that it isn’t any ordinary gangster flick. He infuses it with a social resonance that communicates truths about a city and society in ways that are beyond the reach of less clued-in filmmakers. Pretty much the same is true of Pa. Ranjith. His two Rajinikanth vehicles, Kabali and Kaala, have a strong caste struggle sub-text delivered in a style that never strays into the preachy and boring. Ranjith also recently produced Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal, the story of a boy from an oppressed caste struggling to ward of continuing discrimination.

Ranjith is now in the midst of directing his first Hindi-language film – a drama based on the life of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. The choice of hero is a natural progression for a filmmaker whose cinema has probed the place of the deprived and dispossessed in a society where power flows from religious identity and caste allegiance.

Important elements dovetailed into the plot of Anurag Kashyap’s boxing drama Mukkabaaz also reflects the political consciousness of the maker. The ills of the caste system have also been laid bare in stark detail in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15. The film is a worthy follow-up to Sinha’s Mulk, which addressed the issue of Islamophobia head-on. We might argue that Indian films still haven’t gone far enough to call out patriarchy and the Brahmanical order. But the very fact that some films are making an attempt, no matter a feeble, is itself a sign of the changing times.

A fresh burst of energy is driving independent filmmakers not just in Tamil
Nadu and Kerala but also in Mumbai. The primary space in debutant Madhu C. Narayanan’s Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights, scripted by Syam Puskaran, is the home of four brothers who have no woman in their lives. The siblings are all flawed, scalded individuals until women enter their lives and make them see life and love in a different light. The film is an examination of masculinity that turns the entire notion of patriarchy on its head.

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s daringly innovative multi-plot drama Super Deluxe is a film that throws caution to the wind and yet comes with such astounding formal precision that one cannot but watch in awe and applaud. Kumararaja throws four sub-plots into a giant, constantly whirring grinder and emerges with a film so fascinating and so wondrously inventive that one is caught by surprise at every turn.

Super Deluxe subverts our expectations at every turn. A couple is thrown into turmoil following the death of the woman’s ex-boyfriend in her bed. A father of a boy returns to his family after a seven-year absence in the guise of a transwoman. A schoolboy who bunks school with his friends to watch a pornographic film flies into a rage on discovering that his mother is an adult movie actress. Four friends get into terrible tangle with the underworld in an attempt to wriggle out of a minor jam.

The fast-paced, almost breathless film delivers a dazzling kaleidoscope of an urban landscape where every single day is as strange and disconcerting as the previous one. Super Deluxe is testimony to what younger Tamil filmmakers are capable of as storytellers and craftsmen.

The new Malayalam cinema, too, is going through a wonderfully fecund phase. Three films made by Kerala directors are in two of world’s major festivals this year. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola (Shape of Water) premieres at the Venice Film Festival while Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Getu Mohandas’s Moothon are in the Toronto International Film Festival. Sasidharan’s S Durga won the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam a couple of years ago, the first Indian film to bag the prize.

Lijo is, of course, also a name to reckon with. He is in the midst of a urple patch., Before Jallikattu, he delivered two absolutely stunning films – Angamaly Diaries and Ee. Ma. Yau – both of which prove his grasp over the medium and his phenomenal ability to handle a multiplicity of actors within single uninterrupted sequences.

The first world that spring to mind when watching a Lijo film is dynamism, the kind that can be extremely infectious. It would be no exaggeration if we were to suggest that he, along with Sasidharan, are the ones who are propelling the resurgence of Malayalam cinema on the global stage. We expect more surprises as filmmakers from Kerala reclaim the place they had in international festivals in the 1980s and a part of the 1990s.

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