Storytelling And Morality In Indian Cinema

in 14th Bengaluru International Film Festival

by Manuel Halpern

The 14 films featured in the Indian Competition at the Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES) 2023 are spoken in seven different languages, reflecting the diversity of India – a large country with a large population and several realities and ways of living. Despite these explicit differences, many of the films share common themes.

Aparajito, directed by Anik Dutta, is out of the box. A great cinephile surprise in the competition. It offers a black and white reconstruction of the making of Pather Panchali (A Song of the Little Road, 1955), the first feature film by the iconic Indian director Satyajit Ray. This film, premiered in Cannes, homages Ray, offering an original exploration of the history of Indian art cinema, showing the beginning of a beautiful love story with film.

With few exceptions, the other features in the competition can be largely divided into urban and rural contexts. In some cases, such as Maavu Bevu, directed by K Suchendra Prasada, both contexts are explored to examine the conflict between modern and traditional India.

During screenings, an aggressive advertisement warns of the dangers of smoking, and a warning sticker pops up every time a character smokes or drinks alcohol. This can be disconcerting and annoying. One must say that no warnings appear when a child or woman is beaten. Nonetheless, morality is a prevalent issue across these films.

Most of the films have a clear and strong message, with a pedagogical goal aimed at building a better society. Topics range from ecological issues (Aadhivasi, directed by Vijeesh Mani), questions of justice (Gargi directed by Gautham Ramachandran, Jana Gana Mana by Dijo Jose Antony, and Saudi Vellakka CC.225/2009 by Tharun Moorthy), euthanasia (Aaraariraaro by Sandeep Shetty), alcoholism (Kaudikali by Sinchana Chandramohan and Sifung by Arup Manna) or fighting for what you believe in (Tanuja by Harish Kumar L and The Guard by Umesh V Badiger).

There were no Bollywood musicals in the competition, but music played a significant role in all of the films. In some cases, such as Sifung, music becomes a protagonist in the story, saving an old man from alcoholism and keeping him from abandoning his young daughter. These films show a society in transformation, grappling with crucial issues, particularly concerning the rights of women and children and social justice.

Some films stand out for their originality, like The Guard, which is claimed to be India’s first silent film for children. Though the characters do not speak, the sound effects and score help tell the story of a young boy, who is a cricket fan and needs protection from hard throws that could harm his lower body. He does everything you can imagine to get it. Despite some technical difficulties and questionable plot elements, it works as a charming children’s tale.

Gargi, which is likely the best script in the competition after Aparajaito, tells the story of a woman battling to prove her father’s innocence after he is accused of sexual abuse against a young child. When the court finally releases him, she discovers he is guilty after all, and has the courage to bring him to justice again. The film addresses two moral statements: the importance of fighting for what you believe in, even if you must go against the world or popular justice, and the need to do the right thing, even when the abuser is a family member.

Watching these films, one gets the sense that India and its powerful film industry still believe that cinema can change the world. And perhaps it can.


Manuel Halpern
Edited by Amber Wilkinson