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.
Shonali Bose’ The Sky is Pink, Gettu Mohandas’s Moothon (The Elder One), Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose will be premiered at the 44th Toronto Internaitonal Film Festival beginning September 5. Toronto is the only international festival which has picked maximum number of Indian films in the official selections.
At TIFF, the Indian spotlight this year will be on well-known directors — Shonali Bose, Geetu Mohandas, Gitanjali Rao, Lijo Jose Pellissery — sprearheading the new wave of Indian cinema in the global markets.
A bold new voice in Malayalam cinema, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu presents a portrait of a remote village in his hometown where a buffalo escapes and causes a frenzy of ecstatic violence.
Indian writer-director Geetu Mohandas presents an unsparing yet inspiring vision of Mumbai through the story of two small-town siblings, each with their own reason for escaping to the big city, in this urgent drama pondering gender, sexuality, violence, and tolerance. Moothon is jointly produced by Anurag Kashyap.
Animated feature film Bombay Rose written, designed, and directed by Gitanjali Rao follows multiple characters, each connected by a single red rose, as they navigate life and love in the sprawling Indian metropolis. Her debut film Bombay Rose is the story of a flower seller who has to make the choice between protecting her family or allowing herself to fall in love. This touching story is set on the streets of Mumbai and moves from real life to fantasy, accompanied by much-loved Bollywood songs from the cinema halls. Painted frame by frame, for which Gitanjali is famed, Bombay Rose is a chronicle of the people who migrate from small towns, seeking minimal life in the maximum city.
The Sky is Pink is directed by Shonali Bose and is based on the story of motivatioal speaker Aisha Chaudhary who had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
“What I love about India is that, it is the world’s most film passionate country in the world. You can talk to anyone in this country and everyone has got an opinion about films. This is not the case anywhere in the world. This is the cultural norm,” stated Cameron Bailiey, Co-Head of Toronto International Film Festival to Pickle during his Mumbai trip last year. Single handedly, Cameron Bailey has managed to get over 50 Indian filmmakers to showcase their work in global markets after screening their films in Toronto.
Shonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw was selected in Toronto in 2014. The film Margarita With A Straw was a bittersweet drama about a woman with cerebral palsy. Shonali Bose has ploughed a lonely furrow as a filmmaker. Her debut feature, Amu, released in 2005, homed in on individuals affected by the 1984 anti-Sikhriots. She co-wrote Bedabrata Pain’s critically acclaimed Chittagong (2012), a dramatization of a significant chapter in India’s freedom struggle. For Margarita With A Straw, Bose cast Kalki Koechlin in a role that called for absolute commitment of time and energy. For both the director and the lead actress, the film has been unqualified artistic triumph. Her National Award winning film Amu was also screened at Toronto.
A successful Malayalam actress and director, Geetu Mohandas is best known across India for the independently funded Liar’s Dice, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The title, which also went to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, was India’s Official Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 87th Academy Awards in 2014.
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose fifth and sixth films (Angamaly Diaries, 2017 and Ee Ma Yau, 2018) have catapulted him into national prominence, is easily one of the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged in India in the course of the current decade. His films have a distinct style and pace and are underpinned by a keen sense of time and place. He is the latest discovery from India in the global film festival circuit.
Gitanjali Rao’s four independently produced animated shorts, Blue, Orange, Printed Rainbow, Chai and TrueLoveStory have been to over 150 International film festivals and received more than 30 awards.
Not one to throw in the towel and make creative compromises despite failures, Lijo Jose Pellissery is rightfully hailed as an exceptionally skilled director who vividly captures social and inter-personal dynamics within and around communities By Saibal Chatterjee
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose fifth and sixth films (Angamaly Diaries, 2017 and Ee Ma Yau, 2018) have catapulted him into national prominence, is easily one of the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged in India in the course of the current decade. His films have a distinct style and pace and are underpinned by a keen sense of time and place.
Angamaly Diaries is a pulsating gangster saga with 86 first-timers in the cast, while Ee Ma Yau is a black comedy built around a Roman Catholic funeral in a parish near Kochi. But neither of the two is a routine genre film. Lijo informs them with heady energy derived from the dazzling nature of the handheld camera techniques that he employs as well as from the precise choreography of the actors within long, uninterrupted sequences.
Lijo made his first film, Nayakan, in 2010. Eight years and five films later, he is being rightfully hailed as an exceptionally skilled director who vividly captures social and inter-personal dynamics within and around communities. His interest as a storyteller is focused on specific groups of people who are at odds with each other, with society at large, with the religious establishment, and with other groups that exist in the same geographical location.
Nayakan and his second venture, City of God (2011), both crime dramas, earned critical hosannas but failed at the box office. The two films are now regarded as key points in the evolution of a new kind of Malayalam cinema that has since gained ground in Kerala. Lijo had to wait until 2013, the year he made Amen, a musical satire about a church band caught in a crossfire between the clergy and the Syrian Christian community, to taste commercial success.
The box-office success of Amen, in which Lijo made no creative compromises despite the failure of his first two films, bolstered his confidence. In fact, Amen could be seen as a sort of precursor to Ee Ma Yau, which is his definitive masterpiece, a film so full of vitality and innovation that it is impossible not to be swept up in its dizzying momentum.
Emboldened, Lijo next made the genre-defying, big-budget Double Barrel (2015). He upped his technical ante several notches in the film but the experimentation did not find takers. Any other young filmmaker would have thrown in the towel and settled for something safer moving forward. He did not. He turned once again towards all-out action all right, but he invested the genre with amazing flair in terms of camerawork, editing and soundtrack. The outcome was the incredibly infectious Angamaly Diaries.
The drama in Ee Ma Yau is triggered after a drunk man drops dead in his house, sending his family, including his son and daughter-in-law scurrying for help from the neighbourhood. While the bereaved family receives unstinted support from many friends and well-wishers as they prepare for the funeral, malcontents in the parish play the local priest off against the dead man’s temperamental son. The fascinating gallery of characters, the swirling camera, the demonstrative nature of the expression of grief and the social tensions rife in the community come together to deliver a tale of rousing proportions.
In an ideal situation, Ee Ma Yau would have caught the attention of international festival spotters. It is one of three Indian films in the International Competition section of the 49th International Film Festival of India. It deserved much, much more – on the global circuit, it could have touched instant chords with a little bit of luck. Lijo Jose Pellissery is a craftsman and storyteller of the highest calibre – a breakthrough on the world stage is round the corner.