London Indian Film Festival 2012

Indy Datta reviews of some of the highlights of the festival’s third year

Opening Night Film – Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 (Anurag Kashyap, 2012)

Anurg Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots was by some way the most accomplished film I saw at last year’s festival, and after Gangs of Wasseypur played in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes earlier this year, I was hopeful that it would show up at this year’s LIFF.  Frustratingly, what we got was just the first half of the 5-hour film, and with no news as yet of British distribution, I have no idea when, if ever, I’ll see the second half. This isn’t one of those complaints about small portions of terrible food; Gangs of Wasseypur is bold and ballsy film making that delivers and delivers and delivers.

A multigenerational crime epic set in a small coal-mining town in Bihar, Wasseypur starts with an all-guns-blazing action set piece in the present day, before flashing back to the dying days of British rule, when a coalmine owner Ramadir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) hires a local ne’er-do-well Shahid Khan  (Jaideep Ahlawat) as chief enforcer against his downtrodden workforce. Khan is trouble – he’s already been exiled by the Qureshi family, the local crime bosses, from Wasseypur for impersonating the legendary bandit Sultana Daku, a Qureshi,  to hold up British goods trains. As the decades unfold, the destinies of the three families become ever more bloodily intertwined, as the Singhs corruptly leverage their coal riches to rise to political power, the Khans rise to become the most powerful crime family in the town, and the Qureshis find themselves pinned in between.

The above is a massive oversimplification; there’s a ton more plot than that- including Shahid Khan’s son Sardar (Manoj Bajpayee), when he grows up to become the film’s focal point, having two formidable wives to deal with, and two families in two different towns – and multiple switchbacks and surprises to keep things interesting. There’s possibly too much plot in this first two and half hours – occasionally things can get confusing and the pacing of the film can feel arbitrary, with years slipping by in seconds, followed by long digressive scenes that don’t seem to advance the main plot.

But a certain unpredictability is very much part of the film’s charm. In the post film Q&A, Kashyap said that the original script (inspired by the real post-independence history of Bihar) felt, before he got his hands on it,  too obviously  inspired by Fernando Mereilles’ City of God. While there are still points of comparison to the Brazilian film, Wasseypur is a wilder, more exuberant beast, weaving together Indian and western film influences into a hallucinatory blend of Spaghetti Western, Hollywood Mafia epic and classic Masala Movie. Kashyap has said that his films are not for the arthouse, but are intended to find a place within the mainstream of Bollywood. So, for one thing, there are plenty of songs here, but instead of coy playback ballads with reverby vocals, Kashyap throws in some  intensely bawdy folk-inspired songs, often incorporating them diegetically: a dwarf dances in prison to amuse other inmates as another prisoner sings; a wedding singer sings both parts of a duet, falsetto for the woman’s parts.

As events spiral out of the protagonists’ control, there’s also a sense that these cinematic forms have colonized the minds of these people. Shahid Khan, back at the beginning of this story, never saw Scarface, as far as we know, but when he passes himself of as Sultana Daku, the suspicion is there that it wasn’t only to feed his family, but also that the siren call that Henry Hill hears in Goodfellas was strong half a world away, a quarter century earlier.   Kashyap has said that the gain in this feedback loop between these lives and these stories is cranked up in Part 2 – that Bollywood becomes a much bigger part of the story.

Gangs of Wasseypur deserves to be seen on the big screen. Its length may make it a difficult sell to exhibitors, and it’s a wayward, unruly film, maybe a tough to sell to an arthouse audience.  But I personally can’t wait for part 2.

Aaranya Kaandam (Anima and Persona – Thiagarajan Kumaraja, 2010)

Anurag Kashyap said in the post-film Q&A for Wasseypur that he was influenced in the making of Gangs of Wasseypur by the  bloody and stylized crime cinema of Tamil Nadu (Chennai’s “Kollywood” film industry is the foremost competitor to Mumbai’s pre-eminence among local film industries in India, and its films are widely exported outside India).  Aaranya Kaandam may well be one of the films he had in mind.

The film is topped and tailed by on-screen epigrams that set up the idea that we might see, or might have just seen, something that explores the difference between living life according to some kind of moral code, and living guided by nothing other than the desire to look after number one. Aaranya Kaandam doesn’t remotely meet that expectation – it’s just a flashy, nihilistic, brutally violent (so violent that the censors held it in limbo for months) crime caper in the glib post-Tarantino style of bush league Hollywood confections like Smokin’Aces or Lucky Number Slevin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and Kumaraja’s film delivers plenty of uncomplicated entertainment through its story of feuding gangsters and out-of-their-depth innocents all chasing after the same bag of cocaine. It’s put together with some vim and style, there’s plenty of ridiculous and bloody violence, some expertly played  low comedy, Bollywood stalwart Jackie Shroff as a truly frightening Mr Big, a pivotal love interest played by an actress (Yasmin Ponappa) who could pass for Frieda Pinto’s twin sister, and a scene of cockfighting that I suspect would make it very hard for the film to get a full release in the UK. It’s just that after the scope and ambition of Wasseypur, it all felt a little bit like empty calories.

Aboshsesey (At the End of it All, Aditi Roy, 2012)

A glacial and inert Bengali soap of the kind that lay over my experience of last year’s festival like a chloroform-soaked blanket, Aditi Roy’s debut feature is the story of Soumyo, a Kolkata-born San Franciscan (Ankur Khanna – never at all convincing as an American), who returns to Kolkata under protest to sort out his late mother’s financial affairs, but finds that the more he learns about his mother, the less certain he is about who he is and where he belongs.

The relationship of the Indian diaspora to India is one that has been explored many times in film and literature – usually by members of the diaspora (for example, Mira Nair’s likeable adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake). Roy, by contrast, is a young Indian, and any sense of the authentic experience of emigrants, or the descendants of emigrants, is completely missing here. Instead, the film oversells its jejune and complacent thesis that Bengali culture is so singular and  powerful , and so attuned to the innate nature of all Bengalis that its gravity surely must draw Soumyo back to his mother, and also his motherland, if you see what they did there. A few Tagore ghazals (sung by the mother in flashback!) are deployed like a rhetorical trump card.

The rhetoric is sentimental and one-dimensional (and aimed at an audience who might already find its propositions axiomatic): the unseen fall-guy villain of the piece is Soumyo’s father who left Kolkata and his wife (who chose to stay) in search of money in America, and later married a white woman. Just in case the deck wasn’t stacked enough, there is the late revelation that the mother stayed to look after her father in law, who his own son would have put in a home (the most direct imaginable code for his hateful westernization and abandonment of Indian values).  Oh, yeah, the bastard also had a secret lovechild, the bastard. Soumyo’s mother, on the other hand,  is described by all and sundry as a beautiful soul, with a special talent for happiness, but none of that is evident in the copious flashback scenes she appears in: she just appears mostly to be an awkward, miserable prig.

This is a very long and lugubrious two hours, and thuddingly old-fashioned compared to the other films I saw at the festival. The declamatory theatrical style of dialogue peculiar to much Bengali cinema, doesn’t help. It’s a style that invites a great deal of scrutiny onto the words the characters speak and, sadly, the words here don’t withstand it – the things these people say are so banal, and they insist on saying them again and again and again at such length.

Delhi in a Day (Prashant Nair, 2011)

An idealistic young British man, Jasper (Lee Williams) arrives in India on an open ticket hoping to find himself. Before he hits “the real India” that he’s so desperate to see, he spends a day and night in the opulent family home of a business contact of his father’s (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). Oblivious to his social transgressions, he can’t help showing  his attraction to the family’s pretty maid Rohini (Anjali Patil).  Things get more complicated when thousands of pounds in cash go missing from Jasper’s luggage, and suspicion falls on the staff. The mere fact that the money has gone missing has happened is potentially enough to ruin the lives of all the servants, no matter what the truth might eventually turn out to be.

The relationship between the Indian urban middle classes (or, as here, the rich) and their (usually lower caste and rural) staff is complex, and can seem impenetrable to westerners. It’s also potentially the stuff of great drama. Nair’s occasionally rather crudely plotted film doesn’t have the sophistication to excavate all the possible layers of nuance and meaning from this situation, and many viewers will balk at the fact that the film’s structure requires a white man to turn up so as to cast the attitude of the Delhi-ites to their servants in an unflattering light.

But Nair’s good faith doesn’t seem, to me, in doubt, and I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by the dignity and tenderness of the relationship between Rohini and the old man who’s always looked after her (Vidya Bhushan), and what they’re prepared to do for each other at this direst of moments. And Nair’s portrait of the rich family basically rings true as well – their treatment of their servants isn’t born from malice or evil, but just from the quietly terrible blindness that they’ve developed, as a coping mechanism,  to the humanity of the people they share their homes with.

Experimenta

The festival had a strand for experimental and avant-garde film for the first time this year, curated by Shai Heredia of Experimenta India. I saw a double bill of stunning non-narrative shorts.

In Presence (Ekta Mittal and Yagashwini Raghunandan, 2012), itinerant workers employed in the construction of the Bengaluru Metro, the rural poor transplanted to work in one of India’s richest and most modern cities, tell stories of ghosts and witches seen during their work, over tableaux of the chaos of destruction and construction.

In Residue (Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, 2011), the camera wordlessly tracks and dollies through a derelict thermal power plant near Guwahati in Assam. Nature takes over, softening the outlines of the dead machines, rust and greenery emphasizing the organic qualities of the industrial forms.  Abdandoned temple deity figures lurk in the backgrounds. After Presence, Residue felt almost like a message from the future, after we’re all gone.

Closing Night Film – Baishey Srabon (Seventh August – Srijit Mukherji, 2011)

The closing night film was preceded by the announcement of the winner of the Satyajit Ray short film prize, which went to Shor (Noise), directed by Neeraj Ghaywan under the Anurag  Kashyap Film Productions Imprimatur. Cheap and cheerful in terms of production values, it’s a sharp, well-paced piece of domestic drama with a twist, about a couple from the Mumbai slums having a mobile phone argument that could spell the end of their marriage, and when the man gets his foot stuck in some railway points while taking a shortcut, possibly the end of more than that.

The closing night film itself was, like last year’s closer Autograph, directed by Srijit Mukherji, and a big hit in Kolkata. Looking back at my review of Autograph from last year, I could just repeat my thoughts here verbatim and feel I’d said most of what I wanted to say about the newer film. This was an easier sit, because the lame film business setting and plot of Autograph was swapped out for a lurid serial killer thriller storyline (the date in the title, 22 Srabon in the Bengali calendar, 7 August in the Western calendar, is the anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s death – the killer here likes to kill on the deathdays of prominent Bengali poets, and leave a poem behind for the police to puzzle over) and the regulation series of twists and red herrings in this kind of film is a better fit for Mukherji’s rather random approach to character and story. But I can’t say I often felt that he was in control of his effects – I’m pretty sure the concluding musical tableau wasn’t meant to be quite as funny as it was.

Generally, I felt that the festival grew in confidence this year, and I look forward to seeing it get even better in 2013. A postscript: a couple of films I wanted to see here but didn’t manage to are playing at the East End Film Festival, which starts in earnest today – Dekh Indian Circus and Runway. If anyone sees them there, or has anything to say about this year’s LIFF, please do leave a comment.

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