Another film which premiered in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online streaming this past month is this one about an Indian singer confronting sexism and prejudice. It’s a forthright film about an outspoken woman, and it documents what appears to be an ongoing struggle.
India is, of course, a huge country, and with that huge population comes an equally diverse range of viewpoints when it comes to women in the media. Or perhaps, it’s not so diverse, since it seems as if patriarchy continues to hold sway. We see the titular character (Sona Mohapatra), a singer in Hindi, often adapting songs from other religious traditions (most notably, Sufism), confront those who would marginalise her. She’s not by any means poor, and is married to a successful producer of Bollywood music, but the film shows her forthrightness in attacking those who would deny women (like her) access to big stages and national prominence. We see her reading out messages from supporters on Instagram alongside e-mails from clerics attacking her, and quotes flash up on-screen from politicians leading the fight against immorality (which in the case of Sona appears to be: shows a bit too much cleavage in her videos). Her outspoken nature seem to get her naturally into trouble, and there are hints towards some #MeToo fights she’s had online which (presumably for legal reasons) aren’t given much time here, but she’s clearly not going to be quiet and that seems like a good thing for society.
Director/Cinematographer Deepti Gupta; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.
A strange, experimental Indian film that never got a proper release when it was made, but was recently restored and re-released a few years back, where I saw it at the London Film Festival. As you’ll see from my review, I can’t say I understood it.
An Indian film from 1988 only recently restored and screened, as apparently it was too out-there for the original producers and never got much of a release at the time. And I can understand that. It is extremely difficult to follow, though it may help to be familiar with some of the reference points, and as a non-Indian I am very much not. It follows a sort of free-associative dream (or perhaps nightmare) logic, featuring a young man named Om (Aditya Lakhia) and a lot of to-do about frogs, coins, and other imagery that was densely-packed and edited in a very non-linear way, such that I generally didn’t have much of a clue of even who the main characters were, let alone what was happening. I can’t definitely say it’s bad, as a lot of the imagery was compelling, and I like a mystery.
Director Kamal Swaroop; Writer Kuku; Cinematographers Ashwin Kaul and Milind Ranade; Starring Aditya Lakhia आदित्य लाखिया, Anita Kanwar अनीता कंवर; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 7 October 2017.
Clearly low-budget and shot in black-and-white, this feels like a major title in the development of independent Indian filmmaking, part of India’s own New Wave, in which Mani Kaul was a central figure. It’s a small rural village drama between a handful of characters, but has a power to it that draws on contemporary European figures like Bresson.
I’ve not seen a huge deal of Indian cinema, beyond a few big titles and some contemporary commercial movies, so seeing things like this impresses upon me how huge a range there must be in the country. Uski Roti (variously translated as “Our Daily Bread” and “A Day’s Bread”, and which is variously listed as 1969 and 1970 depending where you look) is barely even narrative-driven, being often composed of a series of brief vignettes of almost Bressonian austerity, as a woman, Balo (Garima), makes food for her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), who drives a bus and only seems to show up very irregularly. In the meantime, we see him playing cards, while stories circulate about him having another woman in another village. The wife’s orbit is the home, where she works alongside her sister (Richa Vyas), who is being pestered by the husband’s brother. Aside from Bresson, the images are reminiscent of the stark village scenes in The Cow, a contemporary film from Iran. Slowly we get a sense of these characters and how their lives are, as the film just lays out these images of village life one after another. Clearly the 60s were a fertile time, and the stark simplicity of this film (a debut film, no less) suggests not just a great talent, but just the tip of the iceberg for filmmaking across the continent.
Director Mani Kaul मणि कौल; Writers Mohan Rakesh मोहन राकेश and Kaul; Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ਕੇ ਕੇ ਮਹਾਜਨ; Starring Garima, Gurdeep Singh, Richa Vyas; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 9 June 2020.
This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.
It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.
It’s impossible to cover Indian cinema without at least a few feel-good Bollywood films. This one, directed by Tanuja Chandra — who has had a fairly long career for a woman directing in India (since 1998), though she has family connections to the business — is a likeable romcom with two big name leads. Irrfan Khan, who sadly died recently, is probably the best-known in the West.
I enjoy a good romcom, but they do tend to lean heavily on the personal charm of their leads. Luckily both Irrfan Khan and Parvathy Thiruvothu have that, although Irrfan’s character of Yogi, a wealthy layabout who writes self-published poetry does initially come across as less quirky than creepy in his insistence. Then again, romcoms do often normalise pathological behaviour, and his is comparatively tame by the genre’s standards. Needless to say, some feeling develops between the two as they criss-cross India (mostly in the north I believe, though I’m hardly a geographic expert). The director encourages her heroine to break the fourth wall by addressing the camera directly in what is now I suppose a time-honoured tradition, but it all comes off rather nicely and this is a very likeable film.
Director Tanuja Chandra तनुजा चंद्रा; Writers Chandra, Gazal Dhaliwal ਗਜ਼ਲ ਧਾਲੀਵਾਲ and Ramashrit Joshi; Cinematographer Eeshit Narain; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Parvathy Thiruvothu പാർവ്വതി ടി.കെ.; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Friday 17 November 2017.
In looking at Indian cinema and society, a number of topics come up quite frequently, particularly that of arranged marriage, which can certainly seem problematic but is also an ingrained part of society and not always quite how Western audiences want to judge it. This documentary is fairly balanced in the way it approaches the subject, taking in three different subjects, at different stages in their path to marriage.
As a documentary about marriage, and thus about women’s lives, in India, this comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a long sigh. It’s not an angry film, it’s not even necessarily against the practice of arranged marriage, it just looks at the stories of three women and the way they feel about marriage and how they expect to continue their lives. All three are intelligent, motivated, and pretty, but each have different difficulties. One is marrying, which happens near the start of the film, meaning we then see how that plays out for her (cooking, domesticity, raising a child but not ‘allowed’ to work); the others are trying to make a path for themselves, and thus get married towards the end of the film. There’s a sense in which the music for those climactic marriage scenes is a little too overdetermined (it comes over like a feel-good commercial) when the rest of the film makes it clear that they have all made sacrifices and compromises. One of them isn’t willing to sacrifice her work and so she marries a man who is pretty blasé about the whole concept, basically admitting he’s just going through with it for his family, and though they seem happy together, it’s all very odd at times. Which means, as a film about the practice of Indian marriages, it’s interesting and fairly balanced.
Directors Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra; Writers Khurana, Mundhra and Jennifer Tiexiera; Cinematographers Naiti Gámez, Shivani Khattar and André de Alencar Lyon; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 2 March 2018.
Meghna Gulzar is a filmmaker with a family history in the arts, who has directed a number of films, including one I reviewed recently upon the untimely death of Irrfan Khan, Talvar (2015). She has a distinctive style and an interest in historical stories that puts her a little outside the usual glam and glitz of the Bollywood musical romantic comedy setpieces. This film from a couple of years ago also stars the lovely Alia Bhatt, one of my favourite contemporary actors, who was in the recent Gully Boy (2019), the delightful Dear Zindagi (2016) and the very silly Shaandaar (2015).
The actions of nations at war with one another, with all the outward military braggadocio, nationalist fervour and, behind the scenes, deadly games of subterfuge and espionage, have always been great fodder for big-screen drama. And it’s usually too easy for filmmakers to lapse into one-note patriotism and against-the-odds heroics, which is why this film feels so interesting to me. Its star Alia Bhatt plays an Indian spy in the lead up to the brief Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, who inveigles her way into a leading Pakistani military family in the aims of sending vital intelligence back to her own country, but yet her character isn’t defined by what she does during that time, and she goes through great emotional trauma in getting her job done. This means that there are a lot of punchy scenes with Bhatt breaking down under the strain, but thankfully she’s an excellent actress and equal to that. Yet her character has a job to do and is competent at it even when personal ties make it difficult, and the film lies in that awkward place between personal responsibility and the dangerous (if not at times lethal) requirements of her profession.
It is successful not just because of the enormous charm and acting ability of its lead (not to mention the supporting cast: her Indian spy handler has more than a little of Colin Firth to him), but with a great deal of commercial sheen to it. 1970s period details are left comfortably in the background to the central spy vs relationship drama, and the film avoids shifting tones relentlessly (as other big Indian films sometimes have a tendency to do). Being a spy here is gripping stuff, and clearly not as glamorous as some other films make out.
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writers Bhavani Iyer भवानी अय्यर and Gulzar (based on the novel Calling Selmat by Harinder Sikka हरिंदर सिक्का); Cinematographer Jay I. Patel জয় আই. প্যাটেল; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Vicky Kaushal विक्की कौशल; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 22 May 2018.
This is just a brief post, since I’m doing an India-themed week, to cover the first known Indian feature film, albeit one from which only two reels survive (so actually all we have is essentially a short film). However, a recent Indian season at the BFI in 2017 presented it with live accompaniment as part of a programme introducing the season as a whole, and it’s still rather fascinating to a see a glimpse of filmmaking from over a hundred years ago.
Being only a remaining reel or two of what was originally a longer film, and one which touches on Indian mythology at that, meant that I’d never be likely to follow what’s going on. That said, it sticks (as myth often does) to the grand themes of love, betrayal and the restoration of order by a divinity. The screening I saw also had a fantastic performance by a number of excellent traditional musicians so that will stay with me. The film itself, being (what survives of) the first ever Indian feature film is a fascinating document, though it has some nice effects too for what was an industry in its absolute infancy.
Director/Writer Dadasaheb Phalke दादासाहेब फाळके; Cinematographer Trymbak B. Telang திரிம்பாக் பி. தெலாங்கு; Starring D.D. Dabke दत्तात्रय दामोदर दबके, Anna Salunke अण्णा सालुंके; Length 12 minutes [original length 40 minutes].
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 May 2017.
A couple of weeks ago I did a themed week around documentaries because of the Sheffield Doc/Fest moving online (it’s still going until 10 July). However, it’s not the first film festival and won’t be the last to open online only this year. Next week Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a short online programme, and just this past week, the London (and Birmingham) Indian Film Festival has launched an online hub, which looks very similar to Sheffield’s. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch up with a few, but it’s a hectic time in filmgoing, albeit a very homebound one! In honour of this, I’m doing a week dedicated to Indian films, starting with some classics and then moving to more recent works (most of which I’ve seen are by women directors). I’ll start with Guru Dutt’s classic from 1957, whose bio makes him seem like he had something of a turbulent life, though it resulted in some great films.
A magnanimous and generous film about people living on the outside of acceptable society. The director Guru Dutt also plays the leading man, Vijay, a struggling poet (much of it sung) who has been more or less abandoned by his brothers and scorned by polite society, and who is only made to feel welcome by a prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). In a bitter twist of fate, he only finds fame after it is assumed he has died. The Wikipedia plot summary deals mostly with the film’s final third, as much of the earlier part of the film is more of an attempt to capture Vijay’s feelings, of being abandoned and shunned, and of failing to find love or respect, though somehow it’s never really depressing: the luminous cinematography, and the generosity of a small number of (similarly outsider) characters keep the film and its lead character from wallowing in misery. When plot machinations kick in, the grasping venality of those around Vijay is revealed.
Director Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त; Writer Abrar Alvi अबरार अलवी; Cinematographer V.K. Murthy वीके मूर्ति; Starring Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त, Mala Sinha माला सिन्हा, Waheeda Rehman وحیدہ رحمن, Rehman रहमान; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 24 November 2018.
One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).
Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.