A Broad Palette

A quartet of independent films from India on show in Berlinale 2017 bear testimony to the health and dynamism of a lively cinematic tradition that exists and thrives outside the mainstream movie industry By Saibal Chatterjee

Newton by Amit V. Masurkar

India is represented in Berlinale 2017 by two independent titles in Forum, one experimental cinematic work in Forum Expanded and a short film in the Generation Kplus competition, besides Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama set in the last days of the British Raj.

These films, collectively and off the screen, tell a story about how moving images are produced and consumed on the subcontinent as well as about how international festival programmers approach the output of the world’s most prolific moviemaking nation.

While these films straddle a spectrum of themes and creative credos, none belongs to the mainstream. Not by a long chalk. That’s a sure sign that the spirit of cinematic independence, no matter what the naysayers say, is strong and thriving in a vast country forever in the thrall of superstars and their crowd-pleasing extravaganzas.

The 67th Berlin Film Festival will host the world premiere of Amit V. Masurkar’s sophomore venture Newton, a "black comedy” set in election-time Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state, and featuring Rajkummar Rao in the lead role.

Included in the Berlin Forum, Newton, which has clear political undertones, is about a lowly government official who is sent on election duty to a conflict zone. Despite receiving little help from the deployed security forces and facing the threat of a Maoist attack, he does all he can to ensure free and fair polling.

Masurkar’s first film SulemaniKeeda was set in the safer domain of the Mumbai movie industry and dealt with two scriptwriters struggling for a break. Newton, as the synopsis suggests, goes much further afi eld and turns the focus as much on the political as the personal.

The new Masurkar feature is the latest in a string of independent productions backed by Drishyam Films that have travelled to festivals around the world – Masaan, Umrika, Dhanak and Waiting.

The second Indian film in the Forum is the multiple award-winning Manipuri documentarian HaobamPaban Kumar’s much applauded first narrative feature Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake).

It is a minimalist and evocative cinematic essay that portrays a pastoral lifestyle under siege – a key metaphor for the unending confl ict that Paban’ssmall home state in northeast India has been in the grip of.

Loktak Lairembee is the first Manipuri feature-length fiction film to make it to a major international film festival since Aribam Syam Sharma’s Ishanou was screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991.

Loktak Lairembee explores the mind of a fisherman who lives in a hut on a floating biomass (phum, in the local language) and is under constant threat of eviction by a government that holds that the dwellings in the river are putting the ecology at risk. One day the protagonist finds a gun.

Viceroy's House

Nothing is the same again.

The Berlinale outing for LoktakLairembee, loosely adapted from the short story Nongmei by SudhirNaoroibam,is the film’s European premiere. It was first screened outside of India at the 21st Busan International Film Festival last September.

It then won the Golden Gateway Award at the 18thJio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in October. It also made the Indian Panorama cut for the 47th International Film Festival of India, Goa. In January, LoktakLairembee bagged the Special Jury Award at the 15th Pune International Film Festival.

"Berlinale was the festival that I was particularly keen. I am hoping Loktak- Lairembee will now travel further from here and that I will get somebody good to come on board to represent the film internationally,” says Paban Kumar.

In Forum Expanded, India’s entry is experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s Bengali-languageAapothkalin- Trikalika (The Kali of Emergency). It is the first-ever feature-length film from India in the segment since its inception in 2006. The 79-minute film, an Indo-German co-production was in the making for seven years.

The director’s note for AapothkalinTrikalikareads: "During social and political turmoil what is the manifestation of divine intervention? How do the Gods and Goddesses act in the volatility of the contemporary world? If they walk on earth as men and women, how do they endure the chaos of modernity? Centering on the terrible and the majestic incarnations of Goddess Kali and Her celestial avatars, this film is a metaphysical contemplation in times of perpetual emergencies.”

Avikunthak, who teaches in the Harrington School of Communication and Media of the University of Rhode Island (URI), is known for films underlined by rigorous experiments with form and content.

So fiercely independent and challenging are his films that they do not play in regular movie theatres but in art galleries and museums. A social and cultural anthropologist, Avikunthak has been making experimental films for over two decades. AapothkalinTrikalika is his fifth featurelength cinematic essay.

In an interview posted on the URI website, Avikunthak says of AapothkalinTrikalika: "This film is a profound political and religious commentary on the state of perpetual and perennial emergencies we live in. It is not a report; but a philosophical comment of the world we live and inhabit, which is deeply vitiated and highly divisive.”

Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake) by Haobam paban kumar

He adds: "For me, its selection is an important acknowledgment by the curators of the Berlin International Film Festival of not just my work, but also the state of intense despair we live in. Although filmed in India, this film has a metaphoric symbolism to a new regime of perpetual emergencies we have entered with Donald Trump as president of the United States.”

Another Indo-German venture, the experimental short film Camera Threat, directed by Bernd Lutzeler, is also in Forum Expanded. Set in the innards of the Mumbai movie industry, the film probes the fraught relationship between the city and the moving image.

Camera Threat has been described as "an expanded multi-genre within the constraints of the so-called masala formula”. The synopsis of the film says: "Seated on a casting couch, two actors are getting trapped in their impromptu conversations on the unwanted side-effects of a world that no longer bothers to tell facts from fiction.”

Amar Kaushik, a Mumbai filmmaker who comes from a decidedly more mainstream space, has India’s only title in the competition in Berlinale 2017. The short film, Aaba (Grandfather), is vying for a Crystal Bear in Generation Kplus.


Aaba ( Grandfather) by Amar Kaushik

Set in remote Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, Aabais about an orphan girl from the Apatani tribe who learns that her beloved grandfather is terminally ill. The film, which features non-actors, including village elder Dani Randa and his real-life granddaughter Sunku, pares storytelling down its most elementary form.

Kaushik has been in the Mumbai movie industry for nearly a decade. He assisted Rajkumar Gupta on Aamir and was the associate director of No One Killed Jessica.

The Berlin Generation section, designed for young audiences, has been a happy ground for India in recent years, with several films from the subcontinent (Gattu, Killa, Dhanak) returning with prizes.

Gurinder Chadha’s latest film, Viceroy’s House, a historical drama set in the tumultuous final months of the British Raj in India, screens Out of Competition.

Indian cinema observers will have their eyes on Viceroy’s House for two reasons – Bollywood actress Huma Qureshi plays a key role as an interpreter to Lord Mountbatten and Lady Edwina Mountbatten while the film also features Om Puri in his last screen role.

Viceroy’s House, scheduled for global release in early March, has a multinational cast featuring High Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal and NeerajKabi (as Mahatma Gandhi).

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