Plenty of Indian links but…

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…the supporting national audience was sadly lacking at the Sydney Film Fest, writes DARSHAK MEHTA

A scene from Despite the Gods

The 59th Sydney Film Festival, for a welcome change, had some representation this year from the world’s largest film industry, a “Focus on India” as the official festival brochure called it.

This redresses years of indifference and neglect. But it is now up to the Indian community in particular, to support it strongly. However, given past form, one could be sceptical.

Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Jai Bhim Comrade was a stand-out, at least for this columnist. Patwardhan is a committed and idealistic filmmaker and this doco was about 14 years in the making. It dealt with the powder-keg of race relations in Mumbai, following the unprovoked police firing in which 10 unarmed Dalits lost their lives in Ramabai Nagar, in the city’s north-west in 1997. The deification of Dr B.R. Ambedkar by Dalits in India was a revelation. Patwardhan who was in attendance said in the Q&A following the screening, that he usually had to take the Government to court to ensure they screened his inconvenient films. Of course, India’s mostly mindless and ridiculously shrill 200-odd commercial TV channels wouldn’t touch something so thoughtful!

Another laudable and insightful documentary (a short film) was Unravel, based on the garment recycling industry of Panipat.

The charming, though modest Valley of Saints is set in and around the Dal Lake of Srinagar, Kashmir, by US-based first timer, Musa Syeed. The pollution of that hitherto romantic spot is soul-destroying.

Another scary look at contemporary India on a collision course is in The World Before Her. It is a story concurrently told, of the Miss India Beauty Pageant much hated by Hindu extremists, in this case the Durga Vahini, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s arm. How some Indians have so much bottled up hate for people and things they are mostly ignorant about, is a topic that never ceases to amaze. In this documentary, the Durga Vahini is shown inculcating and radicalising simple, fertile young minds. Emancipation of the fairer sex is still eons away. After the screening, someone said their camps are not far short of Hindu ‘madrassas’!

And speaking of religion, the Marathi movie Deool (The Temple), trained its focus on the business of religion and the all-pervasive corruption of institutions from the ground up, and from villages to cities. A bit loud and not too subtle, but the message did come across.

The Gangs of Wasseypur was a gruesome, gratuitously violent, tediously long (over five and a half hours spanning two parts) and in the end, a disappointing movie by Anurag Kashyap. It was exhibited at Cannes but for the life of me I cannot believe that other Indian directors are unable or unwilling to successfully market their films as Kashyap seems to have done.

In past years, yours faithfully has despaired at the apathy in the rapidly growing Indian community at their lack of patronage of the art and culture scene in Sydney – even our own!  If the Sydney Film Festival is the yardstick, well, nothing much has changed. Brown faces were at a distinct premium at most movies – even Indian ones!  The sole exception was possibly at the Festival Competition entry, The Gangs of Wasseypur.

This paper, to its eternal credit, did its bit in promoting the SFF in general and the Indian flicks in particular. But, it is a shame that the Indian-Australian community again, gave the festival the cold shoulder.

At a time when the projection of soft power is one of India’s unstated diplomatic aims, it is not clear how that can happen in a vacuum without the participation or support of our burgeoning community.

Some navel-gazing by the myriad organisations (and their self-styled leaders) claiming to represent the interests of the community is urgently required.

Alps, a weird Greek movie, won the Official Competition. My wife and I walked out at the 20-minute mark, as we could not torture ourselves to sit through the surreal BS on offer.

We did sit through and (mostly) enjoy about 35 other movies, though!

And finally, run, don’t walk if you get the chance to see Monsieur Lazhar and El Gusto, in particular.