From big names like Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair to experimental filmmakers like Anand Gandhi and Vasan Bala, the Indian presence at the London Film Festival expressed a common theme: the state of the human condition.

The October sun and rain was the perfect setting for the 12-day long London Film Festival (LFF), which showcased over 200 films. As the lights went out in cinemas all over London — from the plush Odeon and Empire in the West End to Rich Mix in East London — narratives unfolded before rapt audiences in segments classified as Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journeys, Sonic and Family. Among these was a potpourri of films from India and works of film-makers of Indian origin.

From Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s celebrated Booker-winning Midnight’s Children to stories about contemporary realities in Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh and Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, the common theme was the state of the human condition and man’s desire to make it better.

The much-awaited Midnight’s Children was the toast of the season. With a screenplay and a voice-over by Rushdie himself, the film was a close collaboration between Deepa Mehta and Rushdie. The result is a dreamlike magical presentation of the story of Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhava) whose fate changes soon after he “tumbles forth” into this world at the stroke of midnight in an India that has just thrown away its colonial chains only to get sucked into the angst of Partition. Mehta draws powerful performances from young Bhava, Shahana Goswami and Seema Biswas. One portion that Rushdie did not want to lose was the bit about the Indian Emergency and the authoritarian tendencies of India’s former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. “Some producers who had earlier shown interest in filming the book had wanted me to drop this segment and I refused,” Rushdie told a packed audience at a Screen Talk at the BFI. The scenes of forced sterilisation powerfully bring up one of the darkest chapters of Indian history.

Speaking about his love for cinema, Rushdie said he could not understand why it had taken him till the age of 65 to be involved in a film. Growing up in Mumbai, he had watched Hollywood films at Eros Cinema with his friends. During his university days at Cambridge, he had gone regularly to Arts Theatre where he was captivated by masters like Satyajit Ray and where he first saw his all-time favourite film, Pather Panchali. “Move over, Citizen Kane,” said Rushdie jovially referring to the film that is always voted the best film of all time by British audiences. “This is the real thing.”

The author said that once he decided to option the rights of his book for “one dollar” to Deepa Mehta, there was no looking back. Writing a screenplay for a multi-character, multi-layered allegorical book like Midnight’s Children was not going to be easy. “I knew that to make a film on Midnight’s Children you would have to be ruthless…I felt I alone could be disrespectful and that’s why I agreed to doing the screenplay,” he said.

Later Mehta also persuaded him to do the voice-over. “When Deepa wants something, you just do it,” he said, praising his director’s skills of persuasion, as Mehta smiled in the auditorium. “We didn’t think of a voice over earlier in the film and it was only in the post-production phase that Deepa wanted it and I gave my voice during the narration. I also love what Nitin Sawhney has been able to do to this film — how to use music instead of words. I learnt it from Ray’s Pather Panchali — how to use music and remove dialogue.” Midnight’s Children as interpreted by Deepa Mehta leaves you with a feeling of warm nostalgia, of a very difficult story, well told.

Portraying human dilemmas

From the magic realism of Saleem’s world, the viewer is transported to the stark realism of a post-9/11 world in Mira Nair’s film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The tightly told Booker-nominated novel becomes the springboard from which Nair tells the story of a young Pakistani, Changez Khan, whose charmed life in New York takes a spin after the terror attacks. Nair, while taking liberties with the story and adding new elements for cinematic tension, extracts a powerful performance from British-born actor Riz Ahmed, who plays Changez. “You picked a side after 9/11. I didn’t have to…it was picked for me,” Changez tells his American girlfriend Erica (played by Kate Hudson). The moment of truth dawns when the protagonist meets a Turkish publisher who urges him to rediscover his true self: “When you determine what you are, the colour will return to your life”.

Supporting roles by Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (Changez’s parents, who live the life of the fading elite in Lahore), Kiefer Sutherland (Changez’s boss Jim) and Kate Hudson bring the film alive. As in her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Nair does what she’s best at: portray the humane dilemmas of an immigrant. This time it happens to be a Muslim youth in the west in a post 9/11 world. The skylines of Lahore, New York and Shanghai form the backdrop of the conflicts that crowd Changez’s mind, culminating in a moment of truth in a Lahore university. The film, which opened the Venice Film Festival to a mixed response, received a very warm reception at the gala screening at the Odeon where Nair was present.

The search for contemporary realism continued in other narratives. An Indian film nominated for the Sutherland Trophy Award for most “original and imaginative feature debut” was Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus. The film wove its way through three separate stories, with the thematic strand of organ transplant/donation exploring the ethics — or lack of it — in modern medicine and the resulting dilemmas that confront the protagonists. The separate stories — of a visually impaired artist who comes to India with a friend and explores her identity as an artist while undergoing an eye surgery; a monk who fights for animal rights and is faced with the dilemma of taking medicines that are made after experiments on animals and resists a liver transplant; and finally a stockbroker who is inspired into a moral battle to fight for a poor man who has been duped of his kidney by organ racketeers in India — converge at the end in a single narrative. Although the film did not bag the Sutherland award, it got a special mention from Hannah McGill, President of the jury: “We commended Anand Gandhi's incredibly ambitious Ship of Theseus, for tickling our intellect and showing us rarely seen facets of Indian life”.

Stories from the real India

Chakravyuh — the story of the Naxalite uprisings in India and the layers of corruption in the government and police that have fuelled their struggle — received a rousing reception at the London Film Festival. Directed by Prakash Jha, the film had its world premiere with Bollywood stars Abhay Deol and Arjun Ramphal walking the red carpet outside the Empire, Leicester Square. “The insurgency has spread to over 200 districts in the country. These are some of the poorest areas of India, though they are high in mineral wealth. I thought it was really important to tell the story,” said Jha.

The film’s narrative is based in a fictional village of Nandighat, leaving one in no doubt about which agitation Jha draws his inspiration from. The film focuses on two individuals: Adil Khan, a police officer played by Arjun Ramphal and Kabir, his friend played by Abhay Deol. Although Kabir has been sent to infiltrate the world of the tribals by his police officer friend, he soon turns into a sympathiser when he sees the exploitation by police officers, land owners and politicians, leading to the final conflict between the two friends.

“I was very excited about doing the film,” said Deol. “I read articles and newspaper reports to do my research on the situation in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh. There are so many examples of the state picking up people who are not Maoists just because they are trying to help the tribals. We saw what happened to Dr. Binayak Sen, to Soni Sori.”

Debut director Vasan Bala in Peddlers constructs a dark and cold tale about drug peddlers and a sadistic cop (played chillingly by Siddharth Menon) who heads the narcotics investigations. The film, which was an entry in the Cannes Film Festival, blurs the line between oppressor and victim with some moving performances by an ensemble cast of young actors including Kriti Malhotra who plays a Bangladeshi woman, Bilkis, trying to support her mother and child and her own cancer treatment through peddling. India’s experimental cinema has angry and passionate stories to tell.

Bollywood had a loud presence with Aiyya. Rani Mukherjee plays a Marathi girl trying to escape from her mundane forced-to-be-in-the-marriage-market syndrome. She falls in love with a Tamil student who plays hard to get. The rest is sheer Bollywood over-the-top madness.

For those with a penchant for nostalgia, the skyline of Kolkata in the 1950s in Satyajit Ray’s classic Mahanagar (The Big City) proved a treat. A restored version of the film in black and white was screened at the Golden Archives segment. From Ray’s heroine Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) who defies her in-laws and goes out to work to share the financial burden of running the joint family with her husband to Changez Khan who tries to make a new life in New York far away from his home in Lahore, the dilemma is the same. In trying to make new beginnings the characters are forced to confront unsavoury realities.

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