by Indy Datta
Although it has always been wrong to characterise Indian film as a monoculture, the western perception that there’s nothing more to it than Bollywood and Satyajit Ray is understandable. Although there are regional film industries, most notably working in the Kannada, Tamil and Bengali languages, few arthouse filmmakers from the “parallel cinema” tradition have broken through to international acclaim. Other than the work of Ray, Indian art film has not been widely released on home video in the West. And while India’s commercial cinema has historically been competitive with Hollywood in the developing world, it’s never been more than a niche concern in the West.
But as India changes, consciously growing into its role as one of the economic powers of the coming century, Indian film is changing. As the population becomes more urban, as the censorship regime progressively relaxes (although it remains capricious, and there is still the rather archaic presumption enshrined in the law that film needs to be more strongly censored than other art forms, for the good of the populace), as multiplexes replace the grand picture palaces where masala classics like Sholay and Naseeb played to audiences of over a thousand (rickshaw-wallahs and doctors in the same theatre), as satellite TV and the internet massively increase the exposure of Indians to everything from Harry Potter to pornography, the increasing diversity, frankness and boldness of Indian films reflects the increasingly fractured and unpredictable experience of modern India.
Delhi Belly (Abhinay Deo, 2011), then, is an apt opener for this year’s London Indian Film Festival, coming as it does from the production company of Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, which has been pushing the boundaries of commercial Indian cinema since Lagaan (a rare Bollywood crossover success in the West, and only the third Indian film to be nominated for the foreign-language Oscar). The marketing push for Delhi Belly, which was released globally on 1 July, deliberately evokes both The Hangover and Slumdog Millionaire. In a rare and heartening example of truth in marketing, so does the film. It’s a romantic comedy thriller – mostly in English – about flatsharing slackers finding themselves unwittingly caught up in a diamond smuggling scam. Khan’s photogenic nephew Imran Khan is the notional lead, but his blandly-written character and, well, general blandness, mean he’s easily outshone by Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapur as The Geeky One and The Fat One respectively. The gang’s problems only get worse when The Fat One contracts a dose of something nasty from an unwise streetfood impulse moment, and a set of Russian dolls containing the contraband rocks gets mixed up with a bottle containing his stool sample.
Delhi Belly‘s screenplay (credited to US-based writer Akshat Verma) gets by on energy more than skill: the plotting is overworked, the characterisation is arbitrary, the jokes are mostly thin (the pastiche Bollywood song and dance numbers may be funnier for some people than they were for me). And the filmmaking craft on display is only ever adequate. But for all that, Delhi Belly‘s portrait of a modern Indian city rings far truer than, for example, the fetishistic handwringing of Slumdog Millionaire. Youbelieve this is at least within hailing distance of the way young, reasonably affluent Delhiites see their city. Just as he did as softhearted wedding organiser Dubey in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Vijay Raaz effortlessly walks away with the film in his back pocket, this time playing a sleekly ruthless gangster.
That Girl in Yellow Boots (Anurag Kashyap, 2010) is another spankingly contemporary story of life in the Indian metropolis. But Kashyap and his co-writer (and wife and star, Kalki Koechlin) aren’t after Delhi Belly style laughs. That Girl in Yellow Boots is the story of Ruth, an English girl (played by Koechlin, who was born in India to French parents) who overstays her backpacker visa and slips into the Mumbai underworld in search of the father who deserted her. Kashyap’s filmmaking craft stood out in this festival for me, both in the writing and the directing, as more obviously of international quality than the other films I saw. Thefilm is slickly and expressively shot (partly using digital SLRs when the financing collapsed on the eve of production), and the writing (this was the only film I saw that had subtext) and performances are skilfully layered – Koechlin in particular has obvious star quality. The characterisation of Ruth is somewhat opaque (for most of the film, I didn’t really buy that someone as resourceful as she appeared to be would have found herself giving thousand-rupee handjobs in a massage parlour quite so quickly, although [SPOILERS]) and the eventual resolution of the gothic potboiler plot is a touch predictable, but I’m certainly keen to see more of Kashyap’s work. The internet tells me he’s working with Danny Boyle on a Mumbai-set crime epic – I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gaining wider recognition in the future.
Just Another Love Story (Kaushik Ganguly, 2010) is one of two films in the festival featuring the acting of veteran Bengali director Rituparnio Ghosh. He directed neither this nor Memories in March (Sanjoy Nag, 2010), but his creative input is central to both films, as is his public profile as an out filmmaker. Just Another Love Story is a formally rich tale about a gay documentary film-maker (played by Ghosh) making a film about the once-famous gay actor Chapal Bhaduri (who plays himself). Bhaduri has lived most of his life, on and off stage, in female roles, and although he now lives alone as a man, the high birdlike voice he has affected for his whole life remains. As we learn more about his life, episodes from it are dramatised, with Ghosh playing the younger Bhaduri, and with other actors from the framing narrative (the married cinematographer – played by Indraneil Sengupta – with whom Ghosh’s director character is having a long-term affair; the young man who turns his head) also appearing in thematically matched roles. Stretching the formal and sexual playfulness further, Ghosh’s initial costume and makeup is so feminine that I assumed he was playing the director as a woman, echoing Bhaduri’s past playing women of myth and legend on the Bengali stage. At its cine-literate, pansexually frank best, Just Another Love Story is reminiscent of Almodóvar, but it does also have serious problems, like its horribly on-the-nose dialogue and a sentimental and narcissistic streak which finds its most off-putting manifestation in Ghosh’s mannered performance.
All of these faults are present to a much greater degree in Memories in March, in which a middle-aged Delhi divorcee (Deepti Naval, excellent in very unpromising circumstances) flies to Kolkata in the aftermath of her ad-man son’s death in a car crash, to discover that he had been living a secret gay life, and having an affair with a senior colleague (Ghosh). Initial mutual distrust gives way to shared grief and before you know it they are BFFs. This is telenovela level stuff at best, and my soul spent the duration crying out for some irony, humour, subtext, unpredictability, anything.
Of the films I saw, the one that general audiences would most obviously recognise for its closeness to their idea of Indian film was Colours of Passion (Ketan Mehta, 2008). Ithas the musical montages (although the actors don’t lipsync), the coy sensuality (albeit with the first Indian female nudity passed by the Indian censors, from Nandana “daughter of Amartya” Sen in the role of artist’s muse), and a direct, broad acting style that can recall silent movies. Mehta’s previous Rising: the Ballad of Mangal Pandey had some UK box office success, but it’s hard to see this biopic about the artist Raja Ravi Varma following suit. The English language Wikipedia page on Varma doesn’t give me much to go on, so it’s hard to know whether the many extravagant claims made for him in the film stack up, and there’s a definite whiff of print-the-legend about proceedings. But the real problem is that every aspect of the film is so clunky and so shallowly conceived that it’s hard to believe in or care about what happens. The film’s framing narrative is an obscenity trial in British imperial India – the obligatory climactic scene is therefore, of course, the impassioned speech from Varma in defence of artistic freedom, true Indian culture, bringing art to the masses, basic human decency and freedom, goddammit. I find, after careful consideration, that I am in favour of all of those things, and yet can’t recommend the film.
Regardless of the quality of the films, every screening I attended at this year’s festival was a pleasure: the passion of festival director Cary Rajinder Sawhney and programmer Naman Ramachandran for independent Indian film is infectious, the screenings were enhanced by music and dance performances (including a closing night set from Raghu Dixit), and some interesting venues were used – such as the beautiful V&A museum lecture theatre. I missed a few of the films because the screenings were not restricted to (for me, easily accessible) central London, but I can’t quibble with the idea that suburban audiences deserve festival screenings too.
The closing night film was preceded by the announcement of the winner of the Satyajt Ray Foundation short film award, which went to Andrew Hinton’s Amar – a lucid, unsentimental and very short documentary about a day in the life of a poor city kid, rising in the dark, working two jobs before school and going back to one of them after, uninsistently (no narration) showing his enormous dignity and resilience. The closing night film itself was Autograph (Srijit Mukherji, 2010), a film which brings together a lot of the thematic strands that have run through this year’s London Indian Film Festival. It’s the story of an ambitious young film maker (Indraneil Sengupta, once again), who convinces a top Tollywood film star (Prasenjit Chatterjee) to finance and star in his remake of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, in which he then ends up casting his girlfriend (Nandana Sen, once again). Complications of the plot kind, of course, ensue, although the kind of reflexive formal complications that characterised Just Another Love Story are, while present, less insistently presented.
Anecdotally (I can’t find the figures one way or the other) Autograph was a big hit in Kolkata, where Ray has demi-god status, but I found it a bit of a slog. Although Sengupta is very watchable (as he is in Just Another Love Story), and Chatterjee is excellent, neither the writing nor the direction ever finds a tone or a consistent visual language, or a way to navigate the film’s resultant multiple tones. Individual scenes are uniformly too long and talky, and the film as a whole is shapeless and overextended. The initial plot setup – that Chatterjee’s character hires a neophyte director with an uncommercial script to prove that he’s a bulletproof star – is just discarded somewhere along the way and the film has more endings than “Return of the King”, a musical montage in amongst them. Most ruinously, it depends on a horribly unconvincing stroke of characterisation – turning Sengupta’s character into an unprincipled bastard with no sense at all that this is an organic development of his personality.
While Autograph was, for me, something of an anti-climax, this has been an excellently run festival that has brought films to a British audience that would largely otherwise have not reached that audience. Fingers crossed for an even bigger and better event next year.