The Indian films at the recent 57th London Film Festival focussed on the plight of the marginalised.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival, which showcased over 235 feature films and 134 short films from 57 countries from October 9-20, included powerful tales of man’s predicament in the past, present and imagined future. The films were categorised thematically: Love, Debate, Laugh, Dare, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic and Family.
While the Steve McQueen-directed 12 Years A Slave, a powerful film based on Solomon Northup’s memoir about slavery before the American Civil War, received critical acclaim, stories from India focused on the exploitation and discrimination of its citizens even in the 21st century.
Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (The Pig) was a powerful story of a Dalit teenager fighting caste discrimination. Jabya dreams about Shalu, a beautiful girl from an upper caste family who studies in his school.
Manjule weaves a striking metaphor of wild pigs with Jabya’s poor Dalit family. Jabya and his family are condemned to do the ‘job’ their caste is meant to — clean human excreta and hunt wild pigs.
The entire village, along with Jabya’s schoolmates, watches the pig hunt and, instead of empathising, they mock and laugh at Jabya and his family. The teenager’s dreams are shattered when he sees the girl he loves also laugh at him.
The director’s scathing indictment of the caste system is both empathetic and shot with a wry sense of humour. There is a poignant moment when Jabya, hot on the chase, is forced to stop and stand still as the Indian national anthem plays loudly from the school compound. The irony is scorching.
Siddharth, another Indian entry directed and written by Richie Mehta, zooms in on a village migrant who has moved to Mumbai with his family. The father makes a living as a door-to-door tailor. But when they find it difficult to make ends meet, they are forced to send their 12 year-old son, Siddharth, to work in a factory in Punjab.
An Indo-Canadian production, this 96-minute film shows the utter hopelessness of poor migrants left out in the cold by the system.
When the boy goes missing from the factory, the father, Mahendra, (Rajesh Tailang) sets out in search of him. He gets no help from the factory owner or the police. The only person who gives him a fleeting sense of the missing boy is Siddharth’s co-worker with whom shared a room.
In a heartbreaking moment, the young worker takes him back to their dingy shack and hands over Siddharth’s meagre belongings wrapped in a torn cloth to his father. Siddharth is an angry indictment of the phenomenon of ‘missing children’ among poor urban migrants and the state’s and society’s utter indifference.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Sniffer (the English version of Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa), which had its world premiere at the LFF, was a surreal story about a youth called Anwar (Nawazuddin Sidiqqui) who works at the ‘Inner Eye’, a private detective agency in Kolkata. Sniffer has the Buddhadeb Dasgupta stamp: life is a black comedy where love is for sale, old age for discarding and poor children up for trade.
Siddiqui was quite the flavour of the Indian segment at LFF, as his performances in Sniffer and The Lunchbox were received well by audiences at the West End. The Lunchbox, which also starred Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, was a co-production between India, Germany, France, and the U.S. and has found a distributor in the U.K.
Another interesting film was Vara: A Blessing, a film set in India with Indian and Sri Lankan actors, directed by a Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu. Based on a short story by Sunil Gangopadhyay, it tells the story of Lila (Shahana Goswami), the daughter of a devadasi in a village in India.
Lila is fighting social ostracism and caste hierarchy and her mode of escape is by dancing in front of a statue of god Krishna in the forest, or to Bollywood item numbers on the radio. But Lila’s carefree life changes when it is discovered that an old Muslim man is getting Shyam, who is secretly in love with Lila, to sculpt her. The film is a sensual story with angry undertones against social injustices.
Rituparno Ghosh’s Jeevan Smriti, a 78-minute documentary on Rabindranath Tagore, produced by NFDC, is a nostalgic tribute to the poet. As it turned out, the screening became a tribute to the filmmaker who died in May.
One of the archival jewels at the LFF was Kalpana, Uday Shankar’s 1948 film. The film was restored by the Martin Scorcese’s World Cinema Foundation from footage preserved at the National Film Archive of India.