Film festivals play two vital roles. One, films hold a mirror to society, reflecting what makes their societies tick — internationally, and especially in the rest of Bharat — beyond Bollywood. Second, they offer movies the opportunity to expand box office in non-traditional markets, beyond their usual regional or national home territories.
I recently returned from the 11th Dubai International Film Festival, which was held from December 10-17. The Indian films at the Dubai Film Festival represented exciting trends in contemporary Indian cinema, beyond Bollywood. This is fortunate, because when programming films, you cannot take quality for granted at all; like wine, there are good years and bad years. The seven Indian films included Danis Tanovic’s Tigers, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga, Kaushik Ganguly’s Chotoder Chobi (A Short Story, Bengali), Rajeev Ravi’s I’m Steve Lopez (Malayalam), M Manikandan’s Kaakkaa Muttai (Crow’s Egg, Tamil) and Gautam Sonti and Usha Rao’s Our Metropolis, a documentary on Bengaluru. In addition, the entries included Ravi Patel’s Meet the Patels (a documentary from the US), and from South Asia, there was Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (Daughter, Pakistan-US-Norway) and Jamshid Mahmoudi’s A Few Cubic Metres of Love, Afghanistan’s entry for the Oscars.
A still from Chaitanya Tamhane’s film, Court
Danis Tanovic’s Tigers takes hybrid Indian cinema forward. Directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (whose No Man’s Land had won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), it is co-produced by India, France and UK, and backed by top German sales agent Match Factory. It features Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi with Adil Hussain and Geetanjali Thapa. Hashmi plays a salesman for Nestle baby milk powder, who turns against the exploitative multinational he works for, in a story set in Pakistan, but shot in Patiala, Punjab. It is slated for release in India in March.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is a brilliant debut feature that won two prizes at the Venice film festival — the Lion of the Future for best first film in the festival and best film in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section. In examining the court case of an activist singer, accused of inciting the suicide of a manhole cleaner, it flays the Indian judiciary, even as it remains rooted in activist-cultural movements like the Kabir Kala Manch. The film even has a French sales agent, Memento’s Artscope, and has sold in a number of international territories.
Debut feature Chauranga is a compelling portrait of the brutal realities of the caste system in rural India. Set in Jharkhand, it shows the devastation of a family in which a young schoolboy dares to write a young girl a love letter. It won the Golden Gateway for best Indian film at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Chotoder Chobi is a tender love story set amid midgets in Bengal; the protagonist Dulal Sarkar won the Best Actor Award at IFFI-Goa, perhaps the first time a midget has taken the top award.
In Rajeev Ravi’s I’m Steve Lopez (Malayalam), Farhaan Faasil plays his debut role with confidence. In a layered story of how the police are in cahoots with gangsters and maintain an uneasy truce, Faasil puts in a convincing performance as a regular, slouchy, college-going teenager, in love and always on whatsapp, who gets caught in the cross-fire. Bollywood would have demanded that he first develop his chest muscles, dancing and action skills before deigning him an audition, and it’s a relief that genuine acting comes first elsewhere in India.
M Manikandan’s Kaakkaa Muttai (Crow’s Egg, Tamil) was a delightful film on two chirpy kinds in a Chennai slum who dream of eating pizza. A live-wire, homegrown counterpoint to Slumdog Millionaire, the film was co-produced by top Tamil star Dhanush and top Tamil director Vetri Maaran, whose Aadukalam won six National Film Awards. Equally importantly, Hollywood major Fox Star Studios is distributing the film in India; it was shown at the Toronto festival and got a glowing review in The Hollywood Reporter. Bollywood thinks it’s the cat’s whiskers. But tell me, how many Bollywood films can boast of such mainstream-indie-Hollywood combo credentials?
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.