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Dabbhawalas, Tagore and Classical Dance: South Asian Cinema at the London Film Festival 2013

The London Film Festival 2013 gets underway Wednesday (09 October) and the 57th edition of the event features 8 eclectic and outstanding films from or inspired by the South Asian sub-continent.

The Lunchbox (“Dabba)

Described as India’s “hottest indie film of the year”, The Lunchbox has already won rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it won the ‘Grand d’Or’ (Critics Week Viewer’s Choice Award).  The film is the debut feature by Mumbai-born, New York-based filmmaker Ritesh Batra and is produced by Anurag Kashyap.  Set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s famous “Dhabbawala” lunch delivery service, the film tells the tells the story of an unexpected  love between a bored, disenchanted old clerk and a lonely housewife.  ‘The Lunchbox’ features powerhouse performances by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui, Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan who has described the film as having “a kind of emotional world that is very sweet, very unique and very interesting”. 

Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nawazzuddin Siddiqui, Nimrat Kaur
Language: English, Hindi

Siddharth

After sending away his 12 year-old son Siddharth to work in an illegal factory in the Punjab, Mahendra (a chain-wallah who fixes broken zippers on the streets) is relieved that his financial burdens will be alleviated. But when Siddharth fails to return home, Mahendra learns he may have been taken by child-traffickers. With little resources and no connections, he travels across India in pursuit, with the hope that whatever force arbitrarily took his child away will return him unharmed.  Directed by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta, the film is a cautionary tale about human trafficking and child labour in modern-day India.

Director: Richie Mehta
Starring: Rajesh Tailang, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Anuray Arora
Language: HindiFandry

A “damning indictment” of India’s Caste system by Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, Fandry tells the story of Jabya, a young boy born into the Kaikadi caste of “Untouchables” or Dalits in Maharashtra state and his struggle to come to terms with his inferior position in society.  When Jabya falls in love with a classmate, Shalu, who is from a higher caste, his inferiority complex is exacerbated.  Despite pressure from his family and community to not only abandon his pursuit of Shalu but to subjugate himself to the oppression of caste identity, Jabya wages his own war to win the girl of his dreams and overcome the poverty stricken position imposed on him by society. 

Director: Nagraj Manjule
Starring: Kishore Kadam, Chhaya Kadam
Language: Marathi

Jeevan Smriti

Celebrated filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s’ paean to Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, this 78-minute docu-drama was the final, completed film by Ghosh prior to his untimely passing, at the age of 47, earlier this year.  The beautifully-photographed story explores Tagore’s life and the crippling loneliness that Tagore endured and which drove his stunning creativity.  “Jeevan Smriti” pays particular attention to Tagore’s travels around the world and Ghosh himself described the film thus: “The intention was to focus on some of Tagore’s key journeys abroad and how those journeys enriched his quest to re-imagine a new India, which would rise above narrow patriotic concerns prevailing in the country of the time.  We have particularly selected his Western tours to sharpen his all embracing concept of a Universal confluence of cultures, at a critical moment in the history of India when everything Western was considered dangerously inimical to the Independence movement.  These tours brought him accolades at first and brickbats later. They ushered new questions in his mind about human civilization itself.  They helped him resolve his dilemmas and discover his own quintessential Indian-ness, leading to his meditative conceptualization of The Religion of Man urging us to rise above ’narrow domestic walls’  The Tagore in our film, thus emerges a man who is far ahead of his time, and possibly the first International Indian.”

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Starring: Sanjoy Nag, Samadarshi Dutta, Raima Sen, Anirban Ghosh
Language: Bengali

Kalpana

The only film by legendary dance maestro Uday Shankar who was famed for marrying Indian classical dance traditions with western techniques.  ‘Kalpana’ features a dance-drama written and directed by Shankar – brother of sitar legend Ravi Shankar – in 1948.  Digitally restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, the film was Shankar’s attempt to immortalize his famous Himalayan dance academy, which closed in the early 1940’s.  The film follows a dancer who dreams of establishing his own academy and stars Shankar himself and his wife Amala.

Director: Uday Shankar
Starring: Uday Shankar, Amala Uday Shankar, Lakshmi Kanta, Dr GV Subbarao, Brijo Behari Banerji
Language: Hindi

Sniffer (‘Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa’)

A darkly comic take on Bengal’s private detective business by iconic director Buddhadeb Dasgupta, the film explores the life of private investigator Anwar, played to perfection by Nawazzuddin Siddiqui.  Anwar and his pet dog get by on his sleuthing work but his alcoholism and eccentricity aren’t going down well his Muslim neighbours.  When a case takes Anwar back to his rural homeland, he’s forced to confront a romantic tragedy from his past.  Dasgupta, a former economics teacher, was inspired by the realist cinema of Satyajit Ray and has established a reputation for portraying his beloved Bengal in all its vibrant glory and doesn’t disappoint here.  Calcutta and rural Bengal appear bleak and surreal as everyman Anwar struggles to cope with his reality.

Director: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Ananya Chatterjee
Language: Urdu

Vara: A Blessing

In rural India, a young woman named Lila and her mother Vinata, a ‘Devdasi’, find themselves on the fringes of society, struggling to make ends meet.  Shyam, a low-caste village boy with dreams of becoming a sculptor in the city, asks Lila to model for him.  Lila agrees, even though she knows that if they are discovered, both their lives will be in jeopardy.  Set against the lush countryside in an Indian village not yet caught up to the modern world, the film seamlessly intertwines vivid dreamworlds of Hindu gods, classical bharatanatyam dance, and music.  Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu’s film is a timeless story of love and devotion and is loosely based on a short story by Sunil Gangopadhyay who has also inspired Satyajit Ray.  The film features the music of British Indian talent Nitin Sawhney and stars ‘Midnight’s Children’ actress Shahana Goswamy.

Director: Khyentse Norbu
Starring: Shahana Goswami, Devesh Ranjan, Geeta Chandran, Rohit Raj, Swaroopa Ghosh
Language: English

From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf

An experimental film made by the Indian artists’ collective CAMP, ‘From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf’ uses mobile phone footage by sailors who have braved the sea routes between the west coast of India and ports in the Persian Gulf, ferrying goods and people in their wooden “Dhows” for centuries.  The filmmakers act as editors, compiling the footage into a narrative detailing the experiences of these seamen and creating a compelling high seas adventure.

Directors: Shaina Anand, Ashok Sukumaran
Language: Various

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