Remember the crazed antics of three college friends (Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna) in Dil Chahta Hai 15 years ago? While it relaunched the careers of its leads, made Farhan Akhtar a household name, introduced India to a fresh pop music trend and turned the concept of a Bollywood hit on its head, DCH also created a ripple of excitement, giving rise to film-makers bold enough to toss the typical masala handbook out of the window and tell a story, uninhibited.
Today, that ripple has gathered enough momentum to become a wave, and a number of young feature film-makers are riding its crest.
“There’s so much hunger in the audience,” Pan Nalin, Director of Angry Indian Goddesses, tells GN Focus. “People’s level of intelligence has risen drastically, so you can’t just feed them anything. This includes residents of small Indian towns — we were pleasantly surprised at how open-minded their youth are, and how much they loved the film. In contrast, we found many people from urban areas highly conservative.”
While the 49-year-old director of the female buddy flick is no stranger to cinema — he directed international ventures such as Samsara and Valley of Flowers — AIG is his first mainstream Bollywood feature. Starring powerhouse actresses Sandhya Mridul and Tannishtha Chatterjee, as well as Anushka Manchanda, Rajshri Deshpande and Sarah-Jane Dias, it was chosen for a red-carpet premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it became the first Indian film to be placed in the People’s Choice Awards, taking second place. Since then, the film has been touring the international circuit, winning awards and rave reviews. AIG was also a hit in India.
Appetite for authenticity
Cinema has always been something of a crazy passion in the country, and it’s not just limited to Bollywood. Actors are almost untouchable — albeit most of the madness is reserved for male stars — and even incarceration (think of Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan) is no real deterrent.
Nevertheless, while big blockbusters with little meat but star value aplenty keep the industry going, audiences are lapping up high-quality content as well, thanks to the internet and a thriving piracy industry. And with Netflix recently entering the country, this trend is here to stay.
“India’s going through an amazing phase right now, and I do think good cinema is alive and well, not only in the country but also the rest of the world,” says 38-year-old Prashant Nair, whose Umrika won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at last year’s Sundance, where it premiered and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. “There has been an Indian film at almost every major film festival over the past two years and a few have gone on to find international distribution beyond the festival world. I think we just need to keep going.
“Hopefully by now the various players in the international film world have taken note that there are audiences for these [indie] films internationally,” he tells GN Focus.
“In terms of reaching Indian audiences, I’ve heard talk of different projects involving theatrical screens that are dedicated to these types of films. That, combined with maturity in the VOD [video on demand] market will make a difference. There’s a lot of activity in the VOD space and that should provide a much-needed revenue stream for indie filmmakers.”
While Umrika hasn’t had an Indian theatrical release yet, it has been screened at festivals around the world to critical acclaim. The story of a young village lad who goes to the US and describes its culture through letters he writes to his family back home, Umrika explores the idea of the exotic — stereotypes and assumptions of various cultures and countries people have never visited and “the things we do for or because of those assumptions”. Imagine the surprise of a typical Indian villager when he sees an entire country eating the same bird (turkey) on the same day every year (Thanksgiving)!
A common thread that binds new age indie films is their distinctly global appeal. Just like language has been no barrier when it comes to the works of, for instance, Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai or Akiro Kurosawa, these movies also transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries in their stories, characters, treatment and tenor.
Take for example Court, a quadrilingual film by 28-year-old Chaitanya Tamhane that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014, to win Best Film in the Horizons category and a Lion of the Future award for Tamhane. A brilliantly understated work, it follows the trial of an old folk singer in a lower Mumbai court. It is straightforward and bereft of the usual Indian cinema melodrama, impacting the viewer as it develops, raising uncomfortable questions that are left unanswered and a certain incredulity.
“Court is as much a story of the city, as it is of the courtroom,” says Tamhane. “It explores how the personal lives, prejudices and morals of the lawyers and the judge affect their perceptions and judgments in the courtroom.
“I wanted to render the film in a realistic tone, with as many non-professional actors, real locations and authentic images of Mumbai as possible. Most of the crew were either new or came from a documentary background. I wanted the film to have a fresh but authentic spirit.”
Court won the Best Feature Film Award in the prestigious National Film Awards last year and was released on DVD and iTunes last month.
Barriers to progress
Lack of funding, big-budget films monopolising theatres, and a poor distribution network are the biggest impediments young, talented film-makers face. And others, like Aditya Vikram Sengupta, find the lack of responsibility towards the audience irksome. “People want to watch all kinds of things, and exposure to variety is necessary,” says the director, who won a number of awards for Asha Jaoar Majhe. “Following all the formulae in the commercial movie handbook cannot salvage a bad story. If you make a good film, money will follow. It’s kind of the opposite way in Indian cinema right now.
“If you can’t dance and smoke outside a school in your underwear in India, why show this in film? Instead of censoring true reflections of society, we should be banning all the monkey business.”
Asha Jaoar Majhe or Labour of Love, Sengupta’s debut feature, follows the lives of two people amid a spiralling recession. It premiered in Venice in 2014, taking home the Fedeora Award, and a year later won the Indira Gandhi Award for Best First Film at the National Film Awards. The film was also nominated at the London Film Festival.
Labour of Love’s commercial success supports Sengupta’s point that people want variety. Initially intended to run in cinemas in Kolkata for a week just to exhibit his work, the film started playing to full houses, and stayed for seven weeks.