As Indian summer’s go, the 2014 edition in Britain is set to be a scorcher.
The record temperatures have only been matched by a steady stream of South Asia-centric events that have kept devotees of everything sub-continental utterly enthralled: from the outstanding Alchemy Festival on the Southbank through appearances by everyone from the Sachal Jazz Ensemble and Shreya Ghoshal to the London Asian Film Festival.
This week sees the return of the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) for its 5th annual edition, packed with a superb roster of films that will doubtless reaffirm the Festival’s position as the pre-eminent showcase for independent South Asian cinema in Europe.
In a nod to the busy schedule this summer, which also includes an Indian cricket tour of England and the Commonwealth Games, LIFF organizers have condensed this year’s festival to a week.
The number of screenings for each film are increased, ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to indulge in the rapid rise in independent cinema from the sub-continent: a growth that is in no small part due to festivals such as LIFF.
In a world of formulas, sequels, prequels, re-jigs and re-hashes, the irresistible appeal of independent cinema stems from its originality as well as the frequently fascinating stories behind the films.
Here are some of the highlights of the Festival which takes place across London July 10 – Jul 17.
‘Sold’ (Opening Night)
The second feature about the scourge of child-trafficking to open a South Asian film festival in London in as many months, after Nagesh Kukunoor’s ‘Lakshmi’. ‘Sold’ is arguably the more high-profile of the two. Directed by award-winning American filmmaker Jeffrey D Brown, ‘Sold’ is executive-produced by Oscar-winning British actor, writer and producer Emma Thompson and features Hollywood stars Gillian Anderson and David Arquette and ‘Bandit Queen’ actress Seema Biswas in key roles. Intriguingly, the film’s central character is named ‘Lakshmi’. ‘Sold’ is adapted from Patricia McCormick’s 2006 novel of the same name, a tale that is an amalgamation of McCormick’s exhaustively researched stories as she travelled between the villages in rural Nepal where girls as young as 13 are abducted from, and the sordid brothels in Kolkata where they are forced into prostitution. A film that is resplendent in symbolism, director Brown explores India’s eternal paradox: the veneration of innumerable Goddesses and the continued, often brutal, oppression of the country’s women. Authentic and deeply troubling.
Twelve years in the making, ‘Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost’, is an extraordinary story about identity, migration, morality and our value systems. Set in post-Partition India, the film stars the incomparable Irrfan Khan in the central role of Umber Singh, a Punjabi Sikh who is forced out of his ancestral village following the bloody bifurcation of the sub-continent in 1947. The deeply conservative Umber yearns for a boy-child, having already fathered three daughters. When the fourth also turns out to be a daughter his yearning turns into a bizarre obsession as he raises his youngest daughter as a boy, naming her ‘Kanwar’, sending her to wrestling practice, teaching her to drive a lorry and even marrying her off. Writer and director Anup Singh is said to have delved into his own family’s trauma to explore the human tragedy of Partition and reviewers have raved about the film’s complex heart. Ironically, that complexity has meant distributors have shied away from backing ‘Qissa’ (despite the presence of Irrfan Khan) which has instead trawled film festivals around the world, thrilling audiences from Toronto through Mumbai to Abu Dhabi.
‘Million Dollar Arm’
Disney’s much-anticipated sports drama, this film’s appearance at the Festival is testament to LIFF’s growing stature, given that it has already been released in the United States and India and is set to hit British screens on 29 August. Based on the extraordinary true story of the first Indians to play Major League Baseball in the United States, it is the epitome of a feel-good romp from a studio that knows a thing or two about ‘Feel Good’ films. At a press screening earlier this month in London, journalists of both genders were left dabbing their eyes amidst a score of stifled sobs. Directed by Australian filmmaker Craig Gillespie, ‘Million Dollar Arm’ tells the story of J B Bernstein (excellently essayed by ‘Mad Men’ star Jon Hamm), a failed American sports agent who concocts the outrageous idea of staging a TV talent contest to find America’s next baseball stars, in India. Young Indian actors Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal play Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the winners of the contest whose lives are utterly transformed after they are transplanted from rural Lucknow to Los Angeles.
London-based filmmaker Hammad Khan’s follow-up to his brooding, counter-cultural debut ‘Slackistan’. ‘Amina State’ is equally bleak and abstract and wouldn’t be out of place on constant loop inside a contemporary art gallery. Carefully crafted and beautifully shot, ‘Anima State’ (“The part of the human psyche that is inward looking and in touch with the subconscious”) is perhaps an apt description of the state of being of many in Pakistan as they grapple with myriad forms of extremism as well as individual and institutional apathy. The film follows an unknown man, his face obscured by bandages, as he embarks on a seemingly random killing spree. When his actions elicit little reaction, he manages to get himself on to a TV show intending to shoot himself dead live on air. Unexpectedly, a filmmaker then emerges from this dream-like state. Much like the journalists and minorities that experience the reality on a daily basis, the filmmaker too is hounded, persecuted and goes on the run. It is an extraordinary film from a writer and director who continues to push boundaries both as a filmmaker and as a Pakistani.
The horrors that preceded the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 largely escaped the world’s attention and remains one of the great unreported human tragedies of the 20th Century. Directed by Mansur Ali, ‘Shongram’ is arguably one of the most high-profile of a handful of films that depict the horrors that took place at the time. Set in present day England, the film follows an old British-Bangladeshi man called Karim (Anupam Kher) who recounts his personal experiences of the war to a British journalist, in particular his romance with a Hindu woman. In a series of flashbacks, Karim recalls the myriad terrors that marked the conflict, from the invasion of the West Pakistan army and the systematic rape of tens of thousands of Bangladeshi women to the localized violence between Bengalis and Biharis. Along the way, Karim also recollects his own personal struggle for justice and love amongst the chaos of ‘liberation’.
The role of ‘Apu’ in Satyajit Ray’s iconic 1955 debut ‘Pather Panchali’ is arguably one of cinema’s most unforgettable child characters. Apu was played by Subir Banerjee, a young boy with no previous acting experience and whose family’s economic circumstances mirrored Apu’s. He was discovered playing on a street in Kolkata by Ray’s wife Bijoya and hastily cast in the filmmaker’s acclaimed directorial debut. It is said that Banerjee’s father was reluctant for his young boy to go into cinema but was swayed by Ray’s prophetic claim that ‘Pather Panchali’ would change Bengali cinema forever. After his starring role Banerjee never worked in cinema again and drifted into the same obscurity from which he was plucked. Some reports said he had become a millhand at a Kolkata factory while another said he had become a government clerk. ‘Apur Panchali’ (Apu’s Story) is Banerjee’s story, one which – indirectly – led to Satyajit Ray becoming India’s most renowned and respected filmmaker. Directed by Kaushik Ganguly, this beautiful and deeply evocative film stars Parambrata Chatterjee and the stunning Parno Mitra.
‘Barefoot to Goa’
Arguably the most captivating film of the entire festival, ‘Barefoot to Goa’ is a road-trip movie with a difference: at once poignant, compelling and troubling. Written, produced and directed by Praveen Morchhale, the film tells the story of two siblings – an 11-year-old boy and his precocious nine-year-old sister – who leave their Mumbai home to head to Goa to visit their cancer-stricken grandmother. Along the way they face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and are forced to rely on their own ingenuity and the kindness of strangers. Ostensibly a road-trip movie it may be, but ‘Barefoot to Goa’ is at its heart, a troubling exploration of the ever-widening chasm that divides India’s urban rich and rural poor. It is also a deeply sensitive study of the unseen loneliness and despair of old age and the marginalization of old people across South Asia.
‘An American in Madras’
The remarkable story of an Ohio-born, all-American boy who studied filmmaking in California and gave a break to the legendary Tamil cinema icon ‘MGR’. Written and directed by academic and filmmaker Karan Bali, ‘An American in Madras’ tells the unlikely tale of Ellis R Dungan, a filmmaking student from the University of Southern California (USC) who travels to Mumbai in 1935 on the invitation of a fellow USC student. In India, Dungan meets a Tamil film producer who hands him the reigns of a film called ‘Saathi Leelavathi’, a story plagiarized from a 19th Century novel by British novelist Ellen Wood. The film was also the debut for Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran or ‘MGR’ as he was to become known: the film star and future Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. In spite of Dungan’s inability to speak any of the native tongues, despite his lack of filmmaking experience, ‘Saathi Leelavathi’ was the beginning of a quite extraordinary journey. Despite his rather liberal attitude – Dungan was criticized in the press for the intimate love scenes portrayed in one film in particular, ‘Ponmudi’ – the filmmaker continued until 1950, making 13 feature films in all. He was also a pioneer, introducing innovations previously unseen in Tamil cinema, including modern make-up techniques and mobile cameras.
‘Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya’
A 2D re-imagining of Satyajit Ray’s much-loved 1969 fantasy adventure ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ which in turn was based on a story by Ray’s grandfather Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury. Director Shilpa Ranade’s ‘Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya’ re-tells the hilarious tale of singer Goopi and drummer Bagha, whose combined lack of talent makes Cacophonix look positively inspired. Banished from their villages, the duo meet in a forest and decide to perform together. Appropriately enough, a forest-dwelling ghost is moved by their talent and proceeds to grant them four wishes. Goopi and Bagha ask for their music to be appreciated, food upon request and the ability to travel as and when they desire. The fourth wish is saved for a future emergency. They seek refuge in the Shundi kingdom, when the king receives a warning of an imminent attack by his twin brother, the king of Hundi. Goopi and Bagha resolve to help Shundi’s king and use the power of their newly-acquired musical talent to avert war. Much like Cacophonix, Goopi and Bagha’s passion for music and good nature prevail. First-time director Ranade is an illustrator and animator who gives the characters the look and feel of Rajasthani marionettes. In a world dominated by 3D and astounding CGI, 2D manages to imbue the film with a vibrancy that fits the narrative like a glove.
A stylish, eccentric romp through a picturesque fishing village on the Arabian Coast in southern India. Director Rakshit Shetty – who also stars in the film – pays homage to everything from ‘Scarface’ through ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Memento’ to Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ in a film with five interconnected stories. A young journalist sets out on a journey to uncover the truth behind a mysterious event from the past and hears varying perspectives of the same event from different people, who in turn are connected to each other through the story. The film has already garnered plenty of attention and has been described as a watershed in the Kannada film industry.
‘Hemlkasa’ (Closing Night)
‘Hemalkasa’ is the extraordinary true story of a man of many talents and virtues. Dr Prakash Amte is part-medical doctor, part-social activist and part-Dr Doolittle. In the early 1970’s Dr Amte, then a newly-qualified surgeon, travelled with his legendary social worker father Baba Amte to the dense jungles of Hemalkasa in Maharashtra State to visit the local tribes people, called the ‘Madia Gonds’. The poverty and despair he saw would change him profoundly. Dr Amte volunteered to help the Gonds and, together with his anaesthetist wife Mandakini, has dedicated his life to alleviating the suffering of these tribal people. The couple have since established a clinic in Hemalkasa which provides everything from minor surgery to eye operations; a school, an advocacy group that campaigns for the rights of tribal people as well as an animal shelter for dozens of orphaned beasts, from primates to leopards. In the film, the role of the good doctor is essayed by acclaimed actor Nana Patekar who is said to have been a long-term admirer of Baba Amte and has frequently described Dr Amte as an “older brother”. Directed by Samruddhi Porey, ‘Hemalkasa’ also stars Sonali Kulkarni as Dr Mandakini Amte and also features more than 200 ‘Adivasis’ or tribal people.
For full listings and venue information, visit www.londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk