While looking for the exciting crop of new films from India that have (and could soon) hit festival screens, I chanced upon Ritesh Batra’s well-travelled ‘Photograph’ which first premiered in January 2019 at the Sundance film festival and can now be viewed on Amazon’s Prime Video. I wanted to skim through the film before listing new entries but was captivated by it all over again.

There is something about ‘Photograph’ that is so touching, with a stillness and a staying power of its own. This is true also of its trio of mesmerising lead characters (the supporting role of the powerful, wise grandmother, Farrukh Jaffar is more than a match for the lead pair). The three remain embalmed in memory in the way a prized fading photograph does in one’s past and also one’s present.

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Caption: ‘Photograph’

‘Photograph’ is led mainly by its enigmatic, strangely elusive and contrary young female lead, played so adeptly by Sanya Malhotra. She is the gentle, slow-moving, soft-spoken, seemingly tranquil college girl, Miloni. But it’s clear that within her is a swirl of questioning and unease which deeply unsettles her but others are unaware of.

Studying to be a Chartered Accountant, she yearns for insights into areas other than her urban upbringing, such as life in a village and working in a farm. She begins to lead a secret ‘other’ life with these hidden goals in mind, forming an attachment with a needy street photographer who is awkward and poles apart from her own social strata.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s skilled, nuanced performance reveals his character’s stoic acceptance of his limits in life’s social ladder. But, the attraction between this unlikely couple is strong and they redeem each other’s wistful longings in immeasurable, strengthening ways.

The film invites repeat viewings because each one reveals fresh and insightful layers into Mumbai’s intricate complexities, specially for its curious, demanding youngsters who are on the verge of discovering themselves and realising their identities. An Indo-German co-production, the film’s international talent — cinematography by Tim Gillis and Ben Kutchins, music by British composer Peter Raeburn (‘Nancy’), and editing by John F. Lyons (who also worked on Batra’s sleeper-hit ‘Lunchbox’) — give it a wide, universal meaning.

Midway through 2019, the independent films connected with or emerging from India, albeit with regional touches and flavours, suggest a kind of renaissance. It harks back to the mid-1970s, which heralded an era of discoveries of a host of film talent and an outpouring of cinema that made headlines at festivals and screens across the world. This is when filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, M S Sathyu and many others, delighted audiences with their astonishingly adept and moving first films. These followed in the wake of masters such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak.

Moving with the times and the way creativity now has international overtones, the spate of brand new films emerging from corners and languages of India is impressive. The fact that Cannes this year had no Indian film is a downer, but deters only up to a point. Many films have emerged that have a contemporary clout to them.

We just need to list the films featured in different festivals in India and abroad, and with that, note the line-up of films that are in the pipeline.

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Caption: ‘Widow of Silence’

The Busan International Film Festival, held in October, is well timed towards presenting a wide selection of Indian films that are, in many ways, path-breaking. These films catch the eye of year-end festivals and also open a window to being highlighted early in the new year. Heading the list is Praveen Morchhale’s vibrant ‘Widow of Silence’ on the extent a woman can go to when thwarted from her rights in a lawless terrain. Since its premiere, the film has had a dizzying round of screenings at close to 10 festivals so far.

Making headway in its choice of Indian films is the Palm Springs International Film Festival, held January 3 to 14, 2019, with a selection seen as a precursor to films that influence the Oscars presentation in April. Its Artistic Director Michael Lerman observed, “We have more Indian films this year than we’ve had in quite a while and that’s because of the quality”. These included Anurag Kashyap’s feisty, women oriented ‘Husband Material’ (Manmarziyan).

The film is on the difficult choice a young girl has to make between a good, steady man her family has chosen for her and the seductive charmer she veers towards. Another is Vasan Bala’s sophomore feature ‘The Man Who Feels No Pain’, winner of the Midnight Madness Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. The film, a take-off on Bollywood’s heady melodrama, also pays homage to the martial art genre.

Others in the Palm Springs selection included ‘Namdev Bhau in Search of Silence’ by Ukrainian director Dar Gai, now based in India, with Dheer Momaya as its producer. The film comes as something stylistically different and engaging, both in subject matter and its execution.

It shows a crustily silent, grim-faced 65-year-old chauffeur (incidentally, his real job is that of a driver which in his mind is being eroded at the thought of being a Mumbai movie actor) who literally walks out of his noisy home and his city (Mumbai) in search of the Himalayan ‘Silent Valley’. On his journey, he meets the 12-year-old Arya, a non-stop chatterbox, in search of the magical ‘Red Castle’.

Another film at the festival was Bengali director Srijit Mukherji’s ‘The Imposter Prince’ (Ek Je Chhilo Raja) based on a notoriously brazen prince believed to be dead who returns home to claim his estate after years in absentia spent as a holy man.

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Caption: ‘Hamid’

An engaging film on a small boy in Kashmir has also made its mark. Titled ‘Hamid’, the film is produced by the leading music company Saregama’s film division, Yoodlee Films. When young Hamid’s father suddenly disappears, as happens often in this troubled region, he is told that his father has been claimed by god. Undeterred, the troubled, grittily determined boy goes in search of god to ask for his father’s return.

An interesting array of new films connects with our contemporary times and needs, and most among them are debut works, ready (some with finishing touches underway) to unfurl at festivals. The list includes Sunit Sinha’s ‘Ranj’ set in Punjab about a young man who is at odds with his inherited roots; two Assamese debuts, Jadab Mahanta’s ‘Rukuni Koina’ (The Barren Bride) about a woman who doesn’t menstruate and so is shamed by society, and Prakash Deka’s ‘Jonaki Porua’ (Fireflies) on a transwoman in a remote Assamese village coming to terms with her identity.

New additions to this list, both in Hindi, are productions of Yoodlee Films: Nachiket Samant’s ‘Habbaddi’, a coming of age story on a stammering boy who becomes a Kabbadi prodigy; and Nicholas Kharkongor's ‘Axone’ on North-Easterner youngsters who band together and deal with hostilities in the city of Delhi. Finally, hot from the laboratory is Lijo Jose Pellissery’s impressive and edgy ‘Jellikattu’ in Malayalam, about how a village can be rustled into a hysterical frenzy over capturing a bull — symbolises humanity’s greed and base, animal nature.

(Cover Photo: A still from ‘Photograph’)