By Yun-hua Chen.
The Indian Film Festival Stuttgart, founded by Filmbüro Baden-Württenberg, is one of the oldest and largest Indian festivals in Europe. Previously named “Bollywood and beyond” up until 2011, the festival now focuses on what is “beyond” Bollywood in Indian cinema and strives for a multifaceted program which renders justice to complexity and diversity in Indian cinema. Opening with Umrika by Prashant Nair and starring Suraj Sharma, a road movie surrounding illegal migration, it is a film festival which dedicates itself to non-Bollywood independent feature films, documentaries and short films. The programmers curate films from diverse genres, in different regional languages and formats, celebrating verisimilitude of cinematic aesthetics in India. Themes such as love, passion, oppression, gender roles, caste system, social discrepancy, discrimination, and violence are captured with an observing camera and sometimes innovative narrative strategies. This year the special focus is on Marathi, the primary language of the state Maharashtra, the hometown of filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane who made the award winning debut film Court. This series also includes Elisabeth Ekadeashi (Pilgrimage) by Paresh Mokashi, The Quest (Ringan) by Abhijit D. Abde, and The Silence by Gajendra. The closing film is Rainbow by Nagesh Kukoonor, which premiered at Berlinale 2015, following the extended journey of a blind boy and his sister through picturesque Rajasthan in hopes of restoring his eyesight.
In the festival’s engrossing section of documentaries, many filmmakers concern themselves with themes on gender issues. The short documentary Babai, directed by Kavita Datir, follows the daily routine of 81-year-old Babutai (Babai) Damodar Labade. She has been working as porter carrying 200 – 500 kg with a wooden handcart since she was widowed at the age of 21. Left alone with five children to raise, she has taken up the previously men-only profession and marched on narrow market lanes of Pune in the midst of honking tricycles, cars, and motorbikes until now. When the uphill path becomes difficult, she takes off her sandals and continues barefoot. Her light-hearted account of devastating life events and her demonstration of admirable courage are interwoven with visual images of her daily routine on the busy streets, creating a touching celebration of life. Vinod Kapri’s Can’t Take this Shit Anymore also focuses on women’s plight and courage from the basic yet pivotal right of defecation with privacy. In Khesia village of Kushinager District, six women ran away from their in-laws’ home because the lack of toilet facilities forced them to defecate in open fields and endure both the male gaze and harassment from passers-by. Their struggle, supported by a local social activist, to demand the basic right of defecation in a safe and private place was first denied by village bureaucrats, but then through media coverage a change seemed to be in sight. Newborns by Megha Ramaswamy is a surrealist short film which uses the tone of a fairy tale to portray the survivors of acid violence and lassitude of their domestic and public spaces in a nameless dystopian city. The camera wanders between anonymous spaces—a bus, a hotel, a street, and the sky—and renders the banal and the suffering souls poetic and beautiful.
Also focusing on gender issues, Mardistan (Macholand), by Harjant Gill in Punjabi, explores Indian manhood from the viewpoint of four men from diverse generations and backgrounds: a middle-age writer who writes about his experience of physical and sexual abuse in an elite military academy, a Sikh father who resists the society’s preference for male offspring and cherishes his twin daughters, a young college student who is looking for a girlfriend and facing the pressure of losing his virginity, and a working-class married gay activist who stays in a marriage to protect his wife. They reiterate their perspective and understanding of sexual violence, homophobia, and gender inequalities while reflecting upon manhood. The award-winning and heart-warming Tashin and the Monk, directed by Andrew Hinton, follows the former Buddist monk Lobsang’s school project on Himalaya, which accommodates and provides education to children in need. While Lobsang seeks reconciliation with his past as an abandoned child through this project, the sheltered children have the task of finding their place and peace in the world. Sound Thief, an eight-minute documentary made by Aditya Kapur, is a city symphony consisting of found sound, designed by the experimental musician Jivraj Sigh. He uses a live recorded soundtrack from Malik Bazaar in Kolkata to rhythmically match with the physical movement of joiners, garage workers, and carpenters.
Tom Uhlenbruck’s Two Times Tears proves that the festival curates not only films made by Indian filmmakers but also films about India. It is also especially fitting for this Indian film festival in Germany because it directly exposes the interface between German and Indian cultures by longitudinally documenting the group of German engineers who were sent to India for the construction of a LKW plant. Whereas German engineers and managers moved in fully fenced mansions with their families, local construction workers moved to Chennai with their families to live in a camp with other workers. The plant becomes a temporary and artificially constructed world where the two culturally, socioeconomically diverse groups overlap. As the camera patiently documents clashes and reconciliation between these two cultural groups, it also unravels undercurrents which go beyond onscreen space.
The ensemble of feature films is somewhat tinted with stylish darkness, dim orange light, and heavy rainfall. Labour of Love, by Aditya Vikram Sengupta in Bengali, is a film dedicated to the beauty of everyday details. Camera movement is slow and calm, and camera angle are unusual and thought-provoking. Close-ups of banal objects such as a basin, kitchen utensils, a plate of food, and a garment portray the daily routine of shaving, dressing-up, walking, cloth-washing, and bus-taking. Completely devoid of dialogue, it is a feast of images where the female protagonist and the male protagonist walk past each other in narrow staircases while being bathed in dim orange light. It is also a cinema of difference and repetition: a city falls asleep and then wakes up; footsteps upwards and downwards, sometimes in slow motion; ink keeps being printed on newspapers with the circular and repetitive movement of machines. The sound of this anonymous city also becomes a character itself: a train passing by, farm animals, a cowbell chiming, and a bicycle’s wheels turning. It is a serenely moving urban tale of encounters and missing encounters. In Sunrise by Partho Sen-Gupta, also a Marathi film, the theme of child abduction has been dealt with by the fusion between surrealist and Exotica-like scenes of a night club called “Paradise” and the daily reality of a police officer (most of the time working in the pouring rain). After his daughter is abducted, his wife is drowned in depression and hallucinations. He himself is caught in a circular dream of revisiting the night club with young girls of the age of his abducted daughter working as dancers. Narrative structure is deliberately fluid and incongruent, and eerie feelings of unsettlement are enhanced by blue, green and yellow filters.
Teenkahon (3 Obsessions), directed by Bauddhayan Mukherji in Bengali, also experiments with narrative structure. This debut film, a rare art house picture from Bengal, is structured in a theatrical triptych manner, with each act being a tale about obsessive love outside marriage. The first chapter Nabalok, set from 1920 to 1954, was shot in stylish black-and-white. A man spins a yarn for his two friends while they await the fourth person, delayed because of heavy rain, to start the card game that evening. His younger self’s obsession with a newly wedded girl in a Bengal village gets him into mischief and haunts him until adulthood. The second chapter Post Mortem, set in 1978, is a Kammerspiel shot in technicolor. Following a woman’s suicide her husband confronts her lover, also on a day with a great deal of rainfall. Set in 2013, the third chapter Telephone is digital and contemporary. In this cross-genre, a married police officer gets involved in an extra-marital affair with surprising twists and turns as well as a dose of black humour.
Birkas Mishra’s Chauranga (Four Colours) presents the parallel worlds between a humble single-parent family and the well-off family of a local gangster boss in the countryside, observed from a child’s perspective. Under the backdrop of a foggy landscape, the well-stratified patriarchal society is plagued by clashes in terms of class, caste, gender, generation, and socioeconomic status. Dichotomies of education and intuition, culture and nature, violence and tenderness, rich and poor, the empowered and the disempowered, and master and slave are recurrent throughout the film. While the maid becomes the mistress of the gangster boss in order to send his elder son to school, her second son falls in love with the gangster boss’s elegantly dressed daughter. The boys’ trainspotting pastime then becomes the possibility of an exit. Kaushik Ganguly’s Chotoder Chobi is a Bengali film with the rarely touched subject matter of vertically-challenged people in a circus. The circus scenes, almost like a homage to Variété (1925), deploys a wide range of arc shots and alternation between high and low-angle shots. After the death of a vertically-challenged acrobat in a circus, the social comment on the exploitative working environment is developed into a love story between two vertically-challenged young people, whose romance is hindered by prejudice and financial burden.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften to be published by Neofelis Verlag by early 2016.