Urban Movies: The Diversity of Indian Cinema By Christian Jungen

in 23rd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Christian Jungen

Film Festivals see themselves as seismographs which register new tendencies in world cinema. At the 23rd Festival international de films de Fribourg (FIFF) the audience — 29,700 spectators, a new record — could discover the diversity of contemporary Indian Cinema. Artistic director Edouard Waintrop, ex-film critic of the French newspaper “Libération”, offered two Indian films in the strong competition and eleven productions from the last two years in the Panorama section entitled “Out of Bollywood”. “I saw four Indian features from various places at the Osian Cinefan Festival in New Delhi last summer”, Waintrop explained. “All the films dealt with today’s social problems of India and could be understood by non-Indians. Then I read an article in the French film magazine “Positif” on the emergence of a new genre, the Mumbai noir. These are urban movies, which reflect social problems like the Warner Bros. movies of the Great Depression. I thought it was time to put together a section which would testify to the rich diversity of Indian cinema, which has more to offer than melodramas with songs and dancing scenes.”

The moment was well chosen because the hugely successful Slumdog Millionaire heightened the interest in Indian cinema among the regular Swiss audience. Waintrop’s invitation to the audience was “if you liked the copy, come and discover the original”. One of the first to accept the invitation was the Swiss Interior and Cultural Minister Pascal Couchepin who presented the classic Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956), the second installment of the superb Apu Trilogy. In this “bildungsroman”, auteur-director Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) portrays the youth and training of Apu, a young Bengali country boy, whose father is a priest. In Aparajito the family moves to the holy city of Benares, where Apu’s father makes a living from the pilgrims who have come to bathe in the holy Ganges. When he dies, the family goes back to the countryside and the boy becomes a priest himself and discovers geography, literature and science. He yearns for a Western education and eventually wins a scholarship to a Calcutta university. It’s the moving story of a boy who leaves his family and has to learn life on his own. The Apu films had a huge success abroad and put Indian cinema on the international map. In a time, when the French of the Cahiers du Cinéma theorized the “politique des auteurs”and filmmakers where seen as representatives of the cinematic heritage of their countries, Ray was considered synonymous with Indian cinema in the west.

The Swiss Minister of Culture Couchepin had discovered the trilogy recently on DVD and declared that Aparajito was to his mind the most interesting of the three. “It deals with the passage from youth to adulthood and I’m more and more interested in the theme of rites of passage.” Couchepin regretted that the Indian officials would never let him into the popular cinema houses when he was on a visit there. “But I would like to discover pure Bollywood cinema”, he concluded. This possibility was offered the audience at the Fribourg Festival. From discussions on films and various panels with specialists such as Adoor Gopolakrishnan (one of the major figures of new Indian cinema), French film critic Hubert Noigret and Swiss film director Oliver Paulus (director of Tandoori Love) it emerged that Indian cinema differs from region to region and that the structure of the film industry reflects the different cultures, languages and religions.

The main production sites, in order of importance, are those of Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Kolkata and Bangalore, which respectively produce films in Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Bengali and Kannaa. Although there is a wide variety of themes and styles, one of the common subjects of Indian films since the 1940s is the reflection of the difficult relationship between the Hindu and Muslim communities. For example, the competition entry Firaaq by Nandita Das reflects the ethno-religious tensions. The ensemble film takes place in March 2002 in Gujarat, after many Muslims were slaughtered by Hindus in Delhi. It shows how Hindu policemen terrorize innocent Moslems, which prompts a Muslim wife to flee to Delhi. It’s an ambitious choral film with Altmanian borrowings which gives an idea of how difficult it is to forgive and trust the others and how fatally violence evokes counter violence.

Hindu-Moslem-tensions are also at the centre of Ramchand Pakistani by Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar. It is one of the very few Pakistani-produced feature films. Ten years ago Pakistan produced more than 130 films a year, now there are around seven and most of the movie theatres were closed by the ruling casts. Jabbar tells the true story of an eight-year-old boy who lives near the border with India. One day, he accidentally crosses the border. His father, realizing the terrible mistake, runs after him and they both get arrested and thrown in an Indian prison. The mother remains in their village without news of what has happened to them. The film alludes on the arbitrariness and corruption of the Indian police but never openly criticizes it. On the contrary, the boy gets adopted by a lonesome Indian police officer who looks after him sweetly. The political reticence of director Jabbar could have its reasons in a sort of self-censorship because she only could shoot the film by collaborating with Indian and Pakistani police officials. She was quite free, but couldn’t show all the things that she wanted otherwise she wouldn’t have been allowed to shoot in real prisons, Jabbar told the audience in a Q&A following the screening. “But somehow you always find a way to tell your story”, she added. Ramchand Pakistani won the audience price at Fribourg and is one of the many films which remain in the mind and help to shape the understanding of the region which is very often in Western news, but probably more films are needed to sensitize the western public to the complexity of everyday cohabitation.