The Bagri London Indian Film Festival brought to the UK a week of independent films from the South-Asian subcontinent. Now in its eighth year, LIFF has curated exciting new cinema and shaped an audience who support indie films, a genre now more exciting and varied than the standard narrative of Bollywood films.
What started as few experimental projects has now grown into a confident new body of cinema which excites world audiences. LIFF now showcases the best of independent cinema and offers multiple windows to the complex reality of a billion lives.
Having expanded to a full fledged programme in Birmingham, LIFF was trimmer and smarter in the city this year. In the array of exciting titles lined up, there were some highlights in content, style and audience response.
Veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum (Once Again) plays with the crime thriller genre to address a deep moral question, what happens to a man who fakes his own death? Drawing from real stories and events in Kerala, the filmmaker comments on the traditional matriarchal society and the predicament of migrant workers in Dubai.
When Purushottaman Nair is humiliated for living in his wife’s parental home, he leaves to work in Dubai. When he returns with wealth, his status rises in the village. He is happy with his beloved wife Devi (Kavya Madhavan) and daughter. Nair conspires to fake his death to claim a large insurance cover for his family. Conspiring with the two men in the family, he commits a grievous crime which is traced by the police. Forced to flee the country he is unable to be with his wife whom he dearly loved.
After seventeen years, Nair returns in the stealth of night to meet Devi. His daughter is now grown and Devi has supported the family of the murdered man. When Nair reveals himself, the wife rejects him sacrificing her love for her moral world.
When a man claims to be dead what is left in his life? Hinging on this deeply moral question, Adoor Gopalakrishnan experiments with a genre which is visually gripping in his first digital film. The stranger who kills himself in the hotel could be this man. The narrative ambiguity is treated masterfully by the filmmaker. The second Indian filmmaker to have received a BFI Sutherland award (the first being Satyajit Ray) he was handed the LIFF Screen Idol award this year.
The incredibly young Shubhashish Bhutiani makes an assured and compassionate film about death in Mukti Bhawan. Inspired by a real life hotel in Varanasi where people book themselves in to die and attain salvation, Bhutiani creates this surreal world where inmates both celebrate life and await death.
Middle aged accountant Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is shocked when his ageing father Daya (Lalit Behl) suddenly insists on going to Benaras to die. The reluctant son has to put his family and career on hold and travel with his father to the holy city. Daya wraps up his belongings and hands his dead wife’s jewellery to his granddaughter. Rajiv’s impatient wife (Geetanjali Kulkarni) dismisses the idea as a mere ploy for a holiday.
The Benaras exposition is restrained and real, ironical and humorous. In a run down building, people are crammed in tiny rooms, offered morning yoga, boat rides and TV soaps. A small community bonds over faith and friendship. Daya surrenders himself to the lifestyle while his son bristles with impatience.
Rajiv walks to the cremation ghat to see the enormous piles of wooden logs, the continuous pyres by the river while life carries on along the banks. He witnesses people dying in the hotel, rooms emptied and filled almost immediately. He also chafes against his father’s growing friendship with the friendly widow who offers them tasty meals.
There is a quotidien reality about the narrative, father and son talk while washing clothes in the river or while massaging on the terrace. Daya, a domineering father, had not allowed his son to be a poet. Longstanding grievances spill out revealing their alienation. Daya falls ill and while nursing him through the night, Rajiv reconciles in a moving moment. Crisis averted, Daya seems to recover when hit by the death of the friendly woman. Poised to face his last days alone he sends his son back to town.
Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain in a scene from Mukti Bhawan
Mukti Bhawan is about death but in effect deals with the healing and return to life for Rajiv. He looks at his wife anew, encourages his daughter (Polomi Ghosh) and finally celebrates his father’s last rites. The dramatic premise is absurdist but the film remains a fine human document, like Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (Unvanquished) set in the same city.
Young Bhutiani found support for his project in his producer father Sanjay, Bienalle College Venice, his DOPs (Mcsweeney, Huwiler) were classmates from New York Film School. Acclaimed in Venice and Pusan, the film won a jury award at the National Awards and the UNESCO award, “I knew my first film would be made in India. It is a film about relationships and hope. In Benaras I met characters who entered into the story, but centrally it is about a father-son relation.” The film is a universal human drama with its subtle, funny, heart warming moments. Surrounded by the notion of death and its multiple manifestations, Benaras offers a centre of love and truth.
Now the largest South Asian Festival in Europe, Bagri Foundation LIFF offers the chance to watch films critically hailed in International Film Festivals.
Rajkumar Rao in ‘Newton’.
At the world premier of Newton in Berlin, filmmaker Amit Masurkar announced that the Indian Constitution was a great document but there was a vast gap between the Constitution and the reality of India. In his black political comedy Newton, Masurkar questions the concept of democracy in an India so polarized by many factors. He takes us to the iron ore districts of Chattisgarh where Maoists boycott elections and police dismiss it as a farcical exercise.
Young idealist Newton (Rajkumar Rao) is a reserve officer in the forthcoming elections. He is delegated to conduct election in a remote district currently held by the army but surrounded by Maoists. When Newton reaches the camp, he is confronted by a difficult security officer, who has no intention of risking travel to the election booth. Newton insists, so donning bullet proof vests, the three election officers are escorted by the army deep in the jungle.
They reach a destroyed village and a burnt down school building. Tables are set up and the electronic voting chart is set up. Follows an interminable wait, after which the officers are sent off to the village to summon the voters. A few arrive but have no idea who to vote for.
Newton’s diligence is played off against the cynicism of the army officer. By the afternoon the officer fakes a Maoist attack and prepares to clear the camp. When Newton insists on going back he is beaten and overpowered by the soldiers. Newton believes it is the constitutional right of every tribal to vote, the tribals are in a state of apathy and fear. The local block officer (Anjali Patil) reminds Newton that the locals have always been marginalized and that elections will bring no change to them.
The officers are prepared to rig the vote and end the matter. Newton is a man of deep conviction, his insistence leads to an absurdist situation and the satirical treatment casts a caustic eye on the concept of democracy and citizenship. Newton’s fervent dedication and the black comedy highlights the significance of voting rights and the loss of it in today’s paradox.
Produced by Drishyam, the film is director Amit Masurkar’s second feature following the slacker comedy Sulemani Keera. With his ability to seek risqué roles, Rajkumar Rao has emerged as the star of new indie cinema with two more films this year, Trapped and Omerta. The impressive cast also has Pankaj Tripathi as the cynical army officer and Raghubir Yadav as the weary electoral officer who would rather have been a writer. Anjali Patil shines in her understated role of the local contact in the conflict area.
Largely housed in the BFI this year, LIFF felt more like an intimate festival where the audience and talent could mingle in the foyers and discuss films after screenings. The festival extended to a week long run in three theatres in Birmingham, supported by a growing audience with an appetite for diverse indie films from the subcontinent. The audience award went to the return entry Billion Colour Life, (screened last year and brought back on audience demand).
Padmakumar’s black and white film, about a child growing up in a world seared by communal hatred and its frightening deneoument, is at once compassionate and hard hitting. A fervent plea for communal harmony and religious tolerance, the film is stridently relevant in today’s fragmented world.
Producer Satish Kaushik says ” It’s incredibly special for us that ‘A Billion Colour Story’ resonates with audiences across countries and continents. It continues to vindicate our faith that people and their hearts are the same across cultures and horizons.” He dedicated this award to the victims of the recent lynchings and mob violence in India.”