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#BFI: South Asian Cinema at the London Film Festival 2014

With nearly 250 films screening, his year’s 58th BFI London Film Festival is set to be the biggest yet.  And it’s a bumper year for South Asian cinema with films from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka joining features from the UK.

Here are the main highlights.  (Click on film titles for venues and timings).

Margarita, with a Straw

Based on a true-story, this compelling drama explores disability in India through the story of a young Punjabi girl suffering from cerebral palsy.  The gifted Kalki Koechlin plays the central role of Laila, a university student, writer, lyricist and musician who is confined to a wheelchair.  After winning a scholarship to New York University, Laila moves to Manhattan with her mother (played by the veteran south Indian actress and activist Revathi).  In the city that never sleeps, Laila falls in love with Sayani Gupta’s fiery young activist Khanum: a love that threatens chaos for Laila and her family.  Writer, producer and director Shonali Bose is no stranger to tackling difficult subjects.  Her 2005 feature debut ‘Amu’ – based on her novel of the same name – was a skilfully crafted exploration of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres in Delhi through the eyes of a young Indian American girl.  ‘Margarita, with a Straw’ had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and received an extended standing ovation with some critics drawing parallels between Koechlin’s performance and Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar-winning turn as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’.

 

Catch Me Daddy

A timely and topical film about the scourge of so-called ‘honour killings’ featuring a sensational performance by Sameena Jabeen Ahmed as British-Pakistani teenager Laila, on the run with her English boyfriend Aaron (Conor McCarron).  The young couple have fled their homes in an unnamed northern town and set up home in the bleak and beautiful Yorkshire Moors where they while their days in a caravan, smoking pot.  Unbeknownst to Laila and Aaron, two groups of men – both hired by Laila’s outraged father to kill his daughter for the ‘dishonour’ she has brought on the family – are hunting the couple.  One group is headed by Laila’s brute of a brother Zaheer (Ali Ahmad).  The other group of thugs is led by Barry, a brawny white thug even more psychopathic than Zaheer.  The ensuing chase through the stunning Moors is both ominous and poetic as director Daniel Wolfe (brother Mathew Wolfe co-wrote the script) explores family dynamics, race and class in multicultural Britain.

Labour of Love

An astonishing riposte to the often overwhelming noise that pervades Indian TV and cinema made, ironically enough, by a man whose day job is making advertisements.  Labour of Love – or ‘Asha Jaoar Majhe’, to give it its Bengali title – is completely devoid of dialogue.  Bengali writer and director Aditya Vikram Sengupta clearly worships at the temple of Satyajit Ray and his debut feature has the meditative quality that characterised many of Ray’s film.  Labour of Love follows a young Bengali couple living in recession-hit Kolkata.  The husband (Ritwik Chakraborty) works nights at a printing press while the wife (Basabdutta Chatterjee) spends the day working in a handbag factory.  Despite a deep affection for each other, the couple’s circumstances mean they rarely meet and their marriage slowly descends into a humdrum existence punctuated by occasional meals together – spent in complete silence.  It’s the kind of existence that many around the world would identify with and one which the global recession has precipitated in most corners of the globe.  In Sengupta’s hands, it becomes the most unique Indian love story for many a year.  Whilst Sengupta filmed one half of the film, the other was photographed by Mahendra J Shetty, the cinematographer behind such visual treats as ‘Udaan’ and ‘Lootera’: Sengupta’s and Shetty’s combined efforts adding visual beauty to the film’s equally beautiful silence.

TITLI

Director Kanu Behl delivers a sharp dose of social realism in a film that is backed by Dibarkar Bannerjee no less and one which won critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.  ‘Titli’ is a story about violence, family and the ill-treatment of women and appropriately set in the Indian capital Delhi.  The film follows the shy Titli (Shashank Arora) who is desperate to break from his all-male family of car-jackers living in a suburban slum but finds every exit blocked and every dream destroyed.  To try to live a better life and earn extra money, Titli’s brothers and father arrange a marriage to Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), an intelligent and attractive girl who also finds her dreams shattered and looks set to spend her life surrounded by violent men.  The pair contrive to escape their similar situations, away from the ears and eyes of violent brothers. 

Dukhtar

Quetta-born writer director Afia Nathaniel’s feature debut is the thrilling story of a mother and her ten-year-old daughter, who flee their home after the youngster is promised in marriage to a local tribal leader.  Mom Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) herself was betrothed to a much-older tribesman at the age of fifteen and she is determined to ensure that her daughter avoids the same fate, despite the appalling dangers she is bound to face as an unaccompanied woman with a young child in rural, lawless Pakistan.  As her outraged husband and men from her tribe embark on a pursuit that will almost certainly result in her death, the courageous and determined Rakhi flees and eventually hails down a truck driver, Sohail (Mohib Mirza) and lies to him about wanting a lift.  When Sohail learns of the real reason for Rakhi’s flight, he is forced to decide whether he will endanger his own life to deliver mother and daughter to safety in Lahore.

Court

Writer and director Chaitanya Tamhane won two major awards at the recently-concluded Venice Film Festival for this, his debut feature about a folk singer who is charged with inciting a labourer to commit suicide through an ‘inflammatory’ song.  Unlike the melodrama-filled courts that one finds in many an Indian movie, Tamhane’s courtroom is devoid of fiery protestations and declarations.  In fact, Tamhane says that he was inspired to make the film through the sheer lack of drama that he witnessed when he visited courtrooms in Mumbai.  “What struck me was the casualness with which life and death decisions were being made.  Every face has a story of its own; the stenographer who disinterestedly types away all day, the peon who runs errands for a small bribe, the inarticulate lawyers reading out long, technical passages from outdated law books, the appellants who have probably spent years waiting for their case number to be called out.  Amidst all this theatre, are the hopes and fears of ordinary people, who cling on to every word they can understand, as their fates are decided.”  Quite apart from the non-theatrical courtroom antics, the film is also an exploration of India’s caste system as well as the country’s lumbering giant of a legal system, one which attracts the wrath of many whilst also being an example to far less just systems. 

The Strange Familiar

A rare Sri Lankan film that doesn’t delve into the Island’s Civil War or its obsession with Cricket, ‘The Strange Familiar’ follows a Sinhala couple struggling to come to terms with the emotional toil of infidelity.  Debut director Malith Hegoda doesn’t immediately delve into that turmoil, instead carefully crafting the consequences of unfaithfulness.  Dinithi is seemingly devoted to her architect husband Sachithra (Bimal Jayakody) and the couple’s 8-year-old daughter.  But there is a deep divide between the two.  Sachithra is cold and distant.  The more that Dinithi fusses over her husband, the more distant he becomes.  Friends, relatives become involved, attempting to resolve the stand-off and not knowing the cause, one which is only known to Sachithra.

For full listings visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff

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