Not Just Bollywood: 2019 opens tomorrow with a rare screening of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy of films addressing political and social issues in Indian society. Deepa Mehta is an example of one of the important ‘diasporic’ or ‘exilic’ directors who have offered radical perspectives on Indian cinema and society through their films. In this respect she joins other important filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Gurinder Chadha. I don’t want to discuss the differences between ‘exilic’ and ‘diasporic’ here, only to recognise that for various reasons these filmmakers have been trained in and worked in other film industries/film cultures but have travelled to India to make Indian films with Indian stories. In the selection of six women who have directed films in India for this mini-season, three of the others, Dar Gai, Anu Menon and Rohena Gera, have similar experiences of training and living outside India.
Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar before moving as a child to Delhi and eventually graduating from Delhi university. In 1973 she emigrated to Canada with her husband, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. In Canada Mehta developed a career in documentary before moving into TV drama and eventually feature film production. In 1991 she directed a a Toronto-set film Sam and Me which featured an Indian family and the actors Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey as cast members. The latter two of this trio would become important in the Elements Trilogy when Mehta travelled to India to make Fire set in Delhi in 1995. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also featured in Earth made in 1998 and Water, completed in 2005. This last film, proved to be so controversial as a production that it had to be delayed and re-started, losing some of the other original cast members.
Deepa Mehta discusses the background to the trilogy in this Canadian interview which looks back on the selection of Water as the Canadian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2007:
She explains that she didn’t expect that the films would become controversial and that what attracted her were the stories themselves. She saw them as women’s stories, stories about women’s choices or rather the lack of choices that women in India have. The stories are set in different time periods and in different parts of India, but all three stories explore social issues still relevant today. Mehta suggests that she now sees that these kinds of stories are controversial in societies experiencing ‘hyper-nationalism’ because people are encouraged to attack anything that threatens a sense of a set national culture, they feel uncomfortable about anything that wants to question or set up a ‘conversation’ about what has happened and what might need to be changed. The interview was in 2017 in Canada and she refers to Trump’s America but it could be Modi’s India or Johnson’s UK right now, so she’s right to say that the stories are universal.
Fire, the first screening on Wednesday 11th September, offers a story about a young woman Sita (Nandita Das) who travels to Delhi to marry Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) but soon discovers that he has a mistress and no interest in his bride. Sita finds herself in a household of two brothers who share a shop. Jatin rents out videos and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a grocery business. Ashok, for different reasons shuns his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the two wives find themselves caring for Ashok’s elderly bed-ridden mother with the servant Mundu. The two women turn to each other for a real relationship. Deepa Mehta wrote the script herself but Wikipedia references Gayatri Gopinath as the source for a suggestion that the story is inspired by Ismat Chughtai‘s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). Fire is a Canadian film made as a co-production with India. The story and the cast are Indian but the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is British and editor Barry Farrell is Canadian – both also work in the US. On the other hand the music is by A R Rahman and other creative posts are held by Indians. The film’s dialogue is mostly in English. This choice is not that unusual in India and places the film in relation to some examples of what was known as ‘middle cinema’ in the 1980s in India and what is sometimes included under the heading of ‘parallel cinema’. The film to some extent ‘crossed over’ to a wider potential audience in India because of the subject content. Lesbian relationships were rare in Indian cinema at this point and this attracted protestors and attempts to shut down cinemas screening the film. One aspect of the narrative that was not so accessible for audiences outside India was the ‘play’ with the traditional depictions of Radha and Sita in the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Mehta appears to have possibly reversed the qualities of the two traditional characters.
Earth carried the title 1947: Earth in India, a direct indicator of its setting during the final weeks leading up to Partition. This story is an adaptation of a biographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa first published in the UK in 1988 as Ice Candy Man and the later in the US (1991) and India (1992) as Cracking India. Lenny is an 8 year-old girl in a Lahore Parsi family. She is recovering from polio and his very close to Shanta a young Hindu woman from South India employed as the household maid but seen by Lenny as her ‘Ayah’. Shanta is played by Nandita Das and the voiceover of the adult Lenny is delivered as narration at certain points by Shabana Azmi. The production is in many ways similar to Fire (so there is the same mix of Indian and European/Canadian creative personnel), but there are two differences that might make it more meaningful for Indian audiences (on top of the fact that the subject matter is so important in the history of India). First, the central character of the Ice Candy Man is played by Aamir Khan, already a leading Bollywood star and second, the dialogue features Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati with English only spoken by Lenny and her parents. The film was India’s Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 1999.
The Parsi family are close to the British in Lahore and are not part of the growing rift between the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in the city. The narrative cleverly weaves a story of romance through the events with Shanta being the object of desire for both the Muslim Ice Candy man and the Hindu masseur. The film must have felt personal for Deepa Mehta who was born in Amritsar only a few years after Partition and she must have heard the stories of anguish for those displaced into either Indian or Pakistani Punjab after the line was drawn and so many were killed. The trains arriving in stations full of those killed after attacks had come from or were going to cities like Amritsar or Lahore. I think Earth may be the film that affected me most in the trilogy. In a sense there is nothing ‘controversial’ in the film, except that it stirs memories and introduces younger viewers to the calamity that was the British partition of India. It does, however, also relate to the contemporary ‘communalism’ clashes in some parts of India.
Water, by contrast, was taken to be a direct challenge to Hindu traditions and appeared at a time when the ‘Religious Right’ was growing in strength in India. Deepa Mehta wrote this story herself with some dialogue written by Anurag Kashyap. Later Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with Mehta again and wrote a ‘novelisation’ of the film. The film should have been shot in 2000 in Varanasi as the location (as Benares) in 1938 where a young child is taken to a house of widows after the death of her adult husband. Hindu traditions decreed that widows must live away from the outside world. The protests turned violent and the film’s set by the ghats was destroyed. A deeply upset director was offered permission to shoot in neighbouring states where the BJP was not in power such as West Bengal and Bihar, but she decided to postpone the shoot. In interviews she has said that she was too angry to continue and that shooting a film fuelled by anger would damage her artistic vision. Eventually she decided to move the shoot to Sri Lanka five years later. This worked well for the production overall but she lost the opportunity to cast Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das for a third time. The younger and older women’s roles went to Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas. Lisa Ray had appeared in Deepa Mehta’s earlier Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and was just beginning to attract attention from Indian filmmakers. Seema Biswas is probably best known to UK audiences as the lead performer in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994).
The narrative involves a meeting between the child widow and a law student follower of Gandhi. This is Narayan played by John Abraham from Kerala who, like Lisa Ray, had been a leading fashion model and was only just established as an unusual leading man in Hindi cinema. But if Lisa Ray and John Abraham raised a few eyebrows in India, the veteran star Waheeda Rahman playing Narayan’s mother was a re-assuring presence.
I wrote about encountering Water on its UK release in an early posting on this blog. I don’t want to repeat those points here and I may have different responses now but the post is worth visiting, partly to follow the links to other writers at the time. As the interview above indicates, Water was a big hit in Canada and is seen by many as Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement. Its reception in India was more mixed but it had champions as well as detractors. It will be interesting to see what the audience at HOME makes of the film today when contemporary films have become much more explicit and challenging about the abuse directed at women in India which is so deeply rooted in the society. Having recently watched Article 15 and The Incessant Fear of Rape I’m sorry not to be able to attend the HOME screening of Water on Wednesday 18 September and gauge the reaction.
The trilogy is a major achievement by Deepa Mehta and this is a timely screening for the three films.
Rajat Kapoor is known in the UK as an actor (having appeared in more than 40 films) across mainstream Hindi and independent features. But in India he is also recognised as a director of low budget independent films. This busy actor-filmmaker made the trip to the North of England to make appearances at both Sheffield Showroom and HOME in Manchester as part of ‘Not Just Bollywood’. He accompanied his most recent feature as director (and supporting actor), introducing his film and staying on for a Q&A after the screening. Ankhon Dekhi is a remarkable film. I left the screening intrigued, slightly bemused and realising I needed to think more about it.
The film’s title translates roughly as ‘Seeing with your own eyes’. It only dawned on me later that ‘dekko’ is another Hindi loan word that no doubt crept into English usage during the colonial era– as in “Have a dekko at this”. The central character Bauji, a fifty-something man living with his extended family in old Delhi, decides to follow the philosophical position of believing only what he can see with his own eyes as closely as possible and in doing so turns upside down his own family and his group of friends in the local community. Everything kicks off with an event both shocking and mundane at the same time. The whole of Bauji’s extended family overreacts when it is revealed that Bauji’s daughter is seeing a young man who is assumed to be a ‘bad lot’ and certainly not appropriate as husband and son-in-law. But is he that bad? Or indeed not bad at all? Bauji is not convinced that the young man is a villain, but at first his daughter’s life takes a back seat as Bauji himself becomes known as a philosopher, giving up his job and acquiring a circle of followers, mainly from the local barber’s shop where men gather (a link to African-American culture I hadn’t thought of before).
Some time after the screening, I had a revelation about what Ankhon Dekhi might be reminding me of when I read a viewer’s comment on IMDb: “Rajat Kapoor’s refreshingly eccentric yet gimmick-less (even hype-less) Ankhon Dekhi is kind of a déja vu of Malgudi Days. The film revolves around Bauji who lives in his own ideological world and believes in the inherent goodness of people” (‘rangdetumpy’ from India). I came across the charming and beautifully written novels (in English) of R. K. Narayan around forty years ago. Narayan, a southern writer born in Madras, invented his own fictional town of Malgudi. His stories deal with everyday and mainly inconsequential events which reveal everything about a small community of characters. There is definitely a link between Bauji and Narayan’s world. Ankhon Dekhi is set in Old Delhi and Rajat Kapoor told us that finding the particular dwelling with its interconnected rooms and communal spaces to serve as the film’s central location was one of the most important aspects of the film’s production. The extended family includes Bauji’s brother (Rajat Kapoor) and his family and the closeness – which has benefits and disbenefits – becomes another factor. Ankhon Dekhi works because it is both specific in its Old Dehli milieu and ‘universal’ as a family comedy melodrama. It also suggests another Indian genre – that concerned with the ‘guru’ or ‘pandit’. Bauji attracts followers and it isn’t too difficult to see that both guru and followers are ripe for some form of gentle satire. Alternatively, perhaps his philosophy works and we are the ones to be gently mocked? Again, Narayan had a similar story, The Guide (1958) which follows a character, a tour guide, who will eventually become seen as some kind of spiritual guide by his followers. Like Narayan, Rajat Kapoor ends his narrative with an open question about Bauji’s status and whether he can survive the journey he seems to be making.
Ankhon Dekhi is a lovely film with a great ensemble cast who present scenes about life in their neighbourhood that allow us to reflect on love and friendship and the fascination of daily life. Rajat Kapoor explained that he grew up in this kind of family in a similar part of Old Delhi. It is clearly a film that ‘Not Just Bollywood’ curator Omar Ahmed holds very dear, as was apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening. Omar asked questions which referred back to his own earlier presentation on the ‘Hindies’ phenomenon and Rajat Kapoor explained how, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, someone appeared who was prepared to find the half a million dollars required to make the film. This was Manish Mundra. Ankhon Dekhi was the first production for Drishyam Films, the company Mundra set up. Four years and several other productions later (including Newton (2017)). Mundra was able to announce a $20 million fund to finance 8-10 new Indian independent films. This development promises new films but how these films will be distributed and how they will find audiences remains an issue. Rajat Kapoor told us that Ankhon Dekhi has still not covered its production costs. But he also suggested that the new possibilities offered by Netflix and other streaming services might help indie films to be seen outside the big metros (a question from the audience queried whether this would mean that films like Ankhon Dekhi would never get into cinemas). At the moment, a film like Ankhon Dekhi is still likely to be seen mainly at film festivals (in India and abroad) – and not in local cinemas on release. Rajat suggested that it doesn’t really matter if Netflix don’t allow films they produce to get into cinemas if it means that audiences can still see small independent films on their TV sets or online. He admitted that the biggest success of Ankhon Dekhi, for him, was that every day somebody new would see his film on the various outlets and that he could feel the love for the film when people stopped him on the street to congratulate him.
Ankhon Dekhi won awards in India but Rajat Kapoor is still struggling to fund one of the four new scripts he has completed. His next film will try for crowd-funding and we were all invited to contribute. In a final response to a question by Omar Ahmed about the potential for this new ‘wave’ of Indian independents, Rajat Kapoor was not optimistic. “There are perhaps 5 films each year that are interesting independents – and we make 1500 films a year.” I’m not sure I agree that only 5 are examples of new ideas, but Rajat did finally relent by agreeing that, slowly Indians are getting more access to ‘world cinema’ and tastes are changing. Let’s hope so if we are going to get more films like Ankhon Dekhi. Rajat himself is a link to the ‘New Cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s since he was inspired by two of the directors of the period, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, while he was at the Film Institute in Pune and they are both acknowledged at the end of Ankhon Dekhi.
A short interview with Rajat Kapoor has been posted on HOME’s website:
This film in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season is an award-winning documentary from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya who together seem to have been involved in most aspects of the film’s production. Amit Madheshiya is a photographer based in Mumbai who had already received prizes for his work photographing travelling cinemas before he and Shirley Abraham worked on a film documentary. Both filmmakers received an M.A. from the Mass Communication Research Centre at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2006 and then worked on globally-funded arts projects. This film also received support from the Sundance Film Festival.
Although largely ignored in conventional film studies, travelling cinemas and similar activities have attracted the attention of ethnographers because of the curious mix of arts, religion and rural culture that surrounds the subject. It isn’t difficult to see how the film came to be listed for so many prizes and indeed to win several. The material is very engaging and the documentary style is handled authoritatively but lightly – a great achievement for first time filmmakers who have referred to taking advice from books and Sundance tutors at an Edit Lab. I would term the style ‘Direct Cinema’, going back to the classic 1960s work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and others. This is often confused with ciné vérité and there is a useful distinction between the two on the IDEAS ∣ FILM website. Direct Cinema implies that nothing gets in between the event and the camera eye, so no appearances or commentaries by the filmmakers or ‘the voice of God’.
The film’s narrative is carried by three ‘characters’. Mohammed and Bapu are both travelling cinema exhibitors and the third character is Prakash who has spent many years in his workshop maintaining and re-building cinema projectors. These kinds of travelling cinemas have been operating for seventy years or so in parts of eastern Maharashtra, 100 kilometres or more inland from Mumbai. It is a seasonal business and the exhibitors use a lorry (truck) to transport projection equipment in parts that is then re-assembled on site and films are projected from the bed of the truck onto a canvas screen erected in a large circus-style tent. Or at least, that’s how Mohammed manages it. Bapu’s truck is so vintage that the engine no longer operates and the truck is towed into place by a tractor. The two operators each have a different approach. Bapu attracts kids and lets them in free as the audience of the future – the children are allowed to use a microphone like a fairground barker to attract the main audience in the villages presumably close to his base. Mohammed has a larger crew and his is a more commercial operation which tries to show as many screenings as possible before moving on to the next fair.
Fairs/festivals are common across India in cities and in rural areas. The specific fairs in this region where Mohammed operates may in the past have had a primary religious purpose, but some now seem to be as much about entertainment. As a venue for cinema exhibition they form part of the huge diversity of Indian film culture from modern multiplexes in the metros to traditional single screen cinemas in smaller centres and to ‘B’ and ‘C’ circuit cinemas as well as video screenings and mobile cinemas, outdoor screenings etc. The films are equally varied with some relatively recent mainstream films, some more ancient and in one tent what appears to be soft porn.
Part of the real pleasure of the film is in following the process of putting on a screening and seeing how the exhibitors cope with all the usual problems of exhibition – keeping the audience on side when the reels of film arrive late, keeping ancient projectors working and making sure the projectionists treat the equipment with care. The inclusion of Prakash is a good choice as his enthusiasm and his skill in dealing with projectors shines through as he demonstrates his own, hand-built projector with all kinds of refinements for perfect running. Sadly, it will probably never be used because this documentary has been made during the period when even travelling cinemas have been forced to abandon 35mm film projection and move towards digital. India has a thriving ‘E’ cinema culture which runs in parallel with Hollywood’s ‘D’ cinema system. That means cheaper projectors and laptops rather than the DCP projection. Even so, the cost of new equipment is a shock for Mohammed and the familiar problems about licence keys and software upgrades still need to be solved – and that’s not easy without local broadband connections. All this sounds like it might be the end for Prakash – a sprightly man in his 70s, immaculately turned out in his workshop. But fear not, he’s got his future sussed and his family won’t go hungry.
The Cinema Travellers is a joy to watch and deserves the interest and praise it is attracting. We do get to learn a lot about the ‘business’, but I would have liked more. I’m assuming that many of the cinema crews and audience members are speaking Marathi but I’m not sure whether the films shown are Hindi or Marathi (I’m assuming a mix?). I think for audiences outside India it is difficult to grasp how cinema distribution and exhibition works for the people in the film. Many reviews refer to ‘remote communities’. I’m not sure that these villages are ‘remote’ – they are just far away enough from a town to make going to a ‘standing’ cinema impractical. We hear how people are now watching films on their phones and we see families watching TV. Is it the social aspect, the getting away from family that makes this type of exhibition still viable, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past? My feeling is that this documentary (as distinct from the larger project for the co-directors) aims for the universal story of the small operator struggling to keep a business going than it does for ‘documenting’ an industry practice. Which is fine if it is done with the skill and artistic flair presented here.
Here is a Cannes Report that introduces the filmmakers and a glimpse of the film:
. . . and here are the filmmakers in Heidelberg reflecting on their long-term project investigating the cultural activity of travelling cinemas:
Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.
Outline (no spoilers)
‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?
Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.
The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.
For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?
Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.
I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.