Serving as a launching platform for many Indian filmmakers in the past, the 46th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) continues to live up to our expectations by showcasing three Indian feature-length films by first-time directors
By Saibal Chatterjee
The 46thToronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which retains the hybrid format that was necessitated in 2020 by a rampaging pandemic, has three Indian feature-length films by first-time directors in an expanded programme that has significantly more titles and in-person screenings than last year.
Besides Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, the Critics Week title that scooped up the Cannes Film Festival’s prize for the best documentary film – the Golden Eye – this year, TIFF will premiere sound designer Nithin Lukose’s gripping Malayalam drama Paka: River of Blood and Ritwik Pareek’s piercing social satire Dug Dug.
While the epistolary A Night of Knowing Nothing is part of the festival’s Wavelengths section devoted to avant-garde cinematic works that experiment with forms and genres, Paka and Dug Dug are screening in Discovery, a selection, as the name suggests, aimed unearthing new talent from across the world.
A Night of Knowing Nothing, the FTII-trained Kapadia’s first feature, centres on a university student who writes letters to her estranged lover, revealing through a collage of recollections, personal impressions and experiences the political realities of contemporary India.
Paka and Dug Dug, too, each in its own unique way, provide an insight into today’s India. The former deals with an inter-generational feud between two families in Lukose’s native Wayanad district, against a long history migration and dislocation within the state of Kerala.
Dug Dug, set in Rajasthan, where Pareek grew up before moving to Mumbai, examines the nature of faith and its manifestations in a nation of multiple systems of religious belief. It revolves around an alcoholic man who dies in a gruesome accident while riding his motorcycle in a drunken state. As one strange event leads to another in the aftermath of the tragedy, the deceased turns into the focal point of a rapidly growing religious cult.
Unearthing new talent is a purpose TIFF has served without fail over the years. The festival has helped many Indian independent filmmakers find a doorway to global acclaim. Especially over the last 25 years, North America’s premier film festival, while continuing to embrace mainstream Bollywood cinema keeping in mind the predilections of the south Asian audience in multi-cultural Toronto, has proven to be a wonderful platform for Indian directors crafting films of a different timbre.
Let us cast our minds back to 2001. Twenty years ago, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the first Indian film to bag the coveted prize since Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the second part of the master’s iconic Apu trilogy. Monsoon Wedding also played in TIFF Galas, a line-up that was obviously locked way before the Venice awards were announced.
It was the year of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Oscar-nominated Lagaan, which, too, was part of the TIFF line-up in 2001 alongside Pan Nalin’s Samsara and cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan’s Asoka. Both Nalin and Sivan have had other films in the festival. Incidentally, Everybody Says I’m Fine, the first film directed by Mumbai actor Rahul Bose, also made the TIFF cut that year.
Nalin was back in the TIFF mix in 2013 with the Kumbh Mela documentary Faith Connections and in 2015 with the feminist drama Angry India Goddesses, which took home the TIFF People’s Choice First Runner-up Prize. Sivan, on his part, had two early Tamil-language directorial ventures – a suicide-bomber thriller The Terrorist (1998) and the children’s film Malli (1999) – in the festival programme.
Mira Nair’s first film, Salaam Bombay!, travelled to TIFF in 1988 after bagging the Camera d’Or at Cannes, where it premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. She was back at TIFF in 1996 with Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. In 2006, one of her most-loved films, The Namesake, starring Irrfan Khan and Tabu, figured in TIFF. Last year, the festival showcased the BBC series A Suitable Boy, Nair’s adaptation of the Vikram Seth novel.
The films by Canadian-Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta that constitute her acclaimed Elements trilogy – Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005) – were all at TIFF. Needless to say, Mehta, who is based in Toronto and was also a member of TIFF’s Board of Directors for several years, has had many of her films, including Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), Heaven on Earth (2008), Midnight’s Children (2012) and Beeba Boys (2015), in the festival programme.
Nair and Mehta have led the way for a long line of Indian female directors who have had a sustained and fruitful relationship with TIFF. The festival programmed Shonali Bose’s directorial debut Amu in 2005. The filmmaker’s subsequent films – Margarita, With a Straw (2014), starring Kalki Koechlin, and The Sky is Pink (2019), headlined by Priyanka Chopra Jonas – made their world premieres at TIFF.
Actor Konkona Sen Sharma’s brilliant first film as a director – A Death in the Gunj – premiered at TIFF in 2016, while writer-director Bornila Chatterjee’s sophomore effort, The Hungry, a provocative and lively adaptation of the rarely filmed William Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, bowed at the festival in 2017.
The year 2017 also saw Rima Das’ maiden directorial venture, Village Rockstars, being unveiled at TIFF. She was back in Toronto the very next year with Bulbul Can Sing and the year thereafter as part of the festival’s ‘Share Her Journey’ campaign aimed at seeking gender parity in the movie industry.
In the case of Ritu Sarin, who directs films with Tenzing Sonam, the gap between her first and second trips to TIFF was much longer. Sarin and Tenzing’s first film Dreaming Lhasa premiered in Toronto in 2005. They returned to the festival in 2018 with The Sweet Requiem.
Nandita Das’ second film, Manto, was also in TIFF in 2018 after it had world premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, a decade after her directorial debut Firaaq was unveiled for a global audience at 2008 edition of TIFF.
In 2019, Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose played at TIFF. It was the second animated Indian film to make it to the festival after Shilpa Ranade’s Goopy Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, also a first feature, in 2013.
Needless to say, numerous male directors from India have had their first or second films premiered at TIFF. Notable among them are Murali Nair, whose hour long feature Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death) arrived at TIFF after winning the Cannes Camera d’Or in 1999, Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s Frozen, (2007), Dev Benegal’s Split Wide Open (1999), Aamir Bashir’s Kashmiri film Harud (Autumn, 2010) and Sidharth Srinivasan’s PaironTalle (Soul of Sand, 2010).
Goan filmmaker Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s debut Paltadacho Munis (The Man Beyond the Bridge), a part of TIFF in 2009, won the FIPRESCI Discovery Award. No other Indian film has bagged the prize to date.
VasanBala’s debut film Peddlers (2012) screened at TIFF as part of the festival’s City to City programme. The film had premiered in May 2012 in Cannes Critics’ Week. The director returned to TIFF in 2018 with Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (The Man Who Feels No Pain), the first Indian film to make it to TIFF’s Midnight Madness.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota went on to win won the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award, beating high-profile contenders such as David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s second film as director Maqbool, a reimagining of Macbeth, played in TIFF Discovery, while a film that he scripted, Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, travelled to the festival in 2015. Irrfan Khan, a principal member of the cast of Talvar, was in attendance at the film’s world premiere.
In 2013, Irrfan had two films in the TIFF official selection – Anup Singh’s Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost and Ritesh Batra’s Cannes Critics Week entry The Lunchbox.
No discussion about Indian films at TIFF can be complete without a mention of Anurag Kashyap, who has been a regular at the festival since That Girl in Yellow Boots with Kalki Koechlin in the lead, made it to Toronto in 2010. In fact, one of India’s TIFF entries this year, Paka: Throne of Blood, is presented by Kashyap.
In 2011, a film produced by Kashyap, Michael, directed by Ribhu Dasgupta and starring Naseeruddin Shah in the titular role of a retired policeman, travelled to TIFF. Kashyap has since travelled to TIFF with Mukkabaaz (The Brawler, 2017) and Manmarziyaan (2018).
In 2012, TIFF chose Mumbai as the focus of its City to City programme. Nine titles, including the two parts of Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, made up the selection. The other films screened were Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Cha Raja, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, Mohit Takalkar’s The Bright Day, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, besides Peddlers.
Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) and KannathilMuthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek, 2002) screened in TIFF’s Masters section, which has showcased several other Indian filmmakers over the years (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Girish Kasaravalli and Rituparno Ghosh). But the only film by a first-time Tamil director to ever premiere at TIFF is M. Manikandan’s KakaaMuttai (Crow’s Egg, 2014). The film was co-produced by Dhanush and Vetrimaaran.
Another Tamil entry, Suseenthiran’s third film, Azhagarsamiyin Kutharai (Azhagarsamy’s Horse), was at TIFF in 2o11. Significantly, until Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Geethu Mohandas’s second feature Moothon (The Elder One) premiered in Toronto in 2019, Adoor was the only Malayali filmmaker to be featured at TIFF. NithinLukose is the fourth filmmaker from Kerala to make it into the TIFF league.
Genre: Drama Director: Sidhartha Siva Starring: Indrajith Sukumaran, Lena, Minon Streaming on SunNXT, MX Player
101 Chodyangal(101 Questions) provides a view of the world through the eyes of a young boy whose factory worker-father has lost his job. There is little around him to cheer him up, but the boy keeps using his imagination to make sense of the dismal environment.
High points: Profoundly moving story and remarkably restrained acting by the principal cast
Asha Jaoar Majhe (Bengali, 2014)
Genre: Drama Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta Starring: Ritwick Chakraborty, Basabdatta Chatterjee Streaming on Amazon Prime
A remarkable debut film by Aditya VikramSengupta, Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love) is about a day in the life of a Calcutta couple struggling to make ends meet in the time of an economic recession. No words are exchanged between the two unnamed characters – they meet only once and fleetingly at that – but the film says a lot about the anomalies of urbanexistence.
High points: A beautifully crafted film that comes as close to pure cinema as any Indian film has done in years
Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Punjabi, 2011)
Genre: Drama Director: Gurvinder Singh Starring: Samuel John, Kul Sidhu, Gurpreet Bhangu Streaming on Netflix
First-time director Gurvinder Singh’s experimental film, based on an acclaimed novel of the same name, is an intense evocation of life, or of what is left of it, in a poverty-stricken, socially oppressed village whose inhabitants have little to look forward to.
High points: It is as stark as it is lyrical, and is marked by an evolved cinematic idiom
Woven around street cricket rivalry in a Chennai locality, director Venkat Prabhu’s first film deals with the themes of friendship and teamwork in aunwaveringly realistic manner. The film’s surprise success catapulted a whole bunch of young actors and the director to stardom.
High points: The endearing quality of the characters and the utter believability of the story
Crossing Bridges (Sherdukpen, 2014)
Genre: Drama Director: Sange Dorjee Thondok Starring: Anshu Jamsenpa, Phuntsu Khrime Streaming on Amazon Prime
The first-ever film in Arunachal Pradesh’s Sherdukpen dialect, Crossing Bridges is about a man who returns to his village after losing his job in Mumbai. As he awaits news of new openings, the serene rhythms of his own culture force him to rethink his priorities.
High points: The first-time director imbues the languid ‘coming home’ drama with both warmth and urgency
An impoverished village widow, who has lost her husband and son in debt-related mishaps, is showered with big denomination currency notes by a vote-seeking politician. With the kind of liquidity that she has never seen, the woman sets out for the market. But life has other plans for her.
High points: Debutant director Shrihari Sathe’s subtle touches and lead actress Usha Naik’s empathy-inducing performance
Staring caste inequities in a part of rural Maharashtra in the face, Fandry is about a pig-catcher who falls in love with a girl he can never get. But in his youthful enthusiasm, he believes that he stands a chance. The film reflects aspects of the growing-up years of the writer-director Nagraj Manjule.
High points: Stark, hard-hitting and disturbing, the film presents an unflinching portrait of a benighted world that is rarely seen in Indian cinema.
Gabhricha Paus (Marathi, 2009)
Genre: Comedy, Drama Director: Satish Manwar Starring: Sonali Kulkarni, Girish Kulkarni, Jyoti Subhash, Veena Jamkar, Aman Attar Streaming on Disney+hotstar
Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain) is set in the drought-hit Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where an impoverished peasant fights the odds stacked against him but without success. His wife does her best to keep his spirits up, but the situation on the ground militates against his quest for a good crop.
High points: Satish Manwar’s controlled direction and the pivotal performance by Girish Kulkarni
Harishchandrachi Factory (Marathi, 2009)
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama Director: Paresh Mokashi Starring: Nandu Madhav, Vibhavari Deshpande Streaming on Netflix
A highly engaging recreation of the circumstances in which Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra,whose release in 1913 officially marks the birth of Indian cinema. It is shot in a style that reflects the way films were made back in those days without any camera movements.
High points: Storytelling at its simplest and most effective. All credit to writer and director Paresh Mokashi
Harud (Urdu/Hindi, 2010)
Genre: Drama Director: Aamir Bashir Starring: Mohammad Amir Naji, Shahnawaz Bhat, Shamim Basharat Streaming on Netflix
Harud (Autumn), an impressive directorial debut by actor Aamir Bashir, is a disquieting tale about a Srinagar youngster grappling with the unexplained disappearance of his elder brother and the impact of the event on his aged parents. Contemplative and melancholic but hard-hitting.
High points: Its realistic, docu-drama feel puts the plight of common people in a conflict zone into sharp relief
Island City (Hindi, 2015)
Genre: Drama Director: Ruchika Oberoi Starring: Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Amruta Subhash Streaming on Disney+hotstar
Few Hindi films have captured urban alienation quite as brilliantly. Through an anthology of three separate but linked stories, the film delves into a fast evolving city where means of communication are multiplying but genuine emotions are difficult to articulate. The film is about Mumbai but could be valid for any modern megalopolis.
High points: Outstanding cinematography – each segment has a different texture; fine editing; and impressively calibrated performances
Kakkaa Muttai (Tamil, 2014)
Genre: Comedy, Drama Director: M Manikandan Starring: Vignesh, Ramesh, Aishwarya Rajesh, yogi babu Streaming on Disney+hotstar
In Kakkaa Muttai (Crow’s Egg), two young brothers lose their playground to a new pizza outlet. They now dream of having a bite of a pizza. But there’s a problem: a pizza costs more than what their family earns in a month. An outstanding directorial debut by cinematographer M Manikandan.
High points: Endearing central characters and trenchant social commentary couched in narrative simplicity
Director Dibakar Banerjee’s debut film is a family drama that lays bare the plight of a middle-class Delhi man whose plot of land is encroached upon by a powerful hustler. A small film with big impact, Khosla Ka Ghosla was a magnificent entertainment package.
High points: One of the finest, subtlest comedies made in Mumbai in a long, long time
Manorama Six Feet Under (Hindi, 2007)
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery Director: Navdeep Singh Starring: Abhay Deol, Raima Sen, Gul Panag Streaming on Shemaroome
Director Navdeep Singh’s debut is an engaging and startlingly effective probe into small-town Rajasthan where corruption and crime are rampant. An engineer and struggling novelist turns into an amateur investigator to wrap his head around a web of lies, deceit and murder.
High points: The film’s realistic texture is reinforced by strong, earthy dialogues and superb acting
Debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan, working with a screenplay by Varun Grover, captures the ancient city of Benaras torn between tradition and modernity. Realism and restraint mark the drama about four individuals who struggle to come to terms with pressures brought on by social and emotional upheavals.
High points: High quality acting;insightful study of small-town dynamics in a rapidly changing India
Peepli Live! (Hindi, 2010)
Genre: Satire, Comedy Director: Anusha Rizvi Starring: Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav, Shalini Vatsa, Malaika Shenoy Streaming on Netflix
In a small village in Madhya Pradesh, a debt-ridden farmer is desperate to save his land and his family. Pushed into a corner, he decides to commit suicide. His announcement sparks off frenzied and wholly misplaced reactions from the media, the politicians and government officials.
High points: A scathing expose of India’s agrarian distress and the ham-handed official response to it
Phoring (Bengali, 2013)
Genre: Drama Director: Indranil Roychowdhury Starring: Akash Adhikari, Sohini Sarkar, Sourav Basak, Sankar Debnath, Senjuti Roy Mukherji Streaming on ZEE5
The protagonist of Phoring is a boy growing up in a remote, sleepy North Bengal town that has survived the closure of a factory. The film is a sharp and sensitive study of an unusual character. The protagonist hears voices in his head. An unconventional teacher begins to expose him to things unknown. One day, she vanishes…
High points: First-time director Indranil Roychowdhury’s self-assured storytelling and characterizations
Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Malayalam
Director: Madhu C. Narayanan Genre: Drama, Romance Starring: Soubin Shahir, Shane Nigam, Sreenath Bhasi Streaming on Amazon Prime
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.
High Points: The film is an examination of masculinity that turns the entire notion of patriarchy on its head.
The Lunchbox (English/Hindi, 2013)
Genre: Drama, Romance Director: Ritesh Batra Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui Streaming on Netflix
Director Ritesh Batra’s maiden feature found takers virtually all around the world after it garnered unstinted encomiums at the Cannes Film Festival. This unusual love story of a lonely widower and a middle-class woman despairing for her husband’s attention is about Mumbai, food, urban alienation and starting over.
High points: Magnificent scripting, evocative portrayal of a city on the move, and a clutch of super performances
Thithi (Kannada, 2015)
Genre: Drama Director: Raam Reddy Starring: Thammegowda S Channegowda, Abhishek H N, Pooja S M Streaming on Netflix
Thithi is a wryly comic, sharply observant portrait of a small south Indian village where a centenarian dies, sparking off a scramble for his plot of land. In the running are the old man’s octogenarian son and his avaricious, good-for-nothing grandson. Pensive and evocative.
High points: A cast of amateur actors who seem to be playing themselves and striking directorial skills by debutant Raam Reddy
Titli (Hindi, 2015)
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller Director: Kanu Behl Starring: Ranvir Shorey, Amit Sial, Shashank Arora, Lalit Behl, Shivani Raghuvanshi Streaming on Amazon Prime
Set in a Delhi in the grip of a ‘development’ frenzy, Titli is the story of a dysfunctional lower middle-class family grappling with inter-personal issues that frequently assume the form of brutal violence. The youngest of three siblings has an urge to escape this hellhole. But can he?
High points: Intelligent use of thriller elements to paint a precise socio-economic portrait of people on the fringes of a rapidly expanding megalopolis
Adaminte Makan Abu (Malayalam, 2011)
Genre: Drama Director: Salim Ahamed Starring: Salim Kumar Zarina Wahab Not available for streaming
Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam) is about a poor perfume seller who has only one aspiration left in life – he wants to visit Mecca. He sets about putting together the resources he needs to make the trip but his mission is not as simple as it seems.
High points: Effortless storytelling;evocative cinematography (Madhu Ambat), a flawless screenplay and a pitch-perfect central performance (Salim Kumar)
Asthamayam Vare (Malayalam, 2014)
Genre: Drama, Suspense Director: Sajin Babu Starring: Prakruthi Dutta Mukheri, Shilpa Kavalam, Sanal Aman, Joseph Mapilacherry, Shakkir Not available for streaming
A debutant director pulls an unusual rabbit out of the hat – a Malayalam film without any background score and minimal dialogue. Two boys are arrested after the death of a choir singer in a seminary. What follows is a fragmented narrative that takes place in an unspecified time and location.
High points: Its abstract but evocative setting and the deep, resonant exploration of man’s relationship with nature
Court (Marathi/Gujarati/Hindi/English, 2014)
Genre: Legal drama Director: Chaitanya Tamhane Starring: Vira Sathidar,Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Pradeep Joshi, Usha Bane, Shirish Pawar Not available for streaming
First-time director Chaitanya Tamhane lays bare the ways of the Indian legal system, mirrored in the hapless plight of a folk poet charged with abetting the suicide of a municipal gutter cleaner. Court makes its point with great force and precision without resorting to conventional dramatic devices.
High points: Sure-handed direction, a fine script and convincing characters
Frozen (Hindi, 2007)
Genre: Drama Director: Shivajee Chandrabhushan Starring: Danny Denzongpa, Gauri, Rajendranath Zutshi, Aamir Bashir Not available for streaming
Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s Frozen is an austerely shot black-and-white film set in Ladakh. A sprightly teenage girl lives with her father, an apricot jam-maker, and her kid brother in a remote Himalayan village. Their life is disrupted when the army moves in and sets up camp yards from their home, bringing conflict within sniffing distance.
High points: Low-key, naturalistic filmmaking is backed by aptly restrained acting.
Ma’ama (Moan) (2018), Garo
Director: Dominic Sangma Genre: Drama Starring: Phillip Sangma, Brilliant Marak, Hailin Sangma Not available for streaming
Dominic Sangma, who makes films in the Garo language, is a Meghalaya filmmaker who has begun to make waves worldwide. His debut feature, Ma’ama (Moan), a deeply personal film that probes loss and longing from the standpoint of an old man – the director’s father – grieving for his long-deceased wife, instantly marked him out as a storyteller of exceptional depth. He explores loss, mourning and reconciliation through the eyes of his father, who lost his wife 30 years ago and continues to live in the hope of being reunited with her one day.
High Points: The director’s uncompromising vision lends the film a meditative quality.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali (Malayalam, 2015)
Genre: Drama Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan Starring: Nistar Ahamed, Arun Nayar, Pradeep Kumar, Baiju Netto, Reju Pillai, Abhija Sivakala Not available for streaming
A fluidly constructed cautionary tale with a shocking finale, Ozhivudivasthe Kali (An Off-Day Game) peels off the veneer of bonhomie that five friends on a day off in the country project. As the day progresses, they begin to reveal their true colours – they aren’t edifying at all.
High points: With minimum fuss, the director paints a dark, disturbing portrait of caste and class divides in Kerala
Natarang (Marathi, 2010)
Genre: Drama Director: Ravi Jadhav Starring: Starring, Atul Kulkarni, Sonalee Kulkarni, Kishor Kadam, Vibhavari Deshpande, Priya Berde Not available for streaming
Ravi Jadhav’s directorial debut Natarang, set in the world of Maharashtra’s folk theatre, is the story of a working class man who sets up a theatre. Destiny forces him to defy his own masculinity and society’s expectations to don the role of an effeminate character on the stage.
High points: Flawless adaptation of a successful novel and outstanding performances by Atul Kulkarni and Kishor Kadam
Ship of Theseus (Hindi/English, 2013)
Genre: Drama Director: Anand Gandhi Starring: Aida Al-Khashef, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah Not available for streaming
Among the most strikingly original films to come out of India in years, Ship of Theseus tells three interlinked stories about a visually impaired photographer, a terminally ill monk, and a pushy stockbroker. The film questions notions of identity, belief systems and ways of seeing.
High points: Seamless blend of disparate plot elements, outstanding direction and fine performances
The screening of Gully Boy, the story of a rapper from a Mumbai ghetto, will be the film’s world premiere ahead of its release on February 14, while Udita Bhargava’s Dust – set in the ubcontinent’s heartland against the backdrop of violent political conflict – is the director’s graduation film made at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF
By Saibal Chatterjee
It isn’t often that the Berlinale makes space in its official programme for half a dozen entries, besides four restored works from India.
The 69th edition of the premier film festival hosts two Berlinale Specials showcasing two distinct Bollywood streams – Zoya Akhtar’s rap drama Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt and Kalki Koechlin, and Ritesh Batra’s off-mainstream romance Photograph, featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra and Jim Sarbh.
The screening of Gully Boy, the story of a rapper from a Mumbai ghetto, will be the film’s world premiere ahead of its release on February 14.
Photograph, revolving around a Mumbai street photographer who, under pressure from his visiting grandmother, to get married requests a stranger to pretend to be his fiancée, arrives in Berlin after playing in the Sundance Film Festival’s Premieres section. One of the three other Indian titles in the Berlin International Film Festival this year – Udita Bhargava’s Dust, set in the subcontinent’s heartland against the backdrop of violent political conflict – is the director’s graduation film made at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF.
The film, which features Vinay Pathak in a cast of German and Indian actors, is slated to be unveiled in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino, a section devoted to unearthing new talent in the host country.
Filmed in Madhya Pradesh, Dust is about a German diplomat who travels to central India to look for traces of his dead girlfriend, a photographer who was documenting life in a hideout of leftwing political rebels. He arrives in the city of the woman’s birth and runs into a cynical old doctor who turns out to be a leader of the uprising. Recollections of the past, the realities of the present and visions of the future intersect in a drama about Indians caught in a bitter conflict.
Two Indian films – Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing and Prantik Basu’s 27-minute Rang Mahal – will compete for awards at Berlinale 2019, the former in Generation 14plus, designed for children and young adults, and the latter in Berlinale Shorts.
Bulbul Can Sing, an independent Assamese film about a girl and her friends at odds with a conservative, patriarchal rural society, premiered at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival last year. The film went on to win the Golden Gateway Award at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Generation 14plus includes Bhutanese filmmaker Tashi Gyeltshen’s Red Phallus, which had its world premiere in Busan last year and also made it to the Dharamshala International Film Festival. The film tells the story of high-school girl caught between her sculptor-father and her married boyfriend in a rural setting where breaking free isn’t easy.
Kolkata-based Prantik Basu, who studied direction and screenplay writing at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, is no stranger to festival recognition. His 2016 short film Sakhisona won the Tiger Award for short films in the 46th International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
Basu’s latest film, Rang Mahal, a Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) production, is among 24 titles that will compete for the Golden and Silver Bear in this year’s Berlinale Shorts. This unconventional documentary turns the spotlight on the Santhal tribal community, which does not have a written script of its own. Rang Mahal captures a little-known aspect of the tribe—the fact that Santhals use a colourful chalk-stone hill in Bengal’s Purulia to draw murals on the walls of their houses.
The Berlin Forum will screen a restored version of writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi’s early 1990s documentary Egaro Mile (Eleven Miles), which puts the traditions and lives of several Baul singersunder the spotlight. Besides, Forum Expanded includes Joshi’s 1993 film, Tales from Planet Kolkata, “a personal portrait from the point of view of cinema”, as well restorations of two films by Yugantar, India’s first feminist film collective, which was founded in 1980: one on female factory workers (Tambaku Chaakila Oob Ali, 1982) and the other on domestic violence (Idhi Katha Matramena, 1983).
The Indian participation in Berlin is rounded off by Shadow Circus, an exhibition by the Dharamshala-based filmmaking duo of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. The exhibition, presented in Forum Expanded as a joint project of Savvy Contemporary and Arsenal-Institute of Film and Video Art, will be inaugurated on the opening day of Berlinale 2019 – February 7. It will run until March 10.
The exhibition has its roots in a BBC-commissioned documentary that Sarin and Sonam made in 1998 after researching the Tibetan armed resistance against Chinese occupation and CIA’s involvement in it for many years.
The two filmmakers will be in conversation with Natasha Ginwala and Bonaventure SohBejengNdikung, curators of Shadow Circus, on February 14 on the theme “The Witness as an Agent of Resistance”.
Apart from the wide range of themes that Berlinale 2019’s Indian picks represent, what is most striking is that four of the seven filmmakers in the programme (the Tibet exhibition is by a filmmaking couple) are women – which is in keeping with the spirit of a main 17-film Competition lineup that includes seven helmed by women (see ‘Women to the Fore’ Page number 34…).
Interestingly, two of the three projects from the subcontinent in the EFM Co-Production Market are helmed by women: Megha Ramaswamy’s first feature-length fiction and Dar Gai’s third directorial venture In-Law. The third south Asian film seeking co-production deals in Berlinale 2019 is Bangladeshi director Imtiaz Bijon Ahmed’s Paradise, a drama woven around the life of a 14-year-old madrasa student on St Martin’s Island off Cox’s Bazar.
In the wider sub-continental context, the tone for this noteworthy distaff domination was set by the year’s first three major film festivals – Palm Springs, Sundance and Rotterdam. Palm Springs International Film Festival (January 3 to 14) had Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau-In Search of Silenceand Rima Das’ Village Rockstars alongside Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan, Aijaz Khan’s Hamid and VasanBala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
Sundance Film Festival (January 24-February 3) programmed Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, British-Indian filmmaker Sandhya Suri’s short fiction The Field and Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane le Ja Riya Hoon (in the New Frontier section).
The International Film Festival of Rotterdam (January 24-February 4), the Bright Future Competition had Bangalore-born Yashaswini Raghunandan’s That Cloud Never Left along with Ridham Janve’s The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain.
Rotterdam spread its net wider across the subcontinent to include Sri Lankan director Suba Sivakumaran’s debut film House of My Fathers, which premiered in Busan’s New Currents competition last year. She is the first female director in years to emerge on the world stage from the island nation, where filmmaking has traditionally been a male-dominated enterprise.
Two women – Bangladeshi performance artist Reetu Sattar and Pakistan’s Madiha Aijaz – were in IFFR’s Ammodo Tiger Short Competition fray. Sattar was in contention with Harano Sur (Lost Tune), a filmed audio performance featuring the harmonium (an instrument dying out under the pressure of Islamic strictures), while Aijaz, who works with photographs, film and text, figured in the programme with These Silences Are all the Words, a 15-minute short based on conversations in Karachi’s Bedil Library that probes many themes pertaining to Pakistani history and culture.