This year I managed to catch three of the films from the London Indian Film Festival on tour as the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’. The first up was this remarkable film set in Jammu and Kashmir and screened at Square Chapel in Halifax. I was also able to chat with the charming and very interesting writer-director Praveen Morchhale who was there to take part in a Q&A.
The film’s title refers to the fate of women in Kashmir who have had their husbands taken from them, either by insurgents/terrorists or by Indian security forces. The men taken are invariably then seen as ‘disappeared’ and very few are heard from again. There is a long and sad tradition of ‘disappearances’ like this in many parts of the world and especially in Latin America where films feature this element regularly. The difference in Kashmir, where the widows are known as ‘half-widows’, is that the local customs make daily life for these women very difficult. The script does eventually offer us the information that Muslim women whose husbands have been missing for more than four years are allowed to re-marry under Islamic law, but by that stage they may have suffered from forms of ostracisation as well as lack of income.
The film narrative introduces to Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha), a half-widow with an 11 year-old daughter and a sick mother-in-law. The trio live in a crude house in a small settlement and Aasia works as a trainee nurse in a hospital in the nearest large town. She travels to work in a form of communal taxi – a pick-up driven by a cheerful would-be poet. She leaves behind her mother-in-law tied to a chair by the window while the girl is at school. Aasia can’t improve her life unless she can negotiate Indian bureaucracy and get a copy of her husband’s death certificate. Without it she cannot sell the small piece of land owned by the family which they are unable to work. The local registrar is corrupt and attempts to co-erce Aasia into behaviour which she knows would be harmful to herself and her family but from which he could derive different forms of reward. In the meantime, her daughter is bullied at school and her mother-in-law’s health deteriorates. This starting point is quite enough to develop the spare narrative into a compelling drama.
Praveen Morchhale had previously made two films, both of which were well-received and Widow of Silence has been shown at major international festivals such as Busan and Rotterdam and at leading Indian international festivals such as Kerala and Kolkata. He started as a theatre director and then began to make his own very personal films. He told us theat he didn’t go to film school and that he hasn’t seen that many films. What is clear, however, is that he has a strong sense of what he wants to put on screen and how he wants it to look. Kashmir is a very dangerous region (the film was shot only 17kms from the ‘Line of Control’ separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir) but it is also extremely beautiful. Even if Praveen hadn’t told us before the screening that his cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah was Iranian and that he himself was an admirer of Abbas Kiarostami, I think I would would have guessed from the images of the pick-up driving along the mountain roads in long shot. I was immediately struck by memories of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) and a film shot in a similar style in similar terrain, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (China 1999).
The entire production team was just 10 people and the film was shot in October when the light was most favourable. The print we watched was presented in 2.35:1 and the long shots of the landscape were complemented by a mainly static camera focusing on the intensity of the interior scenes. Apart from Shilpi Marwaha, the Delhi-based theatre actor in the central role, most of the rest of the small cast are local people without acting experience. The film is a concise 85 minutes. The story is simple but powerful. I won’t spoil what happens except to comment that it is in some ways a logical outcome, but with a neat twist. The narrative derives its power from the conflict between the strength of the widow, the harshness of her treatment by the local community (with a couple of notable exceptions) and the corruption of the bureaucracy. Perhaps the film is a dark satire on the state of Kashmir? I was reminded of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (Cuba 1966), another narrative about a widow frustrated by bureaucracy in her attempts to claim her legal rights. There isn’t a great deal of complex dialogue in Widow of Silence (at least not via the subtitles) so one line stood out when Aasia’s work colleague says to her: “You cannot afford your own thoughts”. That’s a chilling indictment of the world in which Aasia finds herself.
Praveen Morchhale told us that he financed the film himself. He didn’t tell us the production budget but it is reasonable to assume that it was not large and that not a rupee was wasted. Interestingly, he told me that although it would be difficult to show the film commercially in India, he didn’t think Netflix and other streaming services were the answer to the distribution of Indian independent films – a different response to the same question posed to Rajat Kapoor when he discussed his own independent film Ankhon Dekhi (India 2013) at HOME a couple of years ago. Praveen Morchhale felt that he was happy with the exposure his films were getting in festivals. I was very impressed by Widow of Silence and I’ll now look out for his earlier films, Barefoot to Goa (2015) and Walking With the Wind (2017).
Monsoon Shootout is a difficult film to pin down and review but an important film to discuss. It’s the first feature of writer-director Amit Kumar and has been ten years in the making – an indication of the potential difficulties in producing a small film outside the Indian mainstream. Kumar is an Indian film school graduate (FTII in Pune) with several high-profile contacts from FTII and his subsequent production experience and this has enabled Monsoon Shootout to emerge as an Indian film co-produced with European partners and now picked up by the international sales agent and distributor Fortissimo. The film was shown at Cannes this year and with both Asif Kapadia and Anurag Kashyap amongst its group of producers it is certain to be talked about. The London Indian Film Festival screening was its UK premiere.
The film has a simple premise and a recognisable structure for a genre film with artistic aspirations. Kumar himself refers to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (US/France 1963) based on the Ambrose Bierce story as his inspiration. Variety‘s reviewer refers to Run, Lola Run (Germany 1999) and certainly Monsoon Shootout uses the same structure of three versions of the same story. The central character is Adi (Vijay Varma), a young police officer in his first posting working with the tough Inspector Khan (Neeraj Kabi). They are attempting to catch a ruthless assassin/enforcer working for a ‘Slum Lord’ in Mumbai who is attempting to control the profitable housing development market. Khan employs brutal methods to deal with crooks but Adi aims to follow his own father’s more honourable philosophy. The test comes very quickly when Adi is chasing a suspect and has to make an instant decision to shoot and possibly kill. We are offered three versions of what might happen. The possible repercussions of making the wrong decision involve a range of other characters including the suspect’s wife and son, other police officers, Adi’s girlfriend, future victims of the killer etc.
This rough outline suggests a variation on the shootout which isn’t all that unusual. What lifts Monsoon Shootout above the general run of genre inflections are three factors. The representation of the monsoon in Mumbai is very effective, especially in the night-time combination of darkness and neon lights in the rain. The camerawork of fellow FTII graduate and Anurag Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi enhances the impact and the performances add another level. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is again stunning as the suspect Shiva, ably supported by Tannishtha Chatterjee as his wife Rani, Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh as his son Chhotu, R Balasubramanian as the Slum Lord and Geetanjali Thapa as Adi’s girlfriend Anu. The music is by the Indian-American composer Gingger Shankar.
The film is violent but thankfully much of the violence is off-screen. There were times when I felt that the scenarios were being worked out in an almost mechanical way but at other times I found the film genuinely disturbing. It’s the element of social realism in the presentation of the milieu and supporting characters that for me raises Monsoon Shootout above the level of the conventional Indian gangster film. Most of the reviews pick out Adi as the weakest character and he certainly seems the unlikely to survive long as a police officer. Decisive action is important for survival and I wonder what this means for the ideological impact of the film. Inspector Khan is a kind of ‘Dirty Harry’ figure who ‘gets the job done’ by taking the law into his own hands. The general level of corruption is par for the Indian crime drama but I realised that I was genuinely shocked by one of the outcomes and prompted to think by another – in both cases because I found the characters who were affected by the possible actions of Adi to be interesting and believable. The final cut of the film is under 90 minutes and I think this a possible study text for school and college students. The fact that it has an international rather than Bollywood distributor might make it easier to book in cinemas. I hope it gets a UK release.
Here’s a UK trailer/clip:
Bombay Talkies is a portmanteau film celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema and featuring four short films by leading Indian directors. The film led the Indian presence at Cannes this year and as it has been widely discussed in the trades and festival reports I was keen to see it. I enjoyed all four short films but the final section – a kind of musical salute to Bollywood featuring a host of stars – didn’t really work for me.
The four directors chosen (or did they volunteer?) for this enterprise seemed to me to fall into two camps. Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar represent a kind of Hindi cinema ‘royalty’. Johar almost personifies Bollywood with his creation of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 and his work on subsequent spectacular blockbusters with Yash Chopra productions. Zoya Akhtar has been slightly lower profile but she is the daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani and sister of actor Farhan Akhtar as well as working in a variety of roles as writer and director.
The other two directors represent various forms of ‘new’, more independently-minded Hindi cinema. Dibakar Banarjee has directed four films including Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), which I enjoyed very much and Shanghai (2012) which has been critically-acclaimed but annoyingly not released in the UK. Anurag Kashyap has become the principal figure in ‘Indian Independent Cinema’, especially after the popular success of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).
All four short films have a connection to Hindi cinema in some way and in particular to commercial filmmaking in Bombay. Johar’s story hinges on the emotional impact of ‘filmi music’ whereas Akhtar’s story is about childhood dreams fuelled by adoration of a young star (Katrina Kaif). By contrast, Kashyap’s story deals with a different kind of fandom associated with the iconic figure of Amitabh Bachchan. Banerjee’s film, which for me was the highlight, focuses on an out of work actor (played by the charismatic Nawazuddin Siddiqui, arguably the hottest star in Hindi cinema at the moment) and his accidental involvement in the shooting of a scene from a typical Bombay movie.
The two ‘inside’ films have Bollywood gloss and stars – Rani Mukerji for Johar and Ranvir Shorey for Akhtar. Johar’s film seemed the most unreal and contrived, although its presentation of an unhappy marriage and the intervention of a young gay man has possibilities. Akhtar’s film would possibly win the popular vote with its focus on a small boy who doesn’t want to play football as his father suggests but wants to dance in films instead. It is certainly very enjoyable. The opening shots of the other two films immediately take us out of the artificial world of Bollywood and into the ‘real India’. In Banerjee’s film, the central character wakes from his bed on the balcony of his apartment, overlooking a flyover and a major road. Inside the stifling apartment is wife and daughter help him prepare to go out to look for work. I was intrigued to see that the film is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray (Patol Babu, Film Star, 196? – does anyone know the publication date of the story?), but on reflection it does feel like it has connections to Ray – or at least to a literary take on Indian popular cinema in the 1960s. Banerjee is a very interesting director but I was saddened to see him make rather disparaging remarks about ‘regional cinema’. This was in response to a direct question about how the 100 Years of Indian Cinema seemed to ignore regional Indian cinemas, focusing primarily on Hindi language cinema. Banerjee was taking a Bengali story and transposing it to Bombay. I think I read that Siddiqui used a Marathi accent, but I’m not sure if any Marathi dialogue as such appears in the segment. Anyway, you are wrong Mr Banerjee, various regional cinemas continue to prosper despite the attempted hegemony of Bollywood.
Kashyap’s film starts in a similar milieu in the centre of Allahabad with a young man ‘working’ the crowds on the street when he is summoned home where his father is ill in bed and wants him to go to Bombay as he once did for his own father. The son’s task is to meet another, more successful older man from Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan, and persuade him to bite into a local delicacy, a murabba – a form of preserved sugared soft fruit such as a plum or mango, carried in the film in a large pickle jar. He must bring the half-eaten sweet back to his father who believes that he will then be able to connect directly with the great man. Allahabad in North East India is around 24 hours by train from Bombay so it is a major trip for the young man who is very well played by Vineet Kumar Singh. In some ways his arrival in Mumbai is similar to that of the hero of Satya – Anurag Kashyap’s first script for Ram Gopal Varma in 1998.
The final part of the film is the appearance of a host of Bollywood stars in what I thought was a fairly unimaginative dance sequence. The saddest aspect of this was the use of a series of archive clips from earlier decades of Hindi cinema, many from prints in very poor condition, some appearing to be old VHS copies, heavily pixellated. I can’t imagine what the Cannes audience made of this. Still, if it acts as a wake-up call for rights owners to get off their backsides and start to use some of the money wasted on current productions to restore the classics it might be a good thing.
I hope that Bombay Talkies gets a UK release so that audiences can see the mainstream and more independent directors under the same conditions.
Hears the murabba song by Amit Trivedi for the Anurag Kashyap segment (be warned, it’s very catchy!):
Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.
Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.
The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father, Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?
This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.
Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.
In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.
Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:
And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:
The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK.