Indian ‘Indies’ Where the Future Lies
A new wave has emerged in Indian cinema. An exciting new breed of filmmakers, many of them film school alumni, have embraced radical and rebellious ‘marginality’ to share more than just straightforward stories. They are the future of Indian cinema to the world. By Saibal Chatterjee
Geneva-based FTII alumnus Anup Singh made a distinctive directorial debut over a decade ago with the Bengali-language Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River), a tribute to cinematic lodestar RitwikGhatak through a love story of two refugees.
Singh followed it up in 2014 with the haunting Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, a brilliantly crafted Punjabi fi lm about a family uprooted from its land by the Partition.He is currently working on Mantra – Song of the Scorpions, set in Rajasthan and featuring Paris-based Iranian GolshiftehFarahani.
One of independent Indian cinema’s most unique voices, Gurvinder Singh passed out of FTII in 2001. His first feature,AnheyGhorhey DaDaan (Alms for a Blind Horse, 2011), fetched him India’s National Award for Best Direction. The award citation, without an iota of exaggeration, hailed the film as "an aesthetic tour de force”. Singh’s second venture, ChauthiKoot (Fourth Direction), is one of two Indian films in the official selection in Cannes this year.
Mumbai-based mechanical engineer-turned-filmmaker,the piercely independent Manjeet Singh crafted Mumbai Cha Raja, India’s answer to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Billionaire. The film, an official selection at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, celebrated the indomitable spirit of two Mumbai street boys, Rahul and Arbaaz, who escape life’s grim realities by making the most of the little joys of life. Singh’s next project, Chenu, set against the backdrop of caste violence in rural Bihar, was selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s CinefondationL’atelier in 2013.
One of the earliest movers in the genuinely independent space of Indian cinema, Dev Benegal burst on the scene in 1994 with the critically applauded English, August, based on Indo-Anglian writer Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel of the same name. The screenwriter-director has since made two other films, Split Wide Open and Road, Movie,that have confirmed his reputation as a director with a sensibility entirely his own. Road, Movie emerged from the Cannes L’atelier, for which the project was selected in 2006. Benegalis currently working on a dark comedy, Dead, End.
labour of love
Much has been, and is being, made of the New Bollywood. But if one were to take a closer and more dispassionate look, that is probably not where the action is, and will be. Indeed. It is ‘Non-Bollywood’ that is poised to be the latest buzzword. If it isn’t already there, it is most certainly on the way to becoming the space where the world will increasingly engage with Indian cinema in the foreseeable future.
An exciting new breed of Indian filmmakers, many of them film school alumni, have embraced radical and rebellious ‘marginality’ to share more than just straightforward stories. Their films are packed with lush cinematic experiences, complex personal memories, visions of socio-political fissures, and surreal allegories rooted in both traditional folklore and postmodern phantasy.
These individualistic directors are India cinema’s true independents.They work outside of Bollywood, strike partnerships with unconventional global allies, and venture forth into uncharted territories.
Despite the odds loaded against them on account of a distribution-exhibition system that resists even the mildest of experiments,they still manage to get their voices and images across to an audience, which, thankfully, is swelling slowly but steadily. The funds are limited, the audience is insubstantial, and survival is anything but easy. Yet these filmmakers haven’t panicked and thrown in the towel. The result has been salutary.
A few years ago, Cannes embraced Ashim Ahluwalia’s layered Miss Lovely. This year, in the same section of the world’s biggest film festival, another unique cinematic voice will be heard: that of Gurvinder Singh (ChauthiKoot).
Many of the other major films festivals of world – Berlin, Venice, Torontoamong them – have regularly been showcasing the works of Anup Singh, Amit Dutta and Qaushiq Mukherjee. Each of these mavericks responds to creative impulses that are entirely original and startlingly rewarding for audiences that have tired of the familiar and the predictable.
These directors stand well apart from even the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.
These successful Mumbai filmmakers, while working within the confines of mainstream Hindi cinema, have rendered yeoman service in upholding fresh modes of filmic expression that break free from old narrative templates.
Dibakar Banerjee was a co-producer of erstwhile assistant KanuBehl’sTitli, which made the Un Certain Regard cut last year.
This year, the section has NeerajGhaywan’sMasaan. Ghaywan,a former media executive, learnt the ropes of fi lmmaking under the tutelage of Anurag Kashyap during the Gangs of Wasseypur shoot.
But the ‘new’ independent Indian cinema is driven by directors who draw inspiration from moments of history, personal and cultural, that lends themselves to images of such eloquence that they speak a universal language to communicate with cineastes the world over.
In terms of both style and substance, ShivajeeChandrabhushan, who carved a niche for himself with his 2007 debut, Frozen, an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a black and white film set in Ladakh, where a family struggles against huge odds to stay afloat in the midst stunningly beautiful landscapethat serves as a contrast to their unending hardships. Chandrabhushan’s second film, One More, also set in Ladakh, revolved around a local ice hockey team. In 2012, Chandrabhushan’s new project, The Untold Tale, which explores the connection between flamenco and kathak, was part of the Cannes Látelier in 2012.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Ashim Ahluwalia has steadfastly worked outside the mainstream movie industry. Not only that, the maker of the feature length documentary John & Jane (2005) and Miss Lovely (2012), his style is characterized by a blend of documentary and fiction. The latter film probed the innards of the 1980s C-grade Mumbai film industry. Ahluwalia is now prepping for his third film, The Boyfriend, is an adaptation of a 2003 novel set in Mumbai and authored by gay rights activist R Raj Rao. It delves into the class and caste dynamics of a city through a love story between two men.
India’s most prominent experimental filmmaker, Amit Dutta plays with image and sound in a manner that is difficult to categorise but ease to be enthralled by. Graduating from FTII Pune in 2004, he has ceaselessly followed a cinematic path down which memories and reality coalesce seamlessly with the imagination. Dutta’s feature length films – Aadmi Ki AuratAur Anya Kahaniyaan (Man’s Woman and Other Stories), Sonchidi (The Golden Bird) and Nainsukh – have aroused critical interest all around the world, making him a a rare Indian filmmaker who has raised the medium to the level of high art.
Currently in the news for the sensitive Margarita With A Straw, a bittersweet drama about a woman with cerebral palsy, Shonali Bose has ploughed a lonely furrow as a filmmaker. Her debut feature, Amu, released in 2005, homed in on individuals affected by the 1984 anti-Sikhriots. She co-wrote Bedabrata Pain’s critically acclaimed Chittagong (2012), a dramatization of a significant chapter in India’s freedom struggle. For Margarita With A Straw, Bose cast KalkiKoechlin in a role that called for absolute commitment of time and energy. For both the director and the lead actress, the film has been unqualified artistic triumph.
A successful Malayalam actress and one-film-old director, Geetu Mohandas is best known across India for the independently funded Liar’s Dice, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The title, which also went to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, tells the story of a hill village woman who, with her three-year-old daughter, sets out in search of her husband, who has gone missing after migrating to a big city to look for work.
Umesh Kulkarni, FTII alumnus, has much lauded short films and features to his credit. The Pune-based director has been in the forefront of contemporary independent Marathi-language, delivering consistent quality ever since debuting with Valu (The Wild Bull). Kulkarni has since made such well regarded as Vihir (The Well), which premiered in Berlin, and Deool (The Temple). In 2011, the latter won India’s National Award for Best Feature Film, besides fetching lead actor and dialogue writer Girish Kulkarni a brace of awards.
Few Indian films have stirred as much debate or shocked the staid into silence as Gandu (a cuss word). Its maker, Qaushiq Mukherjee, credited as Q, employs irreverence as his creative stock in trade. Gandu, which premiered in Berlin in 2011 and has played alla cross the world and acquired cult following, has more explicit sex than Indian audiences could digest – the film has never been submitted to the censors in the country and remains unreleased. Q’s second feature, TasherDesh, a trippy adaptation of a play by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was far more conservative by Q’s standards.
Aditya VikramSengupta, painter and filmmaker, is a Calcutta University alumnus who came into cinema after a longish stint at a Bengali music TV channel as a director of on-air promos, His maiden film, Asha JaowarMajhe—Labourof Love, a lyrical, virtually dialogueless narrative about a young married couple grappling with the deleterious effects of a recession in the city of Kolkata, won the FEDORA award for the Best Debut Film in the Venice Days sidebar of the Venice Film Festival 2014. In the tradition of a true auteur, Sengupta produced (with his wife Jonaki Bhattacharya), wrote and edited Labour of Love himself.
soul of sand
Raised amid poverty and deprivation in a small village in Maharashtra, NagrajManjule is a Marathi poet and filmmaker. His first feature, Fandry (which means pig in the Kaikadi language), is a striking and disturbing portrayal of life in a dispossessed nomadic community, seen through the eyes of a boy who develops a soft corner for an upper caste girl in his class. The film brought into Indian cinema faces and places that rarely find mention in mainstream narratives. Manjule is now making his second feature, Sairat, a story of four youths, including a girl, against a rural backdrop.
Born AnirbanDhar, Onir has worked off and on with mainstream Bollywood actors, but he has remained steadfastly wedded to unconventional themes in his cinematic output. Best known for his debut film, My Brother Nikhil, among the first Hindi films to address the themes of AIDS and same-sex relationships. His crowd-funded I Am quartet of short fiction films dealt with the issues of single motherhood, gay relationships, displacement and child abuse. While his next film Shab (Night) is in pre-production, Onir has begun shooting Veda, an adaptation of William Shaespeare’s Hamlet.
Producer, screenwriter and director has made several acclaimed short films and documentaries, besides television shows and two full-length feature films. Her debut feature, Mere Khwaabon Mein Jo Aaye (2009), was a mainstream Hindi film featuring RandeepHooda, Raima Sen and Arbaaz Khan. But her second, Kajarya, an un flinching look at the practice of female foeticide in a Haryana village, is uncompromisingly independent in substance and spirit.The film is a co-production of Madhureeta’s own company, Ekaa Films, and filmmaker Q.Kajarya has its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival late last year.
Hyderabad-born AjitaSuchitraVeera, writer, illustrator and photographer, is also one of India’s most exciting new filmmakers. Her first film, Ballad of Rustom, made in 2012, marked her out as a director with an independent vision and approach that is at complete variance with simplistic narrative modes favoured by a majority of Indian filmmakers. The film is based on an original screenplay by Veera, who also collaborated on the editing, sound design and music of the film.
One of independent Indian cinema’s most promising young filmmakers, Chaitanya Tamhane wields the sledgehammer lightly in his pointed legal system satire Court, but every blow that he delivers lands on target. This is precision filmmaking at its very best, where not a line and not a moment is out of place. A direct, deadpan dissection of a judicial structure that has no space for the dissent of the powerless, Court is one of the finest films to come out of India in years.
Born and raised in Kashmir, Aamir Bashir is a Mumbaibased actor and filmmaker whose directorial debut, Harud (Autumn), remiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. He made his big screen acting debut in Dev Benegal’s Split Wide Open, and has since continued to play parts in Hindi films, notably in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. He is currently in preproduction for his next film as director, Winter, which is designed to be the second part of an intended trilogy.
New Delhi-based journalist-turned-filmmaker Anusha Rizvi created waves in 2010 with her very first film, Peepli Live. It dwelt upon the subject of farmer suicides and the exploitative political and media response to what is essentially a result of the deepening agrarian crisis in India. Although the production was completely independent of all Bollywood influences, it was produced by frontline Mumbai movie star Aamir Khan. Peepli Live was a sleeper hit and was also India’s official nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards.
Siddarth Srinivasan gained recognition with PaironTalle (Soul of Sand), which made it to the official selection of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.He is an independent filmmaker who currently operates out of his hometown Delhi. PaironTalle is a powerful drama that probes the cast dynamics and land politics that are tearing away the edges of India’s national capital region. The film was made with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Srinivasan’s next film, The Profane, a horror film set in the holy city of Varanasi, is now in the works.
One of the most exciting of India’s young independent filmmakers, the Kozhikode, Kerala-based Vipin Vijay adopts artistic materials and methods that suggest a special affinity for the unusual. This SRFTI alumnus has several outstanding documentaries, including Poomaram (A Flowering Tree, 2007) and Vishaparvam (Venomous Folds, 2012), to his credit. In 2010, Vipin Vijay made the fiction film, Chitrasutram (Image Threads), which made cineastes sit up and take notice of his phenomenal imagination. He is developing a new film titled Chavunilam (A Voice from Elsewhere).
The above list is by no means complete. It is growing steadily, thanks to the continuing emergence of several debutants, especially in the south, who have taken the crowdfunding route to get their films off the ground. Sajin Baabu (Asthamayam Vare) and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (Oraalppokkam) and Siddharth Siva (1001 Chodiyangal, Zahir and Ain) in Kerala and Karthik Ravi (Kuraiondrumillai) in Tamil Nadu are some of the young directors who are making rapid strides in the Indian independent cinema space. These are exciting times indeed for this new, rapidly evolving brand of cinema in the world’s most prolific film-producing nation.
15 Feb 2018 Issue
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