It’s set to be another extraordinary year for South Asian cinema and films inspired by the region and its people at the London Film Festival 2015.
Here are some of the highlights.
Acclaimed director Deepa Mehta kicks down new doors with this energetic gangster movie that also explores South Asian family values. Set in Vancouver’s Sikh immigrant badlands, it finds young kingpin Jeet Johar (Randeep Hooda) and his sharp-suited gang the Beeba Boys on the rise. So far, they’ve left a trail of blood in their attempt to take over the local drugs market. However, when Jeet isn’t managing his cadre of dapper toughs, he’s doing his best to be a respectful son to his mother, to follow his religion with as much diligence as his profession will allow, and to hold his crumbling family together.
When the Beeba Boys try to muscle in on the turf of a rival gang, led by local Don Robbie Grewal (Gulshan Grover), the resulting conflict threatens to tear apart all the families involved. Jeet’s boys will learn the true meaning of betrayal on their way towards this film’s dazzling showdown. Peppered with razor-sharp comedy in the post-Tarantino vein and bolstered by a high-energy Bhangra hip-hop score, Beeba Boys is a rumination on how a gangster can also be a man of both faith and the family – explored with the social resonance we’ve come to expect from Mehta.
He Named Me Malala
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize at 17 and probably one of the most famous teenagers in the world, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for championing girls’ education in Pakistan. The extraordinary subject of this compelling documentary by director Davis Guggenheim (‘An Inconvenient Truth’, ‘Waiting for Superman’), Malala was prophetically named after a famous Afghan poetess and warrior.
Born into a family of teachers and activists in a small town of the Swat Valley in north-west Pakistan, she learned about the power of education from a young age, penning an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under Taliban when she was just twelve. Combining narration of her remarkable story with beautifully animated sequences, Guggenheim films Malala in Birmingham, where she was forced to move to following the attack. He records intimate moments with her family and in her new school. Behind the image of the activist and campaigner we discover a warm and playful individual. ‘He Named Me Malala’ is an inspiring portrait of an incredibly brave and resilient young woman who carries a message of hope for all women in the world.
Frame by Frame
This documentary shows Afghanistan as you have never seen it – through the lenses of Afghans themselves. While the Taliban ruled photography was a crime. Since their fall a media revolution has begun. A fledgling free press has emerged, although with the withdrawal of foreign troops it has had to face dangerous, often lethal, challenges on the ground.
Debut directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli follow four courageous Afghan photojournalists – Najibullah Musafer and Wakil Kohsar, and husband-and-wife team Massoud Hossaini and Farzana Wahidy – as they strive to reclaim their country’s identity lost through decades of war, violence and oppression. Employing skilfully assembled vérité footage, interviews, photojournalism and previously unseen archival footage, secretly shot during the Taliban regime, the photographers’ commitment, camaraderie and investigative drive shine through. Their collective eye for unexpected beauty reframes Afghanistan for themselves, the world and the future.
An ethnic group living in the Himalayas, Sherpas are expert mountaineers and an inherent part of the Everest climbing industry as guides, climbing supporters or porters, although their safety is often of little concern to tourist climbers or the Nepalese government. When documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom set out to chronicle their deteriorating relationships with westerners in April 2014, little did she expect to arrive a few days before one of the mountain’s deadliest avalanches, in which sixteen Sherpas died.
From the heart of this tragedy, which provoked mayhem and outrage in one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful regions, emerges an extraordinary and gripping film. Peedom succeeds in sensitively capturing the raw and conflicting emotions of mourning Sherpas, as well as disappointed tourists and tour organisers trying to protect their interests. Strikingly shot and with incredible access, this is an urgent, morally complex, but deeply humane account of the darker side of mountaineering.
The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or. Posing as a family is the surest way to finesse the French immigration system for Sri Lankan strangers Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan). He is a veteran Tamil Tiger attempting to return to civic life. However, more hurdles await them in the Paris suburbs, not least deciding what kind of relationship they want to have.
This dilemma, a common feature in director Jacque Audiard’s films is intensified here by the hard-knock struggle of holding down gruelling jobs, maintaining a stable domestic life, and looking after a ‘daughter’ (Claudine Vinasithamby) who belongs to neither of them. With a quick turn of the dial, Audiard brings his simmering study of this trio’s predicament to boiling point, when Dheepan’s old skillsets suddenly prove invaluable in the basic business of staying alive. Audiard’s supercharged compassion is anything but soft-centred – it comes laced with grit and wrapped in barbed wire.
Probably the best film yet on the Indian gay male experience, Hansal Mehta directs a riveting and nuanced tale that is as touching as it is powerful. Professor Siras is suspended by his university after a photographer breaks into his house and catches him in bed with his male rickshaw-driver lover. Deepu, an ambitious young journalist, hears of the sensational story and heads to Aligarh University to meet Siras. What he discovers is a shy intellectual, wracked by embarrassment. Deepu carries out a more detailed investigation and reveals that the university was behind the break-in. Deepu and LGBT activists convince Siras to challenge the suspension in high court, becoming the spearhead in the fight for gay rights in India. Apurva Asrani’s script allows Mehta to take us on a delicate journey of subtle emotions, while Manoj Bajapayee and Rajkummar Rao deliver compelling performances as the professor and campaigning journalist.
Mira Nair’s debut feature hits you between the eyes with its unflinching portrayal of street children eking out a life among the drug dealing and prostitution of Mumbai’s Dickensian back streets. Almost thirty years on, the film has lost none of its immediacy or relevance: this is Slumdog without the Millionaire. Nair developed the script from workshops with street children and then cast them in central roles. The effect is disarmingly authentic.
The world of Krishna (a sensational performance by Shafiq Syed), tiny Manju and ‘Sweet Sixteen’ might seem shockingly bleak, but Nair’s humanist approach reminds you of Satyajit Ray. She never sentimentalises, but gets under the skin of her characters, offering flashes of real warmth and joy. The cacophony of candy colours that make up much of the film’s palette – radiant in Mirabai Films’ restoration – are seductive, but look closer and you see the paan-stained walls and filth of decades.
The darkest fairytales are often the most compelling, unsettling us by touching on universal fears and desires. It is a feeling that Bhaskar Hazarika mines with the grotesque magical realism of his debut feature. Four traditional folk fables present disturbing, multi-layered tales of the travails of their female protagonists, revealing the underlying patriarchy that drives the woman to the edge of sanity.
Senehi is a village wife who plots her stepdaughter’s murder when her husband leaves for work. Her husband Devinath (Adil Hussain) meets a woman who has given birth to a strange vegetable and resolves to help her unearth the mystery. Meanwhile, in another village a rich woman (Seema Biswas) prepares her daughter for marriage to a python, hoping that untold riches will spring from the union. And a mother resolves to save her newborn child from the husband who buried her previous three babies alive somewhere in the jungle.
Partho Sen-Gupta delivers an intense, must-see neo-noir thriller, featuring towering performances by Adil Hussain and Tannishtha Chatterjee, who make the most of the director’s no-nonsense screenplay. Inspector Joshi (Hussain) is a cop whose life has been twisted out of recognition since the abduction of his six-year-old daughter. He does his best to attend to police duties but he keeps returning to his investigation into the whereabouts of his child.
Returning home at night Joshi tries to comfort his wife Leela (Chatterjee) who has been unable to cope with the loss, preferring to create a fantasy world in which her child still lives with them. On discovering a possible child trafficking ring at the seamy Paradise Club, Joshi is compelled to take the law into his own hands. Stunningly shot by Jean-Marc Ferriere, Sen-Gupta’s film takes us deep into the darkness that haunts any parent – the inexplicable loss of a child.
Based on the controversial ‘Noida Double Murder Case’ that rocked India in 2008, this gripping whodunnit is framed within the structure of a police procedural, where the cops are their own worst enemies. A top sleuth (played by Irrfan Khan) is brought in to solve the murder of a 14-year-old middle-class girl, believed to have been slaughtered by her parents in an honour killing.
As he digs deeper, he uncovers a series of blunders made by local police in their initial investigation, where forensic evidence was destroyed. This points to a wholly different culprit. As the new findings spread via a sensationalist media, the investigation rapidly switches to a game of betrayal and political brinkmanship, where the isolated cop with a conscience is forced to decide whether to play the establishment game, or fight for the truth and risk his career.
The New Classmate
Debut director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari presents an inspiring family film with this tale of a loving single mum battling to ensure her daughter has every opportunity in life, whether she wants it or not. Since the death of her husband, Chanda has raised Apeksha alone, making ends meet with her wages as a maid. When Apeksha starts a new school, she falls in with the wrong crowd and begins to fail in her studies.Chanda is desperate for her daughter to have more than she did but when she encourages Apeksha in her studies, her daughter’s rebellion grows. In response, Chanda takes the drastic step of enrolling herself into school, but Apeksha’s embarrassment at seeing her mother attend the same class as her only makes things worse. Tiwari’s drama is a powerful account of motherly love and the often turbulent conflict that can exist between generations.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place 7 – 18 October. For screening times and tickets, visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff