The year has got off to a great start for India’s independent filmmakers. In the first two months of 2018, three films from the subcontinent – Ere Gowda’s Balekempa (The Bangle Seller), Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Jonaki and Q’s Garbage have landed slots in two major festivals. While the first two were screened at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, the last-named has made it to Berlin’s Panorama section. As we look ahead to the other major film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Busanand San Sebastian, among others – and wonder if more Indian films will flash on their radars, there is reason to be hopeful. With their poetic, provocative and passionate visions, an emerging crop of Indian directors are looking for international conquests even as a handful of established masters continue to dig deep for inspiration. A fair degree of optimism would not, therefore, be misplaced.
Here are ten highly anticipated Indian films that we hope will be ready for rounds of the festival circuit this year – and beyond: — By Saibal Chatterjee
In 1994, cinematographer-director Shaji N. Karun’s Malayalam film Swaham competed for the Palme d’Or. No Indian film has made the Cannes Competition cut since. Could Olu (She), Shaji’s new film, break the 24-year jinx? The theme of the film is disturbing: a girl is gang-raped and thrown into the backwaters. But the treatment is suffused with hope and humanity. The violated girl survives in the watery depths and, on full moon nights, communicates with a young boatman. The latter is an aspiring painter devoid of talent. The girl, as she waits out the nine months before the birth of her baby, inspires the villager to produce exceptional paintings. Shaji’s links with Cannes go back a long way. In 1989, his debut film Piravi won a Camera d’Or – Mention Speciale. Ten years later, Vanaprasthamwas selected for Un Certain Regard. Nineteen years on, the director could well return to the Croisette with a film in the Competition.
Nandita Das’s second directorial venture journeys into the last four years in the tumultuous life of iconic Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The role of the unflinching chronicler of the subcontinent’s partition woes is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, with Rasika Dugal incarnating the character of the writer’s wife, Safiya. Manto was a politically engaged writer who examined the human cost of the sectarian violence unleashed by history. A film on his life and worldview could not be timelier. The first look of Mantowas was unveiled in Cannes last year. The year before that, Das had travelled to the French Riviera to formally announce that the film was ready to roll. Now that it is time for her Manto to face the world, will she find pride of place in the festival where it all began?
Buddhadeb Dasgupta, one of Bengali cinema’s last men standing on the global stage, is wrapping up his next, Urojahaj (Aeroplane), the tale of a humble car mechanic whose dream of flying puts him on a collision course with the authorities. The cast of the film, Dasgupta’s first Indo-Bangladeshi co-production, is led by Chandan Roy Sanyal and includes Parno Mitra and Dhaka-based actress RokeyaPrachi, both of whom had key roles in Mostafa Sarwar Farooki’s Doob: No Bed of Roses. A Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) regular, the director has had several of his films in the Masters section there, including his last work, Tope. We expect to see Urojahaj take off and head in the right direction sometime this year.
Jahnu Barua is set to be in the thick of the action in 2018. The Assamese auteur has wrapped up the shoot of Bhoga Khidikee (Broken Window), bankrolled by Lunchbox co-producer Shahnaab Alam. The film has Seema Biswas and Zerifa Wahid in key roles. In the second half of 2018, Barua is scheduled to start his next film, Unread Pages, an Assamese-English film that has an American co-producer, Ivanhoe Pictures. We expect Bhoga Khidikee to begin its international festival journey halfway through the year.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, one of the most uncompromising of India’s independent cinematic voices, never dropped out of the news in 2017, which began with his third feature, Sexy Durga, winning the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Not unexpectedly, the film ran into trouble with the censors back home as well as with the organizers of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). While Sexy Durga still awaits the go-ahead for public screenings, Sasidharan, working yet again without a script, is near completing his fourth film, Unmaadiyude Maranam (Death of Insane). According to reports, the upcoming film deals with a creative individual grappling with restrictions on freedom of expression. What else could it have been?
LAILA AUR SAAT GEET
Pushpendra Singh, whose fledgling directorial career has been fuelled by successful festival appearances, is prepping for his third outing, Laila Aur Saat Geet (The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs). His debut film, Lajwanti, premiered in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014. Singh’s second feature, Ashwatthama, was in the competition of the Busan International Film Festival. His next film, like his previous two, will explore the rural mindscape in the context of timeless folk tales and legends. Adapted from a story by noted Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha, Laila Aur Saat Geet, about a woman of the Bakarwal tribe that shuttles between the plains and the hills in search of pasture for its sheep, is set in Jammu and Kashmir.
Adman, poet and photographer Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy’s first feature film, A Billion Colour Story, premiered in the competition section of the Busan International Film Festival in 2016. His next project, Distant Teardrop, set in Sri Lanka, tells the story of a Sinhala father and his estranged son who drifts away from the family after marrying a Tamil woman. The old man nurtures deep hatred for Tamils since a LTTE suicide bomb attack killed his wife. Ten years later, the son shows up at his father’s door and a process of reconciliation begins. With the backing of Bollywood actor-director-producer Satish Kaushik, Distant Teardrop is scheduled to go into production in time for it to be ready for festivals this year.
The second film of the independent Coimbatore-based filmmaker Arun Karthick, the Tamil-language Nasir received the Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals fund from script development. It is the story of a happy-go-lucky middle-aged apparel shop employee, a Muslim, whose serene existence is thrown out of gear by the lengthening shadow of religious bigotry and violence. Rooted in the fast-shifting realities of nondescript lives, Nasir, like the director’s 2015 film Sivapuranam, has the makings of a cinematic essay less ordinary.
FTII alumnus Prantik Basu burst on the scene in 2017, winning Rotterdam’s Tiger Award for the 26-minute short film Sakhisona. It was hailed by the jury for “its surreal, poetic approach towards the myths that are hidden in the archaeological layers of the earth”. In his first feature, Mogulmarir Katha (Mogulmari Tales), awaiting final greenlighting, he takes the theme forward through a story in which residents of a sleepy Bengal hamlet are threatened with displacement to make way for archaeological ex-cavations being conducted to find the region’s Buddhist roots. The contemporary and the ancient merge as the film journeys into the past using the present as a springboard. It’s a premise that holds much promise.
Thematically as startling a film as any we are accustomed to seeing in India, the Assamese-language Aamis (Voracious) was selected for the co-production market of the NFDC Film Bazaar 2017. It is Delhi-based Bhaskar Hazarika’s second directorial outing after the critically acclaimed Kothanodi, which premiered in Busan and won the Asian Cinema Fund’s post-production fund award. Currently in the works, the film I expected to be ready for festivals in the second half of the year. Hazarika’s sturdy artistic sensibility, amply evident in his first film, sets him apart from filmmakers from his neck of the woods and allows him to foray into challenging terrains. Set in Guwahati, the new film explores an unsettlingly bleak side of love: self-destructive and prone to horrific choices. Another shot at the dark and grisly, Aamis promise to be as boundary-pushing as Kothanodi.