Indian Impressions, Indian Visions By Barbara Lorey

in 18th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey de Lacharriere

The year 2006 had started badly for the organizers of the 8th edition of the International Film Festival of Mumbai (IFFM), the only independent film festival in India. Due to a cruel lack of sponsors, the festival which usually takes place in January was first postponed, then cancelled — but finally rescued at the last minute. Zee Film, a private TV channel, became the main sponsor, and with the support of Adlab Cinema kicked off on March 23 in the four screen Adlab Imax multiplex in Wadala and, with a smaller selection of only four films per day, in the more accessible Chavan Centre in South Mumbai.

With barely a month to put his program together, festival director and FIPRESCI colleague Sudhir Nandgaonkar managed to bring in an impressive showcase of world cinema to the huge crowd of film-buffs eagerly awaiting to see foreign language films which are not distributed in Mumbai. Over a hundred films were screened, mainly from France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Israel. Special program packages came from Palestine and Serbia, five films by Arturo Ripstein were shown, introduced by the great Mexican filmmaker in person, and an homage to two film legends, director Roberto Rossellini and actor Prithviraj Kapoor, both on their centenaries, and the late Ismail Merchant. And the opening film, the French blockbuster The Chorus (Les Choristes), quickly reconciled a unanimously enthusiastic audience with the apparently improvised, rather low-key opening ceremony in the unfestive foyer of the Imax multiplex with the smell of pop-corn and the sounds of video games and elevator music.

The high tec, air conditioned Adlab multiplex in Wadala with the world’s largest Imax dome sits like a spaceship in the middle of no man’s land — a huge development zone on the outskirts of Bombay, bordered by one of the city’s worst has indescribable slums with regular outbreaks of malaria, leprosis, diarrhoea, dengue, and hepatitis, a glittering, toxic-looking lake and a skyline of chemical industry complexes and chimneys. In this environment, the small well kept park next to the cinema with its green lawn resisting the overwhelming heat, looks like a miracle. One has to be really motivated to see the films to come out here, especially during rush hour, when everyone is stuck for hours in traffic jams. However, the screenings were packed, and, as Sudhir noted at the end of the festival, over 1000 delegates and guests made it to Wadala, at least the same number of people than in 2005.

Once inside the spaceship, one could have been anywhere — at the Potsdamer Platz or in Parly 2, if it weren’t for the colourful saris gliding up and down the escalators, and the fast-food featuring traditional Dal and Papathis, sweet Lhassa or Chai masala, alongside hotdogs, burgers and Coca Cola.

Indian Visions

But then, India was on the screen — India in its stunning diversity of regional languages, cultures and religions. The section “Indian Visions” featured 18 non-Bollywood films, mostly arthouse films from all over the subcontinent, which one rarely has the chance to see except at certain festivals, and which are, even in India, rarely distributed outside their region of production.

Admittedly, their quality was uneven, not all films are accomplished, most of them were far too long, and burdened with unnecessary flashbacks, sometimes trying to dance on a tightrope between arthouse and commercial cinema. Nevertheless, they all were fascinating in their diversity of form and content. Our Indian (Assamese) colleague Utpal Borpujari pointed it out in one of his articles on regional cinema. These film also have “a powerful role as an entertainment medium that chronicles the concerns, cultural richness and contradictions of India’s many societies. In fact, it was regional cinema that initially catapulted Indian film to the global stage. Rather than the fast-globalising Hindi films, it is, in fact, regional productions that have been able to bring out the essence and contradictions of India. It is the other cinema, this ‘independent’ cinema, in Hindi and in a huge variety of regional languages (more recently including English) that gives true voice to India’s 1,1 billion population.”

Far from the mostly insipid content of mainstream Bollywood, the films question India’s social and political reality in various treatments and themes such as the scourge of corruption, oppression of women, the marginalized and outcasts, or the rise of nationalism and communalism. They often refer to the apparently forgotten legacy of Gandhi’s values of honesty, non-violence and tolerance, such as it is voiced in the first Hindi language feature by the Assamese director Jahnu Barua I Did Not Kill Gandhi (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara), the FIPRESCI award winner.

In In the Name of God (Daivanamathi, Malayalam 2005) by Kerala-based Hindu director Jayaraaj deals with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Kerala’s Malabar Muslim community as a reaction to Hindu fanaticism. The sensitive and touching film tries to understand how a confused Muslim youth, facing violent incidents against its community such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, is drawn towards terrorism, and is misused and manipulated by fanatic groups who gain their strength from Hindu extremism. At the same time, the film reminds us of the crucial role that Muslims played, side by side with Gandhi, in India’s struggle for freedom.

A totally different setting, Dombivli Fast by Nishikant Kamat, Marathi (2005) tells about the growing frustration of an ordinary, educated middle-class citizen of Bombay that leads to murderous rage, a kind of a Mumbai-version of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. One day, Dombivli Fast, which is the name of one of the several commuter trains shifting millions of people from the outskirts in and out of the city every morning and evening, sets off its hero’s violent outburst and metamorphosis from a Mr. Nobody into a merciless avenger against overall rampant corruption and lawlessness. It seems as everyone who is obliged to commute day after day up to three hours in one of those overcrowded trains has already experienced this kind feeling …

With Sting (Dansh, 2005) by Hindu director Kanika Verma takes us to Mizoram, with the first-ever Hindi film to be set entirely in this state in North-East India. It is set before the background of its deep-seated ‘separatist movement’ of the Mizo National Front (MNF), starting in the sixties — the time of Nehru down to Rajiv Gandhi. The film features a leader of the MNF whose wife, a former Mizo militant, was tortured and raped by soldiers during the insurgency and examines how people deal with the price they pay for peace.

Three highly interesting films from Bengal confirm once again the vivid and rich cinematography of this region. Antarmahal (2005) by acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh (Choker Bali), is a sumptuous, visually stunningly and color soaked drama set in Bengal of the late 19th century. It touches upon various tales of oppression of an aging, wealthy and tyrannical Zamidar, raping wives half his age in a desperate attempt to produce an heir, which even his new second wife seems unable to deliver. We see lubricious priests and artists doomed to produce the most magnificent effigy of a goddess for the annual Durga Puja ceremony in order to checkmate regional rivals.

After Devaki, director Bappaditya Bandopadhyay follows with Barbed Wire (Kantatar, 2005) another destiny of a woman in search of her identity. It is the story of the illegal migrant Sudha, who switches between religions and husbands, criss-crossing the barbed wire border somewhere between India and Bangladesh in constant search of shelter and survival. It is set against an imaginary military invasion in the Indo-Bangladesh border in contemporary times. The sudden threat of terrorism changes the relationship between the inhabitants of the remote border area and plunges them into fear and suspicion. Shot in the deserted countryside of Jharkhand, the film does not refer to a particular geographical region. It is a story that could also happen in Iran, Iraq or Chechnya, and resonates other emigrant stories from all over the world.

Calcutta Story

Herbert (2005), theatre director Suman Mukhopadhyay’s captivating debut film, is, despite its length and some editing problems, certainly the most ambitious and cinematographically challenging film. Based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Sahitya Academie Award winning novel of the same name, the richly layered story captures the changing Calcutta in the last five decades through the life of the outsider and “urban marginal” Herbert, an orphaned member of a crumbling household in north Calcutta. Exploited by a wicked cousin for whom he runs errands, his favourite pass time is flying kites and feeding crows on the terrace. He lands by coincidence in the Naxalite movement of the ’70s and finally against the backdrop of the globalised economy of the ’90s, gains a certain celebrity by declaring that he can “dialogue with the dead”. When cornered by rationalists as a fraud, Herbert commits suicide. At his funeral, the violent explosion of his coffin during the incineration sparks a police investigation branding him a terrorist. Shifting back and forth in time and into known and unknown worlds, Herbert depicts, with a blend of empathy and irony, the efforts of a “gifted” man’s constant struggle to adapt to his changing surroundings.

Big expectations preceded the closing film, a pre-premiere of Deepa Mehta’s Water, which has been very controversial in India and still hasn’t got a distributor here. Alas, the film didn’t convince the audience. Set in the 1930s during the rise of the independence struggles against British colonial rule, the film focuses on a group of widows condemned by Hindu law to spend the rest of their lives in an ashram, in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, paralleling indirectly the women’s plight under Hindu fundamentalism to that of India under British colonialism.The beautiful Kalyani,a widow (Lisa Ray) — the only one whose head has not been shaved — is forced into prostitution by the ashram’s housemother. Hope to escape her cruel fate appears in the person of a young lawyer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi (Bollywood-Star John Abraham), who falls in love with her. But the couple’s defiance of religious and cultural ends tragically.

In 2000, Deepa Mehta was forced to stop the production of Water in Varanasi, one of India’s holy cities on the banks of the Ganges, after Hindu nationalists took the streets, ransacked the set and burned Deepa Mehta in effigy, protesting that the film was anti-Hindu. After four years of struggling, Metha finally changed her plans and shot her film in Sri Lanka, with a new cast. It was a rather unfortunate choice that certainly spoiled much of the force and credibility of the film, since Lisa Ray, a fashion magazine model turned actress, looks — well, just as an American fashion magazine model who is lost in an Indian temple.

Another problem certainly had to do with the authenticity of the setting, supposed to be located on the river Ganges, which made especially the Bengali audience cringe. As a matter of fact, shot on a stretch of a deserted riverbank south of Colombo, the film’s production designer had even to recreate the ghats, the carved stone steps, that lead down to the Ganges, since there are no such ghats in Sri Lanka — a detail essential to a film that uses the Ganges and its water as a symbol of both purity and death.

However, the presence of John Abraham, one of the most successful and high paid male supermodels in India, who incarnates the young widow’s lover and Gandhi’s disciple, stirred a huge commotion after the screening, with crowds of young girls and middle aged ladies going absolutely hysterical — it was bedlam! No less surreal was the appearance of another important protagonist, Mr. Gandhi (aka 80 year old Mohand Jhangiani, a stunning Mahatma look-alike) in his traditional outfit, a walking stick in one hand and a glass of wine in the other at the closing party in the cricket club of Neriman Point.