Better than Bollywood

Reading Time: 12 minutes

A radical breed of Indian filmmakers are conquering the global audience with unique and thought-provoking films, reports RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA
Rarely has an independent film raised so much interest in India in the weeks before its official release, but Ship of Theseus, made by filmmaker Anand Gandhi is one such film. The film screened at the recently concluded Sydney Film Festival where it won rave reviews, as it did at the London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mumbai, Brisbane, Rotterdam and Transylvania Film Festivals. The film is but one of the many new movies making the international circuit and showcasing an immense and untapped well of talent for storytelling, screenplay and acting from the Indian film industry. These are award-winning films that grasp concepts of reality and present them with simplicity, finesse and authenticity that make them tremendously appealing, however, to a larger international market than a domestic one.
New ideas
With one of India’s leading film personalities Kiran Rao presenting the film and a strong online campaign promoting it, Ship of Theseus seems to be the first of independent films sailing into the year’s top ten list of many critics, nationally and internationally.
An ‘independent’ film is defined loosely as a non-studio funded film. But that, says filmmaker Ritesh Batra and one of Gandhi’s contemporaries, is outside of India. Within India, according to Batra, an independent film is one that is ‘independent in spirit’.
And Batra should know. His first feature film Dabba (The Lunchbox), won the Viewer’s Choice Award Grand Rail d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
As films ‘independent in spirit’, the Indian audience is likely to classify The Lunchbox and Ship of Theseus in the ‘art’ film category, variously called arthouse, alternate, parallel, sometimes even ‘meaningful’ cinema. This is the kind of cinema that has no commercial trappings – it does not have songs or dances, or even heroes and villains, is low budget, has no stars, might win an award or two, but typically, is the kind that has no takers in terms of a mass audience.
And yet, Ritesh Batra and Anand Gandhi are heralding a new era in Indian cinema, one which is seeing the paradigm shift considerably. Their particular brand of cinema asks more questions than it gives answers, and leaves you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. Their movies have already won over cinema buffs internationally; so can the domestic market be far behind? While there is still a long way to go, these films are finally creating furrows in the mindset of an audience that is conditioned to the removed-from-reality and escapism fiction of commercially successful films.
Sailing towards success
Ship of Theseus is a story that interweaves the dilemmas faced by three separate individuals as they grapple with issues of identity and change. A blind photographer who receives a cornea transplant wonders whether her art has changed after her operation. A kidney transplant recipient is consumed by the plight of his anonymous donor. A dying monk refuses medication because he has spent his life fighting against animal testing. In a classic Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram tale, writer-director Gandhi addresses the notions of truth, justice and beauty. The title itself comes from the fabled paradox of Theseus, in which the question is asked, if a ship has each of its parts replaced, is the new ship the same as the original?
“The idea of the film came to me as I nursed my grandmother in hospital and saw the disease and death around me,” Anand Gandhi revealed, speaking to Indian Link at the sidelines of the Sydney Film Festival. “As the story developed, my own artistic, ethical, social and philosophical struggles defined the struggles of my characters”.
The film was a hit at Toronto last year, with acclaim for its unusual story as well as for its stellar performances, and Kiran Rao got wind of it.
“She made it a point to see it, and loved it,” Gandhi divulged. “We talked about working together, and when I suggested she could present the film, she came on board”.
Having produced a philosophical treat, it is quite surprising to learn that Gandhi actually started off in the industry at 19 as a writer on the TV soaps Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. (Another example of the dichotomy that characterises his work, perhaps?) He laughed at the suggestion that at first he gave us trash, but now he wants to make us think.
“In my defense, I was only 19! Look, every artiste wants to reach out to the mass audience. I am glad I got it over with early on!” said Gandhi. “I was just telling Hugo Weaving, my friend and co-jury member here at Sydney, that if we have the luxury and the leisure to dream and imagine and invent, we also have a responsibility to do something interesting and thoughtful. If I have privileges, I must put them to good use”.
Hopefully the Saas-Bahu audience will think the exact same thought, and move up a notch along with him!
Guns ‘n’ rain
Amit Kumar’s first feature, Monsoon Shootout also featured at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and was included in the competition category. The film is about the dynamics of split second decisions that could change your life forever. To shoot or not to shoot, that is the question faced by a rookie cop in this action-packed police thriller set in monsoonal Mumbai. Three different scenarios play out, based on the decisions that could compromise his morals.
Kumar claims he has always been intrigued by the decision-making process, like how much of the other person’s perspective do you take into consideration while making a decision that will affect them?
“The idea has been sitting in my mind for ten years now,” Kumar told Indian Link. “The UK Film Council that was supposed to fund it closed down, and when I found an Indian producer they wanted a well-known star in the film, so it stalled again. Finally Anurag Kashyap helped out”.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui gives a stunning performance as the baddie at the other end of policeman Vijay Verma’s gun.
Nawazuddin (the new Naseeruddin?) also appeared in Kumar’s first offering, a short film called The Bypass (2003).  Kumar must surely be thrilled with the way Nawaz’s career has taken off in the last ten years.
“Having Nawaz on board makes it all very powerful,” he admitted. “You have him, you’ll have the producers.”
Dabba dreams
Written and directed by the talented Ritesh Batra, Dabba (The Lunchbox) is set in Mumbai and revolves around a mistaken delivery in the dabbawala (lunchbox service) popular in Mumbai. This leads to a relationship between Saajan, a lonely widower who is about to retire, and Ila, an unhappy housewife. They start exchanging notes thorough the daily lunchbox that inspire them to create a fantasy world together. The film was screened on May 19 as a part of the International Critics’ Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation of over 15 minutes and very positive reviews. Dabba also won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award, also known as Grand Rail d’Or.
Batra is a graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film programme, and his talent has been lauded at Sundance, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) and by French-German TV channel ARTE. The Dabba screenplay has also been applauded and awarded an honourable Jury Mention at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and was promoted at the Goa NFDC Film Bazaar, the Berlinale Talent Project Market and at the Torino festival screenwriter’s lab.
International recognition
So, what were Gandhi and Kumar expecting from Sydney?
“I got exactly what I was expecting,” Anand Gandhi confided. “A warm welcome. A full house. A curious and interested audience, who treated me to wonderful Q&A sessions, which often spilled out of the theatre!” (He forgot to add, modestly, a standing ovation).
Amit Kumar was more romantic in his reply saying, “I came expecting simply that the Sydney audience will love my film, and come to India to see the monsoon… but maybe not a shootout!”
Kumar added however, that he hoped to see his film challenge the existing notions of Indian cinema.
“My film was in competition, so viewers were primed to see something different, but yes, I’m hoping to change perceptions about the kind of films we make in India”.
We can safely conclude that these filmmakers did exactly that, given the more-than-warm response. The other Indian links at the festival, namely Algorithms by Geetha J and Ian MacDonald (a documentary on blind chess players); Char: The No-man’s Land (a documentary on the social effects of the environmental problems with the Ganges); and Midnight’s Children, no doubt added to the growing realisation that Indian cinema goes well and truly beyond Bollywood.
Home truths
While Bollywood has been whinging for years about the lack of international recognition, it is a fact that the Indie industry seems to have gone and won it through sheer talent. Ritesh Batra, Anand Gandhi and Amit Kumar were all at Cannes this year where India, celebrating its 100th year in cinema, was the special guest country. While Cannes did its bit to honour the Indian industry, did the Indian industry live up to its part of the bargain and showcase its strengths fully?
Amit Kumar seemed to think not.
“It could have been a bit more balanced,” he claimed. “Hindi cinema is not representative of Indian cinema. But then, it is more visual and widely known. Still, the new breed of film-makers did manage to impress. Lunchbox did very well. My own film was well-received, but it is a genre film and will travel well. Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly was interesting, you can always expect something different from him. And Bombay Talkies was good too, in sending the new message out.”
Anand Gandhi’s response was dismissive. “Hundred years on, the issue that engages me the most is, where do we stand today. Right now, my peers are making really exciting cinema – cinema that will change the game,” he said.
The interesting fact about both filmmakers is that though their stories are largely set in contemporary Mumbai, they are suitably global enough in theme to reach out to a wider audience. They are also based on real-time situations and episodes offering a slice of actual life in India, something that resonates more with an international audience than the song and dance fare that seems to characterise Bollywood. Perhaps this is where the new breed of filmmakers is different from those in Bollywood.
Another challenge that radical Indian filmmakers face is in finding funding for their movies. Producers within the domestic film industry are simply not interested if the film is not commercially viable. Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga came on board to produce Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, and actor Sohum Shah stepped in as producer of Ship of Theseus, “to safeguard the artistic integrity of the project”. With Dabba, the film was jointly produced by Indian, British, German, French and American film bodies. And while these award-winning films have been shot around themes mostly in Mumbai, funding for these has been, either partially or wholly, through international producers. Perhaps it’s time Bollywood looked beyond its boundaries towards supporting new talent that brings recognition to the Indian film industry as a whole. And what better time to promote this than in 2013, as India celebrates 100 years of cinema.
The Indian response
It’s early days yet for Ship of Theseus in India, but Gandhi is confident that his film will do well.
“I am greatly surprised at the response already,” he said. “It is unprecedented, I should say, to hear people talk about a film that is art-house yet entertaining.”
Twitterverse is replete with eager viewers who have liked the trailer.
The film was released in five centres only – Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata. But the online push has been so strong that Kiran Rao has just announced an online voting system for other cities. The film will be screened in the city that gets the maximum votes.
“With our online campaign, our effort is to gauge the interest of that audience, and hopefully, based on that, to take the film to them,” Rao said recently, adding, “It’s an exciting new way to reach out to viewers, a democratisation of cinema, where audiences decide what they want to see”.
For Amit Kumar, the expected Indian response to his film Monsoon Shootout is also clear. “It will probably be similar to Gangs of Wasseypur. Although Monsoon Shootout is slightly different in tone, I think it would be safe to say, those who enjoyed Gangs will enjoy my film too,” he claimed.
And perhaps the audiences are ready for it in their own way, given that some recent commercial releases that blur the line between mainstream and art-house have been well-received, like Chak De India, Rocket Singh, Kahani, Vicky Donor, OMG and Ankur Arora Murder Case.
Anand Gandhi tellingly observed, “I think it is quite an arrogant response when Indians (outside of India) come up to me and say, ‘I love your film, but I don’t think the Indian audience will get it’. Everyone wants to think! We just have to give them more food for thought!”
Hope they dish it out by the platefuls.
With details from Sheryl Dixit and online sources
10 recent independent films from India worth a watch
Shot completely in black-and-white, Kshay directed by debutant Karan Gour, is a psychological drama about obsession. Rasika Duggal’s portrayal of an obsessive housewife is outstanding. The film played in four festivals including Dubai International Film Festival 2011.
A heart-warming tale of childlike innocence hidden within us, this film was made with the help of Children’s Film Society of India. The story of a young boy obsessed with kite-flying, Gattu, directed by Rajan Khosa highlights the power of hope.
Mumbai Cha Raja
Manjeet Singh’s film explores the underbelly of Mumbai during the rainy Ganesh festival. Touted to be India’s answer to Slumdog Millionaire, this film is a perfect blend of joy, sorrow and misfortune. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival New Horizons Competition and the Mumbai Film Festival Indian Competition.
Miss Lovely
Ashim Ahluwalia’s film traverses through a long forgotten era of C-grade Bollywood horror and porn films. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Niharika Singh, the film competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It also won two awards at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival the same year.
Supermen of Malegaon
The film takes us through the lives of people who are united over a single goal to produce a Malegaon version of Superman by making spoofs on Bollywood films. Before its theatrical release last year, the film bagged 15 awards at various film festivals.
Good Night Good Morning (GNGM)
Shot completely in black-and-white, GNGM plunges into the psyche of the viewers by highlighting the strong desire to be loved. Following screenings at several international film festivals, the tragic yet comic film saw a theatrical release in 2012 and opened to mostly positive reviews.
Shuttlecock Boys
The film revolves around the lives, successes and failures of four friends who hail from lower middle class backgrounds in Delhi. It made its way to festivals including the Gotham Screen International Film Festival, New York, the Seattle South Asian Film Festival and the Chicago South Asian Film Festival.
Delhi in a Day
Prashant Nair’s debut feature, set against the backdrop of a rich family in Delhi, makes a strong statement on the socio-economic strata without deviating from the crux of the plot. The film used flashes of comedy to shine a light on the uncomfortable realities of contemporary life.
This crime-thriller, an ode to Mumbai, revolves around destitute boys who get trapped in the drug trade and a young cop, who tracks them. The film was screened as part of the 2012 International Critics’ Week, an independent film event which runs parallel to the Cannes Film Festival in southern France.
A story about a divorced couple who find their daughter missing, this is Anurag Kashyap’s short film that screened at Cannes this year.
Haricharan Pudipeddi, IANS
Lots of soul food, but not many Indian takers
Once again, the Sydney Film Festival had a varied and enticing menu on offer, but lacked the subcontinent audience, by DARSHAK MEHTA
The 60th Sydney Film Festival which concluded over the weekend of June 15-16 screened approximately 155 movies.
Yours truly (and, Mrs Truly!) were fortunate to see about 35 of them in an 11-day marathon test of stamina and sanity.
Some of the movies were highly challenging and/or bleak. Not to mention, confronting. Others were uplifting, entertaining and even inspiring. It was the usual gamut of festival cinema.
One of them (Only God Forgives) caused us to walk out in repulsion at the highly gratuitous, sadistic and sickening violence on offer. To see it get the Jury Prize as the best competition movie of the festival is extremely disappointing. That it will polarise audiences when released commercially, is a certainty.
Though there were a handful of Indian movies screened, it is dispiriting to see the continuing lukewarm response of the Indian community in Sydney to serious cinema. Fortunately, local Australians attended in droves. One is hard-pressed to explain why a proud and sensitive (at least to public criticism!) ethnic minority which feels mightily miffed when ignored, does little to support the propagation of their culture and “soft power”. It would be difficult to demand more Indian movies of the organisers of the Sydney Film Festival in the future, if there is such woeful patronage of the movies screened.
In stark contrast, when we went to see a couple of Iranian movies, their community’s support for movies from their homeland was enthusiastic.
Maybe, Indians are too industrious for their own good and have deferred the need of food for their souls?
What were the highlights?
The Audience choice award winner The Past from Iranian master, Asghar Farhadi, was certainly one. It starred Berenice Bijo who won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is sure to be commercially released in Sydney. Another standout Iranian film was Pardé (Closed Curtain) by the highly acclaimed director, Jafar Panahi.
The Act of Killing, a powerful re-enactment of the Sumatran genocides of the mid-‘60s, from documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, was my favourite. Man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds and this doco was a disturbing reminder.
An engrossing movie, set in Romania, Child’s Pose featured Luminita Gheorghiu. She gives a sensational portrayal and overall it was a riveting cinematic experience. It is easy to see why it won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale.
You will not regret seeing Wadjda, the first ever film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, or The Rocket, a charming story set in Laos, which warmed the hearts of audiences.
The Indian films screened were:
* Ship of Theseus, directed by Anand Gandhi (who was also a member of the jury)
* Algorithms, a touching documentary of three young, talented (though blind) young chess champions
* Monsoon Shootout, in the crime genre, set in the Bombay underworld and starring the ridiculously talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui. From all accounts, run – don’t walk, to see this entertainer, if it is released here, or get it on DVD.
This correspondent was not fortunate enough to see the above due to scheduling clashes of other movies.
Deepa Mehta directed Midnight’s Children based on the Salman Rushdie book. Rushdie adapted and wrote the screenplay of his novel and also narrates the story. After a promising beginning, the movie flags and ultimately flounders. The novel was never going to be easy to film, though. The movie is worth seeing for the sumptuous colours and periodic details. I was certainly transported back for a while!
The contrast in the films of the two Booker Prize winning novels (Life of Pi being the other) with a sub-continental theme, is stark. Life of Pi is a far superior film, in all respects.
Char-The No Man’s Island, Sourav Sarangi’s multiple-award-winning documentary, filmed over a number of years, tracks a young boy and his family’s uncertain future due to the Farakka Dam altering the flow of the Ganga on India’s border with Bangladesh. A highly compassionate though ultimately troubling experience.
Maybe, next year the Sydney Film Festival might consider publicising the Indian movies extensively, well in advance. Awareness amongst the generally cinema-loving Indian community of the Festival’s stupendous breadth certainly seems to be lacking.
Ultimately, it is up to us, Indian-Australians, to try and support our culture much, much more: wherever, whenever and as often as we can.

What's On