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RAVI KAMBOJ on the gripping array of Indian films at the Sydney Film Festival
2012 is already proving itself to be a great year for Indian cinema internationally. With a record Indian presence at Cannes this year and a few other awards to boast about, Indian filmmakers are soaring high!
Closer to home, Indian films are making their dynamic presence felt this year at the Sydney Film Festival with a special selection that make up the Focus On India screenings program. Many of these film screenings include Q & A sessions with the filmmakers. Anurag Kashyap’s eagerly awaited Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2, which made a big impression at Cannes this year, will be the first-ever Indian film in official competition at the Sydney Film festival.
Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2
Director Anurag Kashyap
An extraordinary ride through Bollywood’s spectacular, over-the-top filmmaking, Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace. All of this bodes well for cross-over audiences in the West. Split into two parts, this epic gangster story spanning 70 years of history clocks in at more than five hours of smartly shot and edited footage.
In the first half of the film, the early history of Faizal’s family is told, beginning with the rise of his grandfather Shahid Khan in the days when coal mines represented wealth and power. An omniscient narrator, who survives throughout the film, explains how, from time immemorial, Muslims have fought other Muslims in the area, not for religious reasons, but out of pure evil. Back in 1941, the mythic robber Sultana Daku looted British trains; he is later imitated by the sadistic Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), who is eventually murdered by the young owner of the coal mines, Ramadhir Singh, setting off a power struggle between the two clans that lasts till the final reel. Shahid’s hot-blooded son Sardar shaves his head, vowing not to grow his hair until he exacts revenge for his father’s death. His passion for two women who will become his wives gives him a human, even comic, side. There are only four female characters in this boys’ club, all beautiful firebrands whose bloodthirsty ambition for their offspring would put Ma Baker to shame. Nagma, Sardar’s first wife, bears him four sons including the gangsters Faizal, Danish and “Perpendicular” Khan, while his Hindu wife Durga belatedly contributes the fearsome “Definitive” Khan. Each murderous son stars in a section of the story highlighting his outrageous misdeeds and amorous pursuits.
If the first half of the film sets the background to the present day, Part 2 has moments of humour and is an easier, if certainly no less bloody, watch thanks to its many salutes to popular music and cinema. Sardar’s violence has made him the godfather, a role he keeps until betrayed at a gas station. His body, riddled with bullets, is carted away by his maddened son Danish, who goes on a rampage. But Danish isn’t smart enough to last long, and the family black sheep Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a hash smoking pothead, climbs the ladder to power after cutting off his best friend and betrayer’s head. Taking his cue from Michael Corleone, Faizal modernizes the family arsenal and buys some new-fangled pagers that have just come on the market to communicate with his gang. Cell phones will soon be added.
His courtship of Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) is one of the film’s non-violent high points. Addicted to romantic movies, the lovely Mohsina looks like a Brooklyn moll and wears the same Ray Bans as Faizal, by which they recognize they are soul mates. Their sexy dialogue is a hoot, though the most blatant vulgarities are left to the lyrics (duly translated in the subtitles) to Sneha Khanwalkar’s sparkling score, pumped up with drumbeats at the first sign of gunplay.
It is now 2002 and Sardar’s strangely named teenage sons Definitive and Perpendicular are ready to start their own violent careers, both defined by the narrator as “more terrifying than Faizal.” Their wanton killing sprees pepper the final scenes with death. Faizal is talked into going into politics, alarming his perennial nemesis Ramadhir Singh, now a corrupt old government minister. Their final reckoning takes place on election day as Faizal and his handful of loyalists lay siege to a hospital. Kashyap, whose reputation as a screenwriter and controversial director reach a culmination in this film, is the real behind-the-scenes godfather, never losing control over the story-telling or hundreds of actors, and allowing tongue-in-cheek diversions in the second half that confirm his command over the sprawling material. In the spirit of Bollywood, Rajiv Ravi’s lensing is fast on its feet, with a continually moving camera that always seems to be in the right spot to capture the action
Jai Bhim Comrade
Director & producer Anand Patwardhan
How many murdered Dalits does it take to wake up a nation? Ten? A thousand? A hundred thousand? We’re still counting, as Anand Patwardhan shows in his path-breaking film Jai Bhim Comrade (2011). Not only are we counting, but we’re counting cynically, calculating, dissembling, worried that we may accidentally dole out more than ‘they’ deserve.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was a hero of India ‘s oppressed Dalit (‘untouchable’) community. When his statue in Mumbai’s Ramabai colony was desecrated in 1997, angry crowds gathered. The police opened fire, killing 10 unarmed Dalits. Vilas Ghogre, an activist, poet and singer, hung himself in despair.
Anand Patwardhan – the acclaimed director of In the Name of God; Father, Son and Holy War and War and Peace (all three of which screened at past Sydney Film Festivals) – traces the protest through the poetry and music of Ghogre and others. When asked why it took 14 years to make his film (which won the Firebird Award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival), Patwardhan replied, “I wanted to continue filming till all the false cases against the people in the colony were removed, or until the police officers who had ordered the firing were sent to jail”.
Director Anand Patwardhan will be present at the festival to introduce his film and will take Q & A after the film.
Valley of Saints
Director, Musa Syeed
American filmmaker Musa Syeed directs a lyrical, tender film set on renowned Dal Lake in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir with this nimble debut feature.
Set on the beautiful Dal Lake in strife-torn Kashmir, the acclaimed Valley of Saints is an unlikely love story that raises important environmental issues. Gulzar is a working-class boatman who wants nothing more than to escape the violence and lack of opportunity. His carefully planned efforts to leave the region with his best friend Afzal are foiled by yet another curfew, and Gulzar is forced to remain. His humdrum existence is interrupted by the arrival of Asifa, a beautiful scientist who is researching the water quality of the Dal Lake . Gulzar ferries Asifa around as she makes ominous discoveries about the pollution levels – should the problem go unchecked it could lead to the end of a way of life.
By most Western standards, Valley of Saints would barely be considered a romance – Gulzar and Asifa never actually go on a date, barely touch and never kiss. But in a culture that frowns upon unsupervised interaction between unmarried young men and women, the time that they spend alone together is an unanticipated opportunity.
Nonprofessional actors Bhat and Sofi have an easy rapport as the two young men and playing off Kashmiri actress Neelofar Hamid they create a convincing romantic triangle. The naturalistic performances complement the setting, with the majority of scenes shot on or along the lake.
Syeed, whose parents are from Kashmir , has directed several documentaries and his nonfiction experience proves apropos while working on and around the lake, shooting in cramped indoor quarters or aboard boats, mostly with available light. Setting his characters in their cultural setting and against the spectacular landscape, he favors minimal camera movement and fluid editing, picking up the pace when Afzal and Gulzar go into town or steal building supplies. The film’s bucolic mood is constantly threatened by the prevailing reality of violence and injustice in the region, a creeping tension that Syeed carefully calibrates to emphasize the tenuousness of his characters’ relationships.
The Alfred P. Sloan jury presented the Sundance award to the film for its “brave, poetic and visually arresting evocation of a beautiful but troubled region, and for its moving, nuanced and accurate depiction of the relationship between a local boatman and a young woman scientist whose research challenges the status quo and offers hope for a restored ecosystem.”
Director Musa Syeed will be present at the festival to introduce his film and will take Q & A after the film.
The Sound of Old Rooms
Director, Sandeep Ray
Sandeep Ray’s The Sound of Old Rooms, an exquisite Bengali documentary on a Kolkata poet, that was shot over 20 years, got a warm reception at the Dubai International Film Festival. Ray was mobbed by fans after the screening.
The Sound of Old Rooms is about how Sarthak Roy Chowdhury, a poet in Kolkata, struggles to keep the poetry in him alive even as he is consumed by the daily business of living – teaching, marrying, raising a son – and dealing with a constantly nagging but affectionate mother.
This deeply moving film evokes an amazing intimacy and empathy with the poet, his family, publisher, students and teacher, as well as the lively dark alleys of Kolkata and is remarkable for the way in which it celebrates the ordinary.
There are wonderful and funny moments, as when Roy Chowdhury goes for a walk in the night rain and reads his poetry to a dog; when his mother despairs that “this couple lives on just Maggi noodles”; and when his eccentric publisher says he enjoys nothing more than a good conversation, then coolly asks the poet to lend him some money!
“I decided to make a film on Sarthak mainly because he was very interesting and, as a good friend, I had free access to him,” says Ray.
The film begins when Sarthak was barely out of his teens, and concludes when he is in his 40s.
After shooting the film for 20 years, how did Ray know when to end it?
“We get a sense that his son Bhoon realises his father is a poet. He will remember his house, he studies in the same school as his father’s. Also, Sarthak seems to have become a more well known poet – we weren’t sure where that was going even as recently as three years ago,” says Ray.
Ray produced, directed and shot this 72-minute film on HD Cam. The film is co-written with Sarthak Roy Chowdhury, and co-edited with Subhadro Chowdhury, with evocative music by Sion Dey.
Director, Umesh Vinayak
In a forgotten village called Mangrool that lies in the neglected areas of Maharashtra , years of bad weather and drought have taken their toll on the spirits of the villagers. One sleepy, run-of-the-mill afternoon, Kesha, a herdsman, has a divine vision (or so he thinks) of Shri Guru Dutta, who emerges from a nearby fig tree. Bewildered, Kesha runs through the village announcing the appearance of Lord Dutta to passersby.
News of Kesha’s vision spreads like wildfire. The village young guns think this event provides an excellent opportunity to make some long-awaited changes in Mangrool. Soon, this becomes a matter of interest for politicians and the media. A decision is taken and many of the villagers are thrilled. A life until now only seen on television – the glitter of cities and a lifestyle the youth have dreamed of – will finally be theirs. The sleepy folks of Mangrool now get ready to build a huge temple to Lord Dutta in their village.
In his third feature film, director Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni considers the impact of modernization on a village whose inhabitants are rooted in tradition. The Temple pokes fun at the establishment, the media and politicians – all of whom want a piece of the glory that is on offer. Vote-hungry politicians go along with people’s beliefs – right or wrong – in order to get their support, while an over-enthusiastic media prints anything that will make saleable copy. Nuanced with local village politics, hopes and aspirations of youth, The Temple effectively depicts the irony of life in Indian villages.
Other Indian links at the Sydney Film Festival
If you’re after an Indian link that is less arthouse, you might prefer to come along and watch Mallika Sherawat in Despite the Gods (director, Penny Vozniak). A documentary about the making of the nagin film Hissss, the star here is not our dusky bombshell but the film’s director Jennifer Lynch, daughter of the renowned David Lynch, returning to film-making after a fifteen-year hiatus (as a recovering addict and a single mother). The camera follows the eight-month shoot, capturing the story of a woman struggling with expectations and compromises.
In the moving documentary Missing in the Land of the Gods the director Davor Dirlic follows anguished parents Jock and Di Chambers to India as they search for their son Ryan who went missing in 2005, last seen in the holy city of Hrishikesh.
The ‘new’ vs the ‘old’ is always a compelling theme while talking about India . In director Nisha Punja’s The World Before Her, we look at the dichotomy from the standpoint of two different institutions – the Miss Indi contest and the Durga Vahini, a Hindu fundamentalist movement for women.
The short film Unravel (director Meghna Gupta) we get inside the world of a Panipat rag trader who sorts through garments donated for charity by the West