The diversity of Indian cinema is as unique as it is unparalleled. For an average cinephile who isn’t equipped with the nuances of the different streams and subsets with Indian cinema, navigating it can be quite overwhelming, nothing short of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. But just as Theseus needed a bit of guidance from Princess Ariadne for navigation purposes, a bit of signposting when it comes to Indian cinema can often make it a very enjoyable and accessible experience. However, that task of signposting can often be very difficult. The most readily exportable element over the years has been Bollywood, but when you look at the overall diversity of Indian cinema, it is but a part of the different streams of film industries and philosophy of film-making that make up Indian cinema as a whole.
Indian Film Festival of Melbourne promises to solve this issue. IFFM had its program launch yesterday, and will be running for a two week period from August 14th to 27th, featuring over 50 films in a wide array of sections.
The first section is ‘Masterstrokes’ which features a Satyajit Ray and Paul Cox retrospective. Three excellent Ray films in the form of Days And Nights in the Forest, Charulata and Nayak are on offer. My perennial ray favourite is Charulata but it often gets a screening at other retrospectives in other film festivals, so if you’d like to be adventurous pick one of the other two. There’s added incentive that all these three films have been newly restored. You cannot go wrong with Ray. That’s a universal fact.
Australian film-maker Paul Cox’s love affair with India could one day be the subject of a grand Bollywood romantic saga. His Indo-Australian feature Force of Destiny will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival. At IFFM, we are served with two of his documentaries – Calcutta and The Kingdom of Nek Chand. The most interesting inclusion in this ‘Masterstrokes’ section is the 1987 fantasy superhero film by Shekhar Kapur, Mr India. It gave Hindi cinema one of its most iconic villains in the form of Mogambo, brought to life by Amrish Puri. Western audiences might remember Puri as the antagonist religious cult priest in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.
The next section is ‘Hurrah Bollywood’ which as the name suggests, is a glimpse into a select few Bollywood films. Look out for the world premiere of Phantom – based around the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Other highlights include Haider – an adaptation of Hamlet set amidst the backdrop of Kashmir, completing the Shakespearean adaptation trilogy of Vishal Bhardwaj.1 Piku is a nice subversion on a usual road trip narrative, relying on the very absurd wish of geriatric Amitabh Bachchan’s character to have a proper bowel excretion. Also don’t miss Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! which features a very eclectic jazz-cum-metal soundtrack unlike anything heard before in Bollywood.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting and diverse section is ‘Beyond Bollywood’ featuring all kinds of films from different regions and languages of India. Almost all of these films deserve to be seen for one reason or another. The opening night film Umrika found success at Sundance this year. You have Court, Sunrise and The Crow’s Egg, all three finding audience adulation at Sydney Film Festival earlier this year.
My two picks from this section are: Margarita, With a Straw – about a person with Cerebral Palsy trying to figure out their sexuality. Co-director Shonali Bose will be at the festival as a guest and I’m sure there will be plenty of questions for her about this extremely unique film.2 The other film I’m excited about is Haraamkhor, which appears to be based on the premise of Lolita and has Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead. Anyone who has seen Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox knows that Siddiqui is a talent beyond measure. He has revolutionised what it means to be a conventional lead actor in mainstream Bollywood. I cannot wait to see what he brings to the fore in his latest venture.
There’s a strong focus of female oriented films and the section ‘Girl Power’ re-enforces this message. Highlights from this section include the taught thriller Mardaani, which sees Rani Mukerji play a hard-nosed cop, a role typically played by men. NH10 is loosely based on the premise of the 2008 British thriller Eden Lake but set against the backdrop of honour killings.
However, refreshingly, the festival doesn’t just limit itself to Indian films and takes a more holistic approach. The last two categories include films from the subcontinent and films made by the subcontinental diaspora around the world. Highlights from these sections include Dukhtar, which was Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars under the Best Foreign Film category, and Monsoon, which traces the impact of India’s Monsoon season on the people and the landscape in 4K quality.
The IFFM this year ensures that you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to Indian cinema. If you’ve been holding out on India cinema not knowing where to start, this is your chance to take the plunge. It promises to be quite a unique experience.
Tickets for IFFM’s Awards Night go on sale July 15, and session tickets can be purchased the following week from their website.