Indian cinema can be notoriously difficult to contextualise. It has so many branches and offshoots that sprout in different directions, with their own cinematic and cultural sensibilities, that it often becomes overwhelming. There is Bollywood, the mainstream, global face of Hindi cinema. This is the face you instantly recognise and associate with Indian cinema, with its cultural capital and global currency of the reigning trifecta of Khans—Shahrukh, Salman and Aamir—elaborate sets, big song and dance numbers, and a decidedly urban sensibility.
But Indian cinema is so much more than mainstream Bollywood. The indie scene, with the crossover and worldwide success of directors like Anurag Kashyap, is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with. We haven’t even begun to cover the smaller offshoots like Gujrati, Punjabi, Marathi and Bengali cinema, each contributing in their way to the holistic impression of what Indian cinema actually is. With films like Court, Sairat and Natsamrat among others, Marathi cinema is producing some of the most exciting and innovative cinematic output in the world.
Wait! We haven’t even mentioned the different cinematic industries from South India. Tamil, Telegu and Kannada language films as are as different from each other as chalk and cheese in their approach to film-making. And yet, they are as much a part of what constitutes Indian cinema as any other industry.
Confused yet? It’s a remarkably difficult to navigate this maze and not feel completely lost. However, the lovely folks at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne have continuously and tirelessly worked to de-mystify the enigma that is Indian cinema. This year, they are back with another exciting program that gives you a small snapshot of the variety on offer. It doesn’t matter if you are a casual viewer looking to dip your toes in Indian cinematic sensibility, a Bollywood film buff, or just someone looking to go beyond the mainstream—there’s something for everyone here. Here are the highlights from the program, which will run from August 11th–21st, 2016.
It seems intuitive to start with the most recognisable face of Indian cinema: Shahrukh’s Fan, a return to more character driven role away from the romantic-hero image he’s carved over the years. Salman Khan’s latest, Sultan has created tremendous buzz online, promises to take us into the world of Indian wrestling and feature Salman channeling both his inner Stallone and the sensibility of the Rocky series. It will no doubt be a huge attraction. Ashutosh Gowariker, director of memorable films like Lagaan (nominated for an Academy Award under Best Foreign Language Film), returns after a hiatus and gets a world premiere of his latest venture Mohenjo Daro, starring Hrithik Roshan, with music and score by Academy Award winner A.R. Rahman. However, look beyond the heavyweights and it’s the smaller scale films like Neerja and Kapoor & Sons that are the real winners in this section.
This is undoubtedly the most exciting section of the program if you are looking to explore the nuances that Indian cinema has to offer. The Festival opens with the Australian premiere of Parched, which also played at the Toronto International Film Festival. This section also has Aligarh, my favourite Indian film of this year. Manoj Bajpayee’s performance as Professor Siras, an academic persecuted on the basis of his sexual orientation, will move and stay with you long after the film has finished. With homosexuality being a criminal offence in India, this film penned by Apurva Asrani and directed by Hansal Mehta is a powerful statement. Other highlights include Anurag Kashyap’s Psycho Raman (Raman Raghav 2.0), his triumphant return to form that played at both the Cannes Directors Fortnight and Sydney Film Festival competition, as well as the magical realist Assamese film Kothanodi. There’s Cannes pick Chauthi Koot, the minimalist yet hilarious Sydney Film Festival highlight Thithi, and Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini, set during the partition era between India and Pakistan. Honestly, you cannot go wrong with whatever you pick from this section.
This year, we have two retrospectives: one of veteran actor Rishi Kapoor’s films, and the other of Pakistani film-maker and activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s work. From the Kapoor retrospective, it’s hard to go beyond the Subhash Ghai directed 1980 film Karz. With unforgettable music and score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and a narrative that will be remade over and over again in films like Om Shanti Om and even the Academy Award winning film The Artist, this is a landmark film in the history of Indian cinema. Obaid-Chinoy’s award winning documentaries A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and Saving Face are also unmissable works that screened to sold-out crowds at Sydney Film Festival.
What’s pleasantly surprising is that the Festival offers more than just a snapshot of Indian cinema. For example, you can catch the Australian premiere of Pakistani film Moor and the Sri Lankan film The Wind Beneath Us. There’s also Beeba Boys, the latest from acclaimed Indo-Canadian director Deepa Nair that explores the shadowy happenings within the Canadian underworld.
Festival guests include actors Rishi Kapoor (Karz), Radhika Apte (Parched), Vidya Balan (Ek Albela), Rituparna Sengupta (Rajkahini); directors Shakun Batra (Kapoor & Sons), Leena Yadav (Parched), Srijit Mukherjee (Rajkahini) and one of India’s leading film critics, Rajeev Masand. There’s a discussion with actress Richa Chaddha around body positivity and the position of women in Indian cinema, both in front of and behind the camera.
The Festival closes with director Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and more recently at the Sydney Film Festival. This is where the Festival offers a great opportunity to experience the diversity of Indian cinema on offer without the arbitrary and abject interference of Indian censorship. Angry Indian Goddesses was butchered by the Indian Censor Board CBFC with cuts that distorted the intentionality of the film beyond reproach. Both Aligarh and Raman Raghav 2.0 were also in trouble with the Censor Board, though their eventual fates were a lot kinder. The Indian film fraternity is currently engaged in an ideological battle around freedom of artistic expression against the puritanical mindset of Indian censorship. The truth is, Indian films are pushing the envelope in terms of narrative, tone, structure, content and modes of expression. It’s an exciting time to experience Indian cinema, and the 2016 program of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne promises just that.
Tickets to go on sale soon. The full program is now live at the festival’s website.