Perhaps the most striking quality about India is its diversity—the multiplicity of languages, religions, cultures, clothes, cuisines and lifestyles. Such a defining variety was evident in the Indian films on view at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival. The country was the focus at the festival this year and the program entitled ‘Incredible India’ showcased the vibrant, energetic and insightful contemporary cinema of the nation. There were works of masters of the art-house cinema—veterans like Adoor Gopalakrishnan (who also headed the International Competition jury) and Girish Kasarvalli—as well as films by the more mainstream, commercial filmmakers like S. Priyadarshan, Madhur Bhandarkar and Vishal Bharadwaj. The films came in varied languages—Konkani, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Rajasthani, as well as Hindi, and at least twelve of them were from debutant directors.
However, the most heartening aspect was the range of themes and issues that the films tried to explore, revealing the complexity, intricacy and impenetrability of modern-day India itself. The films were not merely about entertainment, song-n-dance and romance that the country’s commercial Hindi cinema, Bollywood, is normally associated with, but offered something more deep and profound.
If Arun Vaidyanathan’s thriller Am Scared! Am Scared! (Achchamundu! Achchamundu!) shows what happens when a paedophile enters the home of a young couple with a lovely, little daughter, Seema Kapoor’s The Weekly Bazaar (Haat) highlights a regressive custom called ‘Natha Pratha’, whereby if a woman wants to leave her husband, her father or any other person who supports her, she has to pay a compensation. While Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s The Man Beyond The Bridge (Paltadacho Munis) is a moving tale of a lonely forest guard’s love for a mentally deranged woman, Krishnan Seshadri Gomatam’s inventive, witty and self-reflexive debut film, First Time (Mudhal Mudhal Mudhal Varai), that won the silver award in the Digital Films section of the festival, is about a young filmmaker trying to make his first film, which itself is about things experienced for the first time.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Four Women (Naal Pennungal) is a simple, poetic and profound film on the individual tales of four women, each fighting the patriarchy and male order she is faced with in her own way. There is a prostitute who struggles to marry the man she is in love with. There is an innocent girl who marries an impotent man. There is a housewife who badly wants a child and the fourth woman decides to defy conventions by not marrying.
Girish Kasavalli’s Gulabi Talkies shows how globalisation and technology is impinging on the rural and semi-rural pockets of India. Gulabi, the wife of fish merchant Moosa, is obsessed with cinema. The film shows how life changes for her and those around with the arrival of a colour TV set. Such is the power of the medium that women and kids of all ages, castes and communities are drawn to Gulabi’s house which becomes the movie house. TV creates new bonds, strengthens old but also brings along unanticipated tensions and troubles.
Two of the films—Suhail Tatari’s Summer 2007 and Satish Manwar’s The Damned Rain (Gabhricha Paus)—looked at the critical problem of farmers’ suicides in India. Due to uncertain rains, repeated crop failure, insufficient compensations and mounting debts, farmers have been taking their own lives, especially in the states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Summer 2007 is about a group of five medical students who get exposed to this harsh reality. They are rich, urban, westernised and reckless, living life on the edge. A posting to rural India confronts them with the untold struggles of deprived people that they had been apathetic to. The film is about how they undergo a change of heart on seeing the plight of the poor farmers and how they participate in it to transform themselves.
The Damned Rain is a stark and simple film that focuses on personal plights and predicaments of the farmers. There is the lazy, pragmatic Patil who has given up on farming, knowing that what his land produces won’t add up to much. Then there is Kisna, who will continue to toil until death parts him from his farm. The narrative is built on the twin motifs of rain and death. The rain, capricious as ever, makes the farmers wait eternally and then wreaks havoc when it finally arrives. Death is the only certainty in this bleak landscape, with funeral processions winding matter-of-factly through the village’s by-lanes with alarming regularity.
The film is about how the tragic suicides impinge on the psyche of those struggling for survival. Alka, Kisna’s wife, is deeply distressed when his friend Bhaskar hangs himself. She starts fearing the worst for her own husband, wondering if he too is suicidal. A lack of appetite, his growing irritability, the increasing silences—they are all read as symptoms of something more distressing. The film delves into the desperation and anxieties of the women, how they share confidences and express their worst fears, how they watch over their men, afraid to leave them alone and trying to show them the way. The climax, though anticipated, still leaves you shaken. It’s sudden, abrupt and devastating in its meaninglessness. And sadly, perhaps, the only way out for Kisna.
Along the same lines, S. Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram tells about an Indian artisan community that is in peril. The film is about the plight of the silk weavers of Kanchi in Tamil Nadu. Vengadam is a silk weaver, who, despite his meagre salary promises his newborn daughter that he would drape her in a fine silk sari on her wedding day. He works diligently, and ingeniously, towards weaving that spectacular sari. Meanwhile, with the arrival of communists in the village, Vengadam gets drawn into politics, instigates a revolt against mill-owners and inspires the workers to go on strike. This also makes him square up to the crucial question: Will he now be able to spin the promised sari for his daughter in such a state of stalemate?
The most influential themes, perhaps because of their immediacy, were those of religion, communal divide, violence and terrorism. Jai Tank’s Madholal Keep Walking that got the best actor award for Subrat Dutta is inspired by the Bombay train blasts of July 11, 2006. It is about how the tragedy alters the ordinary, simple life of Madholal and how he finds strength and resilience to get on with things again. In stark contrast Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday takes a more explosive, aggressive stand on the issue of terrorism. It articulates the frustration and anger that has become deep-seated in the urban, middle-class psyche in the face of such acts of violence. In A Wednesday, the writing on the wall is categorical, scary and deeply disturbing—that extremism can only be defeated by extremism, that the solution to violence is violence. It is a gripping thriller with a twist that throws you off kilter. The film is all about a terrorist who eats regular sandwiches, shops for tomatoes for his wife and also claims to have planted bombs at various locations in Mumbai. The police has but a few hours to nab him.
As against this, Bhavna Talwar’s Religion (Dharm) makes a case for liberalism, pacifism, generosity and good-heartedness. It shows varied faces of Hinduism—the orthodox, the exploitative, the mercenary and also the militant right wing. And it ends by discounting them all to take up a liberal cause. Pandit Ram Narayan Chaturvedi lives by the sacred religious texts, is unflinching in adhering to the tenets and also painfully ritualistic. His world changes irrevocably when a small child arrives in his house and gets adopted by the family. The kid softens the hardliner in him, makes him receptive to emotions and eventually makes him go through a crisis of faith to understand the true meaning of religion: humanity, unity, peace, harmony.
Amongst the mainstream, popular Hindi films is the recent success, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Scoundrels (Kaminey) which is a smart caper—stylish, giddy, furiously paced and brash. Two estranged twins—one stammers and the other lisps—find their paths crossing one rainy Mumbai night and all hell breaks loose. Drugs and guns, cops and dons, shootouts and chases are thrown in good measure. Bollywood weds Tarantino and things are rounded off with a bloody, Wild Wild West-inspired finale making Scoundrels a strikingly anarchic, unusually energetic, quirky and frenetic film.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2009