Indian Independent Cinema and Regional Identity By Barbara Lorey de Lacharrière
International film festivals in India that attract foreign guests choose well by not only featuring Indian panorama sections that showcase a selection of independent local productions from all over, but also by including regional films in international competition selections and furthermore, creating special competition sections exposing their regional films to an international jury, like here in Kerala, to our FIPRESCI jury.
This choice works both ways — it confronts the filmmakers with a critical regard from “outside” that can stimulate them in many ways in regard to a broader exposure beyond their geographical area. On the other hand, it gives the foreign audience (and sometimes even Indian film-critics from outside the state) the rare opportunity to discover the immensely rich diversity of regional cinematography of the Indian subcontinent — all different in their narrative and visual cinematographic styles and sensibilities, in the various topics and issues rooted in their local socio-economic, political and cultural context — and the sound of at least some of India’s over 14 official languages.
Sadly enough, the gigantic and powerful Bolly-, Tolly-, Nollywood machinery not only often bars the way for independent regional films into an international circuit, but also, its hegemonic culture increasingly threatens the distribution of this multiple and parallel cinematography within its national boundaries. It is almost impossible to see an independent Bengali or Malayalam film, for example, outside the festival circuit on screen in Maharashtra or in Kerala.
However, these difficulties put aside, it is also true that only a small selection of regional productions would be considered to qualify for distribution outside their local context. For the “western” viewer, despite often truly interesting topics and subject matter, many films suffer from common flaws and weaknesses, such as being unnecessarily long, from poor scripting and editing — in particular the seemingly permanent obsession with flashbacks that break the backbone of any dramatic narrative, one-dimensional, underdeveloped characters — and often caricatured acting. Poor sound design is also a problem, including the inexplicable preference for dubbing the dialogue instead of using direct sound.
The festival featured altogether sixteen new Indian regional productions, among them two films from Kerala in the international competition section and seven in the “Malayalam Cinema Now” competition.
The most outstanding film in the Malayalam category, Lucky Red Seeds (Manjadikkuru) by debut filmmaker Anjali Menon, tells with skill and restraint an emotionally powerful family story through a classical narrative, describing universal situations and themes.
In a totally different register, two Malayalam films evoke the troubled period of political unrest in the ’70s haunted by the specter of the naxalite movement, delivering an amazingly clear and outspoken message of praise for this movement, nowadays forbidden and branded officially as terrorist.
Gulmohar by Jayaraj traces the story of a teacher whose revolutionary fervor and faith never fail him despite all failures and errors, until his dramatic end, when he literally sacrifices his own life for the disinherited masses, here, the oppressed tribal people.
In Thalappavu, director Madhupal goes even further in this strangely Christian iconographical portrayal of legendary revolutionary leader Varghese, who was shot by the police in the ’70s, which elevated him to a kind of (very handsome) crucified Jesus Christ superstar. The story unfolds through the painful memories of police constable Ramachandran Pillai, forced to execute Varghese, and whose own life was intrinsically linked with Varghese’s.
Kerala, which shares with West Bengal the particularity of a long history of revolutionary movements and rule of the communist party, seems never to be short of stories of this genre. Unfortunately, both films crucially lack restraint in hammering their message out, which sadly spoils the pleasure of watching these stories which are now completely politically incorrect, especially against the background of the recent Mumbai attacks.
In contrast, Kanchivaram, directed by Kerala born director Priyadarshan and shot in the Tamil language, is set in one of the famous silk factories in Tamil Nadu just before Independence. It narrates the tragic fate of Vengadam, a young talented and ambitious silk weaver, who gets involved in the communist workers’ cooperative movement, but, trapped in between his political commitments and a promise made at his daughter’s birth, ultimately betrays his ideology and his colleagues. Beautifully filmed in haunting images with colors soft and warm like the silk produced in the factory, the unfolding drama is telling us why, according to the director’s statement, communism has failed almost completely everywhere in the world.
Communal tensions and violence are the more or less underlying topics of many other regional films from the international competition section that made or hopefully will make it into the international film festival circuit.
Gulabi Talkies by Girish Kasarvalli, one of Karnataka’s most famous filmmakers, tells the story of a lonely Muslim midwife living in a village of fishermen, who had been abandoned by her husband and seeks solace in watching films on screen and television. Beautifully crafted and shot with mostly non-professional actors in a fluid, quasi documentary-style, Kasarvalli succeeds in a very subtle and non-demonstrative way in weaving into the midwife’s personal story burning issues like the economic threat of globalization and subsequent communal tensions and religious fundamentalism, that creep insidiously into these quiet, multi-cultural societies.
Joseph Pulinthanath takes us with Roots (Yarwng) into the mountains of Tripura, one of the seven sister states high up in the Northeast of India. The third film ever shot in the tribal language Kokborok, wrapped into an endearing story of love and loss, tells the true story of the displacement of over 60,000 illiterate tribal people in an remote area in the northeast of India for the sake of a newly built dam. These people were neither compensated by the Indian government nor did they ever get a share of the “development” of the region. Graced by stunning cinematography, this low-budget film, made by a priest turned into a filmmaker, is a real discovery, and echoes in an universal manner other stories, other places.
Last but not least, Sooni Taraporevala’s Little Zizou presents still other facets of contemporary life in India and gives a refreshing and delightful insight into the Parsi community. Seen through the eyes of a cute young soccer fan, longing for his idol Zizou Zidane to come to Mumbai, the story unfolds around two enemies within the small but highly-educated Mumbai Parsi community — a liberal newspaper-owner and a self-proclaimed religious leader who advocates fundamentalist ideas about “purity” within the community. Despite its humorous approach, the film, shot in Mumbai and Gujarat in English, reflects the deep identity crisis of the Parsi community and the rise of religious intolerance in India.