The glorious past of the Indian movie – and the legacy of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, G Arabindan, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, et al – seems to have waned to a great extent: The current state of new Indian cinema is, at best, uninspiring and unsatisfying. While earlier directors were keen students of cinematic technology and aesthetics alike, and applied their knowledge to the creation of world-class films, the present “third generation” of filmmakers seems merely a faint shadow of that heritage. This observation is based largely on the films shown in the Competitive Indian Vista section in this year's Mumbai International Film Festival... but there were some exceptions among the despair.
Out of thirteen films shown in the festival, The Fortunate One (Sonam) is indeed an important film in terms of it's freshness of subject, treatment and technical finesse. The Fortunate On is a film about the polyandry practicing Borkpa yak herdsmen of the Monpa tribe, where the brothers of a family traditionally share a single wife, in order to facilitate one of them to rear yak in the high altitude.
Setting his tale in the Himalayan abode of Arunachal Pradesh – 15000 feet above sea level, on the edge of the Indo-China Border – first-time director Ahsan Muzid lets his story unfold in an allegorical style, illustrating the many hues of the Monpa tribe with appropriate historical and mythical references, the better to tell the difficult tale of a small family entwined in a cobweb of human frailty.
The Fortunate One, as a film, stood on a solid ground, never slipping into overstatement or rather minimalist cinematic integration of those essential references. Here, Sonam – the wife of one such yak shepherd – falls in love with a young village lad; although her husband cannot initially come to terms with her new relationship, he finally approves her second marriage, but descends into anguish and despair. More humiliation awaits when Sonam claims her newborn son is not his, but his pure love for her and the child drives him to take care of them.
To prove his valor, he kills a menacing snow leopard in the mountains, returning victorious only to see his wife let down by her other husband. A sense of guilt and remorse leads Sonam to her deathbed as if she might find atonement in her death, a belief embodied in her people's Buddhist religion. The appropriate subplot of the leopard haunting is used metaphorically, through which the senior husband not only proves his valor and potency, but also avenges the relations he never accepted in his heart and the social custom that unleashes havoc for his pure love.
With lush, green nature as the backdrop for this authentic depiction of the Brokpa lifestyle, The Fortunate One convincingly studies the follies of an unpractical social custom through its impact on the emotional bonding of individuals, which brings disaster to many a relationship. It is laudable that in his debut film Muzid shows promise for being able to narrate a delicate social, yet emotive human issue in a remarkable cinematic idiom with considerable flair and universal appeal. The film was befittingly awarded with the International Critics' Prize (FIPRESCI Prize) at the festival
Karnataka's renowned director Girish Kasaravalli's In the Shadow of the God (Nayi Niralu) is another great movie both in terms of its subject, multilayered treatment and significance, which bagged the festival's Best Film award. The film is about an orthodox Brahmin widow Venkatalaksmi, whose husband died 22 years ago, yet rumors of her husband's rebirth lead her father-in-law to bring home young Viswa to console his ailing wife.
Vektalaksmi, though initially fearful of the boy, gradually bonds with him as if seizing the opportunity to fulfill all her suppressed elemental desires, and thereby free herself from the rigors of widowhood. Vekatalaksmi finally gives birth to a girl, ‘Bharathi', the name symbolizing a new awakened India. The story unfolds against the backdrop of India's struggle for freedom struggle and vast natural opulence, ultimately asserting the triumph of what is essentially natural and spontaneous. Epochal in style with beautiful interplay of space and time, the use of sustained image and allegory and a story deeply rooted in the history, customs and rituals of Kannada society, the film reminds one of Theo Angelopoulos' epic dramas.
Another remarkable film of the pack is Malayalam film The Gaze (Nottam), by Sashi Paravoor, beautifully capturing a famous dancer's flirtation with modernity and his passion and struggle to keep the dance form alive in the face of hostility.
For the revered Koodiyattam artist Vasudeva Chakkyar, the purity, practice and significance of his art is paramount – so much so that he sacrifices his love for a fellow artist to give the performance of his life with his aging, semi paralyzed body. The film efficiently symbolizes the new-found world recognition through filming of the dance form by a Western friend of the dancer's son, but creeping melodrama undermines the overall beauty and rhythm, particularly in the later part of the film.
Sachin Kundalkar's Restaurant has a good story about two women struggling to keep both their dream and passion alive through the thick and thin of personal tragedy and family property disputes. Though the film portrayed the protagonists' personal and economic crises pretty well, and took to greater heights the warmth and compassion the characters share, as seems typical in Indian society, it ended up feeling draggy and overstretched, and seemed to lose its rhythm in the middle.
Sanjib Sabhapandit's Jatinga Et Al (Jatinga Ityadi) also progressed well to some point, portraying the affair of two young lovers against a backdrop of insurgence-afflicted society with inherent farce and fallacy, but goes haywire by the end, unmasking the director's ineptness in the medium.
In Marathi film Gajendra Ahire's Land By the Sea (Bayo), the protagonist Bayo's eternal wait for her estranged lover and tragic twist of destiny in the backdrop of India's struggle for freedom was movingly told, on the one hand depicting the communal harmony of the society before India's independence and on the other, the sacrifices made by individuals at the personal and emotional level. The raising of Bayo, a Muslim orphan girl by an orthodox Brahmin, and her affair with his other adopted son beautifully illustrates that in a country divided on communal lines in 1947, there was amity amongst the masses until politics stained, and still continue to stain, that purity of mind.
Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhthankar's Crystal Clear (Nital) deals with the disease Vitiligo, observing that stigma for the disease still exists amongst the Indian educated elite, and takes its time exploring the dissents and concerns of protagonist Dr. Neeraja's physician fiancé and his family members.
Arup Manna's Assamese film Behind the Screen (Aideo) is also a remarkable film as it traces the tragic life of a film actress from the state of Assam who starred in the first Assamese film, Joymoti, in 1935. Aideo Handique, the actress from a conservative social milieu, was isolated by her family and ostracized by her society and a broken marriage led her to spend the rest of her life in seclusion. The great significance of the story notwithstanding, the poor script and even poorer direction condemns the film to insignificance. The same problem messed up another film, K N T Sastry's My Daughter (Kamli), though it dealt with the very relevant social issue of sexual bias towards female children in many Indian societies. On the other hand, the Bengali film A Resonance (Anuranan), by Anirudha Roy Choudhury, was a stereotypical treatment of the romance that blooms between two married individuals that ends in a shocking tragedy.
Dibakar Banerjee's Khosla's Nest (Khosla Ka Ghosla) was more impressive, using a comic streak to modulate its serious-minded storyline about how a middle class family man sees his dream of owning land and building a house shattered by the greedy people around him. In today's fast-paced life, everything is changing – social values and morals, concepts and unity of family, and this is naturally beyond the comprehension of protagonist Kamal Kishore Khosla, whose newly acquired land is immediately encroached upon by a bullying rogue in league with the agent who brokered the purchase.
Every attempt to save the land from further encroachment through legal means only reveals the system's uncaring, insensitive and impotent workings, but the film seems to lose its moral standing when, after his initial shock and disapproval, Mr. Khosla just gives in to the unscrupulous design of his sons. Perhaps the film is arguing that the devilish degeneration of values and morals has not spared him, either. But by the movie's end, everything's just cluttered and disoriented.
A M R Ramesh's Kannada film Cyanide is an attempt to authentically capture the human drama that ensued in the last twenty days of the LTTE assassins who killed India's former Prime Minister Mr. Rajib Gandhi. The film endeavors to clinically probe and document the team of assassin's many shades of mental state, their sense of guilt and penitence and succeeds well enough, though without much in the way of cinematic flavor.
Contemporary Indian cinema has lost its luster and inspiration; many of the films screened in the Indian Vista section of the festival seem like more child's play than mature works of substance and proficiency in terms of content and command over the medium... which suggests a need for deep pondering and introspection by the Indian film fraternity in general.