Beyond Bollywood By Utpal Borpujari

in 18th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Utpal Borpujari

The 8th International Film Festival – Mumbai (IFFM), organized by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI), almost did not happen this year. Originally scheduled to be held in January, it got postponed and then almost got cancelled because of sponsorship problems, before Zee Cinema, a private TV channel telecasting Hindi (or Bollywood, as the world now identifies the Bombay (Mumbai, as the city is called now) brand of fantasy films, and Adlabs, one of the most prominent film processing labs in India, came to its rescue. The revived festival, held from March 23 to 30, had to be organized at quite a short notice, a condition that got reflected on the quality of the films that were gathered. There were quite a few over-two-year-old films that got shown in the festival, but it is to the credit of the organizers that a large number of recent films from within and outside India got exhibited during the eight days.

The festival proved to be a fine showcase for recent Indian cinema, made in the myriad languages of the country and going much beyond the fantasy cinema of Bollywood to reveal a range of subjects that are being treated cinematically, reflecting not only a wide variety of storytelling styles but also a range of social sensibilities. Unfortunately, the quality of the films left much to be desired, though many of them took up important social issues not only concerning Indian society in general but having global resonance too. Some of the films suffered from the propensity of the directors to resort to too much melodrama, while some had the drawback of their makers’ failure to explore either various layers of the complex subjects they had chosen or the use of cinematic techniques and language.

But then, as in every film festival, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. And here we discuss a few of the good ones among the Indian films screened. The pick of the Indian cinema showcased in the IFFM were definitely Rituparno Ghosh’s Bengali film The Views of the Inner Chamber (Antarmahal) and Jahnu Barua’s Hindi film I Did Not Kill Gandhi (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara). Ghosh is one of the most prominent filmmakers to have emerged out of the Bengali film industry that is unofficially headquartered in Kolkata (Calcutta), and it is not for nothing that he has been described by many as the true inheritor of Satyajit Ray’s skills at tackling a wide range of universal human subjects. This film, his latest, having come out in 2005, is one more example of his capacity to handle a complex subject on a grand scale. The story of a debauched Zamindar (landlord) from late 19 th century Bengal, the film had its world premiere in Locarno last year, and has shocked many in India for the hard-hitting depiction of the sexual repression of women in the milieu it is set in.

At IFFM too, it evoked strong reactions, with some viewers almost in the denial mode, arguing vehemently that “such things” never happened in India. The landlord, played by popular Bollywood star Jackie Shroff (this was his first foray into Bengali cinema), wants an heir, and since he could not get one from his first wife (played by Rupa Ganguly), he resorts to marital rape every night of his second, young wife (Soha Ali Khan, an emerging Hindi film heroine and daughter of Sharmila Tagore, a heroine of a number of Ray films). As he exploits the women at his will, he plans to propitiate another woman – Queen Victoria – by making the image of the Goddess Durga her replica so that he can earn a knighthood. For the task he deploys a young sculptor (played by Abhishek Bachchan, the son of superstar Amitabh Bachchan). Told on a grand scale, with matching cinematography (Abhik Mukhopadhyay), background score (Debajyoti Mishra) and editing (Arghyakamal Mitra), the film is a relentless retelling of a subject which is relevant even now for India where cases of dowry deaths, female infanticide, and foeticide are rampant in certain regions.

Jahnu Barua’s film, on the other hand, takes a serious old age affliction – Alzheimer’s disease – to make a strong comment on human society in the age of conflicts and globalization that is devoid of the values of peace and non-violence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi. Barua has been known the world over for his range of Assamese films (most prominently The Catastrophe [Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai] and It’s a Long Way to the Sea [Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door]), and this is his only second Hindi film in a career spanning 24 years. Through the protagonist of a retired professor of Hindi literature (played brilliantly by leading Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, recognized internationally as the father of the young heroine of Bend It Like Beckham ), Barua goes deep into the societal situation arising out of old age afflictions vis-à-vis the need for understanding of such issues among the younger people. But as always, Barua reserves his strongest comment for the end of the film, deftly converting it into a strong comment on issues that can have a resonance in any country in a world where peace and non-violence are becoming a rarer commodity with every passing day.

A few Indian films at the festival had subjects that are quite interesting, but somewhere the directors fell short of fully realizing their intent. One among them is definitely Jayaraj’s Malayalam film In the Name of God (Daivanamathil). It deals with a story that will find resonance in many parts of the world — the rise of religious fanaticism. The film looks at the subject in the immediate context of the south Indian state of Kerala (where the first language is Malayalam), which like many other parts of India is witnessing a rise of fanaticism among youth. Despite a well-delineated plot and characterizations, the film fails to reach the heights. Nishikant Kamat’s Dombivli Fast, in Marathi language, was another film that started with an interesting premise: what happens when a normal middle class guy snaps one day against the all-pervading corruption in the society surrounding him. It has its interesting moments, but somehow fails to prevent itself from degenerating into a sentimental melodrama. Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali film Herbert, Sathyan Annikkad’s Malayalam Achu’s Mother (Achuvinte Amma), Shrirang’s Hindi Ask Your Heart Which Way to Go (Dil Se Poocho Kidhar Jana Hai), Rajkumar Bhan’s Hindi Behind the Mirror (Darpan Ke Peeche), Johor Kanungo’s Bengali Reaching Silence (Nisshabd) and Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Bengali Barbed Wire (Kantatar) are other Indian films that dealt with interesting subjects with various degrees of sophistication.

With a lot of these directors being first timers, IFFM provided a rather interesting platform for the young, emerging cinema of India, a cinema that goes much beyond the so-called “Bollywood,” or the Hindi cinema that people outside India are currently getting more acquainted with.