Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan, India (Hindi) 2017)

Rajiv and family take a trip along the Ganges in Varanasi. Daya is with one of his new friends and his granddaughter Sunita. Rajiv and his wife Lata seem somewhere else.

Hotel Salvation is the latest Indian Independent film to successfully tour film festivals worldwide and now receive a limited general release in the UK. It was first launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. Its young (25 year-old) writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani had already won prizes with Kesh (2013), his thesis film short from New York School of Visual Arts which also first screened at Venice, winning two awards. His début feature feels tonally similar to Court (2014) and seems to have followed a similar distribution pattern. It also shares one of the lead actors from Court, Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays Lata, the wife of the central character, Rajiv (Adil Hussain). Rajiv is a hard-working family man with a student daughter living somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. His 77 year-old father Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with the family and one day he announces that his death is imminent and that he wants to die seeking salvation in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He expects his son to take him to Varanasi for his last few days. That’s the outline of the plot. When I saw the film at a preview a few weeks ago, the flyer promoting it from the distributor, the British Film Institute, gave a wholly misleading reference, quoting critics who likened it to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011). I have nothing against that film, but Hotel Salvation is quite different and the reference simply shows the problems Indian films face with such ignorance from mainstream critics. The BFI now seems to have withdrawn the flyer, probably after so many negative reactions.

Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his father Daya (Lalit Behl) arrive at the hotel.

Shubhashish Bhutiani had the idea for the film when he discovered the existence of the Varanasi ‘Mukti Bhawans’ or ‘Salvation Hotels’ – modest hostels which allow a dying person to stay for a maximum 15 days. If they have not died in that time they must move out – but some just re-admit themselves under a different name. The hostel has a priest on hand and access to all the necessary services. Varanasi is still well-known for its ghats – the stepped embankments that lead down to the Ganges, some of which are regularly used for cremations and pujas (religious rituals). However, the numbers are now restricted because of fears of pollution. Daya avails himself of what is on offer and makes a number of friends in his first fortnight while Rajiv grows increasingly frustrated, linked via his mobile to a boss who keeps asking him when he is returning. Later both his wife and daughter will come to visit with their own concerns and Bhutiani has said:

“What this film does is that it looks at the same incident from the eyes of three different generations. It is also reflective of present-day India when a section is busy consolidating cultural and traditional mores while there is a set of people wanting development and liberalism. In between, there is a struggle between the East and West and the issue of cultural dilution with internet telling us what people are eating and wearing in different parts of the world. Things like what is organic food?” (The Hindu, 18 April 2017, Interview by Anuj Kumar)

Bhutiani is a sophisticated young man, born in Kolkata, schooled in Uttarakhand and then New York but also familiar with his mother’s family background in Rajasthan. He states his identity as Indian but his perspective as global. It’s not surprising then that his film has a global appeal not unlike the films of Satyajit Ray, but, also like Ray, rooted in ‘real’ local traditions and cultures. Hotel Salvation is a gentle film, sometimes quite humorous and overall very affecting as we see the family individually learning about themselves and their relationships and eventually coming together. Adil Hussain is the most experienced actor in the film while Lalit Behl has just the one other role in Titli (India 2014). Interestingly, the theatre actor Hussain has complained that he has been ‘underexploited’ in films, including this one: “I want to get rid of this realistic acting for some time. I want to fly, and the stage is one place where I am allowed to fly”. (The Indian Express, 7 May, 2017). But it is precisely the realist representation which works so well here. The situation creates the drama and the actors express the emotion. I look forward to the future films of Shubhashish Bhutiani, a young man with lots of promise. I also liked the music by Tajdar Junaid and the cinematography by two Americans (?) who I’m guessing Bhutiani knows from New York.

Margarita With a Straw (India 2014)

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680(This is one of ten reports on films at the 58th London Film Festival – other reports can be found on The Case for Global Film Blog)

It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.

The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).

The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.

The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.

Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s partner) at this point?

What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.

It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.

Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:

That Girl in Yellow Boots (India 2010)

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.

Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.

The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).

Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.

As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.

The Lunchbox (India/Germany/France/US 2013)

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.

The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.

Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.

Shaikh (Nawuzuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former's wedding

Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former’s wedding

My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).

There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.

The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.

So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from  MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.

The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!

I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.

London Indian Film Festival #3: Monsoon Shootout (India/UK/Netherlands 2013)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the suspect Shiva

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the suspect Shiva

Monsoon Shootout is a difficult film to pin down and review but an important film to discuss. It’s the first feature of writer-director Amit Kumar and has been ten years in the making – an indication of the potential difficulties in producing a small film outside the Indian mainstream. Kumar is an Indian film school graduate (FTII in Pune) with several high-profile contacts from FTII and his subsequent production experience and this has enabled Monsoon Shootout to emerge as an Indian film co-produced with European partners and now picked up by the international sales agent and distributor Fortissimo. The film was shown at Cannes this year and with both Asif Kapadia and Anurag Kashyap amongst its group of producers it is certain to be talked about. The London Indian Film Festival screening was its UK premiere.

Adi, the police officer

Adi, the police officer

The film has a simple premise and a recognisable structure for a genre film with artistic aspirations. Kumar himself refers to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (US/France 1963) based on the Ambrose Bierce story as his inspiration. Variety‘s reviewer refers to Run, Lola Run (Germany 1999) and certainly Monsoon Shootout uses the same structure of three versions of the same story. The central character is Adi (Vijay Varma), a young police officer in his first posting working with the tough Inspector Khan (Neeraj Kabi). They are attempting to catch a ruthless assassin/enforcer working for a ‘Slum Lord’ in Mumbai who is attempting to control the profitable housing development market. Khan employs brutal methods to deal with crooks but Adi aims to follow his own father’s more honourable philosophy. The test comes very quickly when Adi is chasing a suspect and has to make an instant decision to shoot and possibly kill. We are offered three versions of what might happen. The possible repercussions of making the wrong decision involve a range of other characters including the suspect’s wife and son, other police officers, Adi’s girlfriend, future victims of the killer etc.

This rough outline suggests a variation on the shootout which isn’t all that unusual. What lifts Monsoon Shootout above the general run of genre inflections are three factors. The representation of the monsoon in Mumbai is very effective, especially in the night-time combination of darkness and neon lights in the rain. The camerawork of fellow FTII graduate and Anurag Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi enhances the impact and the performances add another level. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is again stunning as the suspect Shiva, ably supported by Tannishtha Chatterjee as his wife Rani, Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh as his son Chhotu, R Balasubramanian as the Slum Lord and Geetanjali Thapa as Adi’s girlfriend Anu. The music is by the Indian-American composer Gingger Shankar.

Shiva and his son Chhotu

Shiva and his son Chhotu

The film is violent but thankfully much of the violence is off-screen. There were times when I felt that the scenarios were being worked out in an almost mechanical way but at other times I found the film genuinely disturbing. It’s the element of social realism in the presentation of the milieu and supporting characters that for me raises Monsoon Shootout above the level of the conventional Indian gangster film. Most of the reviews pick out Adi as the weakest character and he certainly seems the unlikely to survive long as a police officer. Decisive action is important for survival and I wonder what this means for the ideological impact of the film. Inspector Khan is a kind of ‘Dirty Harry’ figure who ‘gets the job done’ by taking the law into his own hands. The general level of corruption is par for the Indian crime drama but I realised that I was genuinely shocked by one of the outcomes and prompted to think by another – in both cases because I found the characters who were affected by the possible actions of Adi to be interesting and believable. The final cut of the film is under 90 minutes and I think this a possible study text for school and college students. The fact that it has an international rather than Bollywood distributor might make it easier to book in cinemas. I hope it gets a UK release.

Here’s a UK trailer/clip:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x11trov_monsoon-shootout-trailer_shortfilms

London Indian Film Festival #2: Bombay Talkies (India 2013)

Naman Jain as the boy performing as Katrina Kaif in Zoya Akhtar's segment of NOMBAY TALKIES. (AFP PHOTO / VIACOM18)

Naman Jain as the boy performing as Katrina Kaif in Zoya Akhtar’s segment of NOMBAY TALKIES. (AFP PHOTO / VIACOM18)

Bombay Talkies is a portmanteau film celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema and featuring four short films by leading Indian directors. The film led the Indian presence at Cannes this year and as it has been widely discussed in the trades and festival reports I was keen to see it. I enjoyed all four short films but the final section – a kind of musical salute to Bollywood featuring a host of stars – didn’t really work for me.

The four directors chosen (or did they volunteer?) for this enterprise seemed to me to fall into two camps. Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar represent a kind of Hindi cinema ‘royalty’. Johar almost personifies Bollywood with his creation of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 and his work on subsequent spectacular blockbusters with Yash Chopra productions. Zoya Akhtar has been slightly lower profile but she is the daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani and sister of actor Farhan Akhtar as well as working in a variety of roles as writer and director.

Nawazuddin Siddiqi as the failed actor in Dibanakar Banerjee's segment

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the failed actor in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment

The other two directors represent various forms of ‘new’, more independently-minded Hindi cinema. Dibakar Banarjee has directed four films including Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), which I enjoyed very much and Shanghai (2012) which has been critically-acclaimed but annoyingly not released in the UK. Anurag Kashyap has become the principal figure in ‘Indian Independent Cinema’, especially after the popular success of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).

All four short films have a connection to Hindi cinema in some way and in particular to commercial filmmaking in Bombay. Johar’s story hinges on the emotional impact of ‘filmi music’ whereas Akhtar’s story is about childhood dreams fuelled by adoration of a young star (Katrina Kaif). By contrast, Kashyap’s story deals with a different kind of fandom associated with the iconic figure of Amitabh Bachchan. Banerjee’s film, which for me was the highlight, focuses on an out of work actor (played by the charismatic Nawazuddin Siddiqui, arguably the hottest star in Hindi cinema at the moment) and his accidental involvement in the shooting of a scene from a typical Bombay movie.

Rani Mukerji and Randeep Hooda in the Karan Johar segment. The careful composition tells you everything about the marriage.

Rani Mukerji and Randeep Hooda in the Karan Johar segment. The careful composition tells you everything about the marriage.

The two ‘inside’ films have Bollywood gloss and stars – Rani Mukerji for Johar and Ranvir Shorey for Akhtar. Johar’s film seemed the most unreal and contrived, although its presentation of an unhappy marriage and the intervention of a young gay man has possibilities. Akhtar’s film would possibly win the popular vote with its focus on a small boy, who doesn’t want to play football as his father suggests but wants to dance in films instead, is certainly very enjoyable. The opening shots of the other two films immediately take us out of the artificial world of Bollywood and into the ‘real India’. In Banerjee’s film, the central character wakes from his bed on the balcony of his apartment, overlooking a flyover and a major road. Inside the stifling apartment is wife and daughter help him prepare to go out to look for work. I was intrigued to see that the film is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray (Patol Babu, Film Star, 196? – does anyone know the publication date of the story), but on reflection it does feel like it has connections to Ray – or at least to a literary take on Indian popular cinema in the 1960s. Banerjee is a very interesting director but I was saddened to see him make rather disparaging remarks about ‘regional cinema’. This was in response to a direct question about how the 100 Years of Indian Cinema seemed to ignore regional Indian cinemas, focusing primarily on Hindi language cinema. Banerjee was taking a Bengali story and transposing it to Bombay. I think I read that Siddiqui used a Marathi accent, but I’m not sure if any Marathi dialogue as such appears in the segment. Anyway, you are wrong Mr Banerjee, various regional cinemas continue to prosper despite the attempted hegemony of Bollywood.

The long train journey to Bombay in the Anurag Kashyap segment.

The long train journey to Bombay in the Anurag Kashyap segment.

Kashyap’s film starts in a similar milieu in the centre of Allahabad with a young man ‘working’ the crowds on the street when he is summoned home where his father is ill in bed and wants him to go to Bombay as he once did for his own father. The son’s task is to meet another, more successful older man from Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan, and persuade him to bite into a local delicacy, a murabba – a form of preserved sugared soft fruit such as a plum or mango, carried in the film in a large pickle jar. He must bring the half-eaten sweet back to his father who believes that he will then be able to connect directly with the great man. Allahabad in North East India is around 24 hours by train from Bombay so it is a major trip for the young man who is very well played by Vineet Kumar Singh. In some ways his arrival in Mumbai is similar to that of the hero of Satya – Anurag Kashyap’s first script for Ram Gopal Varma in 1998.

The final part of the film is the appearance of a host of Bollywood stars in what I thought was a fairly unimaginative dance sequence. The saddest aspect of this was the use of a series of archive clips from earlier decades of Hindi cinema, many from prints in very poor condition, some appearing to be old VHS copies, heavily pixellated. I can’t imagine what the Cannes audience made of this. Still, if it acts as a wake-up call for rights owners to get off their backsides and start to use some of the money wasted on current productions to restore the classics it might be a good thing.

I hope that Bombay Talkies gets a UK release so that audiences can see the mainstream and more independent directors under the same conditions.

Hears the murabba song by Amit Trivedi for the Anurag Kashyap segment (be warned, it’s very catchy!):

BIFF 2013 #17: What Happened to This City? (Kya Hua Iss Shaher Ko, India 1986)

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site

Deepa Dhanraj from the Berlin Film Festival site in 2013

BIFF19logoThere is a long story behind this film and watching it was a strange experience for me. I’m not sure what sense I made of it but the film was impressive formally and important as a historical document. What it means in terms of contemporary India is less clear and I would need a great deal of research to offer even an outline response. In his introduction, Festival Director Tom Vincent explained that he and his co-director had wanted to include a politically committed documentary as part of their 100 Years of Indian Cinema Anniversary and that when this film appeared at Berlin earlier this year, they sought it out.

This is a documentary, mostly in the form of eye-witness statements with a brief historical background and some ‘live coverage’/reportage of events in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in 1984. Over three summer months communal riots in the city left 41 dead, many critically injured and hundreds of shops and homes looted, wrecked and in some cases set on fire. The main conclusion of the film is that these riots were orchestrated by the various political parties in the state as part of their jostling for power. The police seemed to have either turned away from the trouble or simply established curfews which made it impossible for poor people to earn a living and who therefore suffered real hardships. Only a few of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted. Before the film, Tom read out a statement by the director Deepa Dhanraj who suggested that her film was prophetic about subsequent communal riots in Mumbai and Gujarat. It’s dispiriting to think that she was right. Even so there are some positives to take away from the film.

The poor archiving facilities in India mean that films have been lost. A healthy stock of archive film helps younger filmmakers to explore the past and the issues at stake in this film depend on knowledge of Hyderabad from its days as a princely state with Muslim rulers throughout the British Raj and how that change after 1947 with the absorption into the Union and the changes in power in Hyderabad city. The most devastating part of the film for me was the demonstration in the closing stages of the ways in which the different parties (from communist to nationalist to conservative) were prepared to instruct their supporters just to vote on religious/sectarian lines. Democracy becomes farce on this basis. Can social documentaries like this change opinions by exposing these kinds of issues. It’s interesting to reflect on the impact of popular cinema addressing similar issues and the ‘New Bollywood’ film Kai po che based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel approaches the issue with its references to the communal riots in Gujarat.

What Happened to This City? also has a value as a historical document about India in the 1980s. It’s a good-looking film. Shot on 16mm, it was , like many Indian productions of the period, not properly archived but a print turned up in the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin and this print along with a negative from India enabled a German project to produce a new HD digital print. The results are surprisingly good. For me, images of 1980s India came flooding back, especially with key landmarks such as the Charminar in Hyderabad. India in those days had few cars (and those mostly old-fashioned Ambassadors) and no US branded goods. It was a less materialist and supposedly more ‘planned’ society, but corruption was rife and the police didn’t have a good reputation. Deepa Dhanraj was a brave young filmmaker. In this interview in Jump Cut magazine in 1981 she describes the ecology of political filmmaking at the time and her own work in a group making socialist-feminist films. It’s sad to think that one of the films she was making then was about piecework for women working at home that paid low rates for beautifully made garments then sold cheaply in the stores of Europe and North America. Not much changes.

The question I can’t answer is whether the appearance of this restored film on the festival circuit has any relevance for politically-committed documentary films in contemporary Indian film cultures. The industry is now more corporatised, there are co-productions and filmmakers returning from abroad. There are dozens of television channels in a more pluralistic media ecology but are there enough committed filmmakers able to fund themselves to make films like What Happened to This City? It’s good that Anand Patwardhan is still very active but I don’t know enough about what else is happening. Seeing this film has energised me to look out for more documentary material. I found this document on ‘FilmIndia Worldwide‘ published to cover the Indian entries in both Berlin and Rotterdam Festivals this year useful in providing some more names and ideas.

Bravo to BIFF for screening this film. Can we have more like it please?