‘Happy Birthday Indian Cinema’ started with a recent Indian ‘festival film’. Director Manjeet Singh gives some of the background in this interview from the Abu Dhabi Festival in October 2012 which is well worth reading. His inspiration for this, his first feature, was his childhood memories of the annual Ganesh festival in Mumbai. The film’s title refers, I think, to the large figures of Ganesh carried to the beach by each district (somebody please correct me if I’ve got this wrong) during the festival and the protagonists are two of the boys from the Lalbaug district of the city in what is essentially a neo-realist film. It will remind many audiences of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (India/UK/France 1988), but inevitably Singh has had to field questions about Slumdog Millionaire – which aren’t really helpful except to allow him to explain why it is so difficult to submit an Indian ‘independent film’ to international festivals. He argues that most festivals have only a limited number of slots for South Asian films and that increasingly it is the Bollywood studio backed ‘indies’ which usually get those slots. The fact that Mumbai Kings got a slot at Toronto is clearly key to its international circulation. Singh himself is largely self-taught in terms of filmmaking with only a short course after his engineering degree according to this Toronto ‘Talent Lab’ interview. However, he did work in the US as an engineer before moving back to Mumbai – which means that presumably he earned some money and learned about North America. He got his chance to make the film partly through the support of the Film Bazaar programme in India, although he had to find the funding himself, including via ‘cloud-funding’. His next project is going to be discussed as part of the L’atelier Programme at Cannes in May 2013. He seems to have several script ideas put together over the last few years. But for now, how does Mumbai Kings look?
I think my overall impression is that this is an enjoyable film which does give a sense of what it might be like to live on the outskirts of an Indian metro city. It looks right and importantly sounds right. The sound mixing is a bit rough at times but that possibly helps in the realism effect. Singh shot the film on a digital SLR camera and he used mainly non-actors from the district. In this sense it is a neo-realist film. There is a music score for the film which is used extensively in some scenes. This doesn’t invalidate the neo-realist tag but I think that the social issues, those ‘real life’ incidents that drive a neo-realist narrative, are perhaps not developed enough. The source of narrative drive is a violent father and the impact his behaviour has on the rest of his family. I think that you could argue in the film’s favour that it leaves the issue ‘open’ as to what will happen in the future, but I worry that this will exclude the film from wider distribution in India – though it certainly works in a festival setting.
The film also made me think about other communities and other settings. For instance the Ganesh festivities were sometimes reminiscent of the sequences set in Little Italy that appear in Scorsese’s and Coppola’s films or of the carnivals in Trinidad or Rio. Although Lalbaug is in the centre of the city, the boys seem to play in the outskirts, so they find streams and hills where the skyscrapers of the city are not visible and I got a sense of being in a city like Hong Kong – with the bustle of the metropolitan centre, yet films being made only a few miles away in the hills. This feeling was intensified by the way in which Singh included little set pieces when the boys steal some potatoes or when a lyrical music-backed sequence shows them bathing in rock pools. I think I’m suggesting that the film seems to represent a kind of global mega-city environment. Is this an ‘independent’ or ‘festival film’ that might have been made in Mexico or Brazil or Taiwan? That’s quite a big question and it may indicate a danger for filmmakers like Manjeet Singh. I think it is important that his films get seen across India. Indian cinema(s) are changing but they want to change on their own terms, not as sanctioned by film festivals in the West. It’s a real dilemma but here is a filmmaker with talent and determination who should be supported. I hope he gets the openings he deserves.