Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj (2016)– IFFLA 2017

  The setting of the story is a familiar one. A family goes on a visit with grandparents to welcome the New Year. Their friends join in too and slowly the fabric of their relationships unravels until it reaches a critical crisis. This is director Konkona Sen Sharma’s first film, based on a story told by her father, writer Mukul Sharma. With a distinguished film pedigree in the family and an accomplished record as an actress in Indian cinema, she marshals all the resources she can to manage an ensemble cast, recreating a late 1970s middle class family, which, with little trigger, is ready to spill its neuroses when they spend time together. The film is set in McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, once known for its Anglo-Indian community. The considerable social status of the family is evident in the leisurely lifestyle of drinking and hunting while the house owned by the uncle OP Bakshi (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja) has the old Victorian class. Younger generation speaks English, with convent-school-shaped accents. Language and gestures speak of the 1970s-middle class generation, before it was entirely taken over by the neoliberal ethic. Sen Sharma has recreated the period with delicate touches, colors are tinged with a rural brown without excessively spilling into the frames. When Nandu  (Gulshan Devaiah), wife Bonnie (Tilotama Shome) and their daughter Tani arrive with their cousin Shutu (Vikrant Messey). Bonnie also brings along her friend, Mimi (Kalki Koelchlin). Their other two friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) join in as well. We learn that Shutu, the reclusive and reserved cousin, after recently losing his father, appears to wear more than grief on his sleeves. He is emotionally distant from others, particularly from the bullyish Nandu as he is slow to catch on to the pressures of his[…..]
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Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)–IFFLA 2017

This year’s IFFLA programming boasts of a number of women filmmakers: Konkona Sen Sharma, Ananya Kasaravalli, and Alankrita Shrivastava, Bobby Sharma Barua, Shirley Abraham, and Sonejuhi Sinha. It is a rare, celebratory, and well-deserved programming accomplishment, a tribute to the unseen but vibrant part of Indian cinema. That this year’s program opens with a film in which four women, different backgrounds, ages, and desires, is also a momentous event. The very title of Alankrita Shrivastava’s film suggests something rebellious, laced with a slightly transgressive gesture. It is that and more too! Four women mark their arrival in a new era of rebellion against patriarchy and orthodoxy on many levels of Indian life. The narrative is a roller-coaster of four-pronged narratives that do much less to transgress as to show the un-expressed desires that prohibit women from taking command of their own lives. If you isolate the scenes and images that appear transgressive, or in the eyes of the Indian Censor Board prohibitive, then you are good at isolating women from their contexts. That is, you are merely reducing their lives to select gestures of your own choice, a standard hallmark of patriarchal power. If you notice a language yearning to come out from these scenes, from how women want to break the mold of codes imposed on them, then you are doing justice to the film. It may not be an easy exercise, but an essential one. The film is an omnibus of sorts, four narratives woven together in which women take steps to show the initial conceptions of freedom in a repressive culture. Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Muslim mother of three tends to her family by working as a sales girl with a grit, innovative and bold in her moves to make certain she is successful. When her[…..]
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Kothanodi/The River of Fables: an exercise in magic and the occult! IFFLA 2016

Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut feature received funding from Busan’s The Asian Cinema Fund and premiered at the BIFF in October 2015. The film is an important event for Assamese cinema, which remains less visible on the landscape of multiple language cinemas in India. For the film’s narrative, Hazarika went to the folk tales of Assam, particularly a collection compiled by Laxminath Bezbarua in 1911, called Buri Ai’r Xadhu (Grandma’s Tales). Weaving four tales together, he attempts a bold experiment in narrative construction. Presented on a tableau of imagery in Assamese culture, where the objects are culturally specific and timelessly continuous, Hazarika’s film gives much to ruminate about style and relevance of tales of magic, superstition, evil and the occult. All four stories are about women. Devinath (Adil Hussain), a merchant leaves his wife Senehi (Zerifa Wahid) at home with her stepdaughter Tejimola. Senehi hates the existence of Tejimola and plots to kill her on the advice of her demon lover. Her abuse occurs in the presence of visitors and neighbors but they offer no resistance, as if to recognize the power of the abuse or the authority of the mother. In his travels, Devinath meets a weaver woman Keteki ((Urmila Mahanta) who is beset with an intriguing phenomenon of an outenga (a sour fruit from Assam) animatedly following her wherever she goes. Devinath believes the outenga is Keteki’s child and offers to bring it to life. In a village nearby, a rich woman Dhoneshwari (Seema Biswas) is preparing for a wedding of her daughter to a python, believed to be a prince in disguise ready to bring riches to the family. The fourth woman, Malati (Asha Bordoloi) is attempting to save her newborn from her husband Poonai (Kopil Bora) who, under the spell of his uncle’s advice, killed three of their[…..]
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Vetri Maaran’s Visaaranai (Interrogation): Popular Cinema of Intervention- IFFLA 2016

I have been watching police thrillers made by John Woo and Johnnie To for a while now. They have reinvigorated the police-crime dramas by instilling into them a cinematic style and finesse of mise-en-scène. They inspire filmmakers from around the world, Martin Scorsese among them. The trope of police corruption is quite common in cinema and in their films, it is elevated to an art form, graced by popular film stars and narratives of loyalty, betrayal, and violence. The trope descended from the screen into our lives quite some time ago and in the U. S., it has become a flashpoint for struggles of racism, militarization and institutional corruption. Violence on the screen remains remote, still the realm of fascination for millions while little changes in corruption and violence of everyday lives. Vetri Maaran’s film, Visaaranai (Interrogation) is different. It is miles away from the romantic stylization of the films in 1970s and 1980s. Ground began shifting after Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly and the spate of films influenced by the trends in realism in Indian cinema. In Visaranai, there is no stylization and glorification of violence as in the films of Woo, To, or Scorsese. It takes a step beyond Kashyap’s but remains in the realist lexicon to deliver the strongest punch we see on screen against police corruption and brutality. The narrative has a relentless pace, overpowering one scene of brutality over another and for us, moving from one tragedy to another. With such naked reality in our face, does anything change?   The film introduces us to the plight of migrants from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh, seeking low-paying jobs. Clash is inherent in their stories on many levels, languages, cultures and ethnic hatred from the Telugu toward the Tamil. Three of the four laborers are rounded up by[…..]
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Jayaraj Rajasekharan Nair’s Ottaal (The Trap): Tragic, Wise, and Dignified! IFFLA 2016

  Anton Chekhov’s short story, Vanka, is a memorable portrait of an orphan who longs to return to his grandfather and the early days of childhood. Nine-year old Vanka finds cruelty in the labor for a local shoemaker. The trappings of Moscow appear to him too cold and inhuman. His village back home breathed life, where the skies smiled gently in the night and grandpa towered over all of it like a graceful guardsman. Chekhov paints an image of a gentle heart residing in orphan’s body helplessly facing a fate ruled by the ruthless men in the city. The short story is about the plight of orphans as it is about the precious memories that make souls yearn for gentleness and love from the elders. Now take that short story and place it in the pristine, moonlit waters of Kuttanad in Kerala (“Venice of the East”), where rhythms of time and space are synchronous with the lives of all creatures. After the burden of debt claims his farming parents by suicide, Young Kuttappayi joins his grandfather (no name, known here as Vallyappachayi) to tend to flocks of ducks in flooded waters, fishing, playing around and telling stories. Kuttappayi has a desire to learn and a gift to create. His organic intimacy with nature endows him with gifts to create objects and projects. His friend’s high station in life gives him access to school but without the aptitude to absorb what is offered to him. As time moves slowly but surely, grandpa feels the weight of his old age and sees his feeble body fully capable of giving up one day. Worried that Kuttappayi doesn’t have much future in the village and must pursue learning, he trusts his boss to take him to a fireworks factory in the city. Vanka and[…..]
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Island City: A Prelude to a Future We’ve Already Lived Through!

Ruchika Oberoi’s debut feature is a three part anthology, a bold move that broadens the palette to portray the deep seated alienation and schizophrenia of life in Bombay. In varying style and narratives, she deepens the pain of the prosperous future we see and the suffering that never leaves us. The film speaks to the natives of a land ridden with contradiction of suffering and hope of future. It also speaks of the bold currents that have now taken hold in Indian independent cinema. Premiering tonight at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), Island City is a film that invites absorption and rewards with lessons in potency of anthology films which can deliver multiple critiques on issues at hand. Three short films are woven together in their narratives and in our interpretive approach to them. The three construct a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts. The first of the three stories is set in a rote corporate setting of “Systematic Statistics,” easily identifiable for office workers of any era, where control is invasive and work a matter of survival. The space reeks of lifeless objects, while the humans are recognized by their servile mobility. The corporation encourages employees with nonsensical rewards to boost their productivity, such as “employee of the month,” and coupons to purchase more consumer goods. It is a perfect stage to watch capital perform its marriage with control over humans. We follow Mr. Chaturvedi’s day of celebration as he is forced to enjoy the award by stepping out of one meaningless setting to the vacuous pleasures of a shopping mall and consumer goods. Filmed as a sad satire of the corporate world in which the new working class wallows day-after-day, Oberoi empties out the spaces of capital with listless colors while[…..]
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Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013)

One of the earlier passages of Walter Benjamin’s elegiac meditation on the art of storytelling captures the essence of the cherished art form.   The fourth “stanza” of that piece begins with an observation: “An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers.”  The pragmatic dimension of narrative is not reduced to providing explanation, Benjamin remarks, but to move it from “living speech” to think of possible transformations, to explore “epic truth.”  Mainly known for its lament about the loss of story-telling in the age of fragmented information, Benjamin’s essay reminds the reader that a story awakens the truth through its imaginative trajectories, inviting the listeners to explore new thresholds, to see “a new beauty” in the forgotten past and to be open to new forms of truth.  The gift of crafting imagination without trapping it in given forms sets storytelling apart from the succeeding forms including the novel and the media. In the traditions of North Indian cultures, from the Pathans to Punjabis, the art of storytelling acquired a unique etymology in qissa.  For the Punjabi culture, qisse became the oars for navigating the complex waters of life. Many a family gatherings or a yaaro’s ki mehfils were enlivened with the qisse pumping through the veins.  Qisse contain the potency invested by Benjamin in storytelling.  They evolve, mold, and follow uncharted paths, from the everyday to the profound.  They adapt to the practical contingencies of life.  Qisse grow and transform with the pulse of their times and their imaginative powers.  Qisse can draw margins but they can also open up and expand thoughts.  In their essential spirit, they keep thinking alive. Anup Singh’s Qissa is draped simultaneously in a tale of a Punjabi man, the social realities of gender issues, and in the figure of a ghost that[…..]
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True Love Story (2014), Gitanjali Rao- L. A. Premiere, IFFLA-Apr. 10. 2015

I watched Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow (2006), in India when it was just released in Cannes, winning Best Short Film Award in Critics Week. It was a stunning discovery of a film and an artist. The film is not merely a masterpiece in painted image, propelling an entirely new aesthetic and bright new parameters for animation. Besides its immensely meaningful skills in story-telling, the film was an exercise in cinematic themes; from the permeability of screens in our lives that would blend reality and representation to integral qualities of sound design in a narrative. Its invocation of the match-boxes for transposition of the past and the present, of life and death, was admirable. Printed Rainbow made me ever-so-eager to see her next work. Her short, Chai, part of the online anthology project, India-is, reinforced the impression that Rao was capable of framing complex issues in simple yet eloquently rich frames, while remaining sensitive to humane aspects of social life. It is a short story not merely about Chai, the potion that runs through the veins of India’s social life, but a piercing tale about displacement, homelessness and social justice. Then comes her 19 minute short film, True Love Story, now making its LA Premiere on April 10 at the International Film Festival of Los Angeles. It is a rewarding visual experience at the minimum, and a treatise on both cultural critique and social sensitivity of a filmmaker at its best. This is her signature painted animation, rendered meticulously expressive by the intricate skills of the artist to reach into the minor nooks of the image to portray emotions in depth. Rao juxtaposes the contrast between the fantasy life of Bollywood films and the realistic conditions of some of its biggest customers, those who live on the streets. Bollywood’s larger than life[…..]
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Chauranga (2014), Bikas Ranjan Mishra-North American Premiere-IFFLA, April 9. 2015

Over the past two decades or so, world cinema has seen emergence of a film that anchors itself in a local idiom, bears its cultural signature and then positions its appeal to the larger, broader audience outside of its specific contexts of origin. This kind of film is one of the hallmarks of the new world cinema, a bye-product of the festival circuits and patronage that maintains its appeal to the diverse markets. The simultaneously liberating and constraining circuits of distributions make circulation of such films quite erratic. But when they break through, one notes a triumph over both market-oriented cinema of the spectacle (“Bollywood”) and art-house cinema, which, despite its formidable gravitas, remains attractive to smaller, specialized audiences. Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga/Four Colours, is a triumph of that kind of cinema. It is a delicately woven yet sharp narrative set in rural Jharkhand where prejudice against the lower caste plays out in methodical brutality. The rural setting of the film speaks of a culture that is still ridden with moral corruption as much as it is with oppressive social relations. Power games circumscribe the roles of women as pawns of sex and desire. The innocence of younger generations gets crushed by the orthodoxy of traditions. It is India etched in space far removed from its urban sprawl or its polluted air. That it still breathes the wretched traditions is the claim of Mishra’s narrative, at once steadily mastered and deftly projected. Dhaniya (Tannishtah Chatterjee – Brick Lane, 2007), an unmarried maidservant, lives with her two sons, Santu and Bajrangi in a village shack where they have a pig to support some of their livelihood. Their mother’s supporter is Dhaval (Sanjay Suri, also a co-producer of the film with Onir), the arrogant, self-obsessed, patriarchal overlord of the village. Bajarangi falls[…..]
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Titli (2014), Kanu Behl– IFFLA, April 9, 2015

There was always some taint to the notion of poverty in India. Shameful for the rabid nationalists, it was a sign of the struggle in postcolonial times; a difficult problem for representation since poverty for the “foreign eyes” was always different than what it meant to the people living in the slums and villages. The problem of representing that poverty was unique as it was difficult.  Indian cinema post-Independence carved out its own style to achieve that. But the new poverty in the age of neo-liberal economy and globalization has a stink to it. It is brutal, ugly, harsh and allied with similar suffering in other parts of the world. India’s prosperity grows in the shadow of its poverty. Kanu Behl’s Titli (2014), is a living testimony to that condition, fiercely laid out, with a sharp cutting edge to its politics. It is not just about Delhi or the new townships that have grown on its outskirts, but it is a scream for attention to the poverty of globalization. Titli is the youngest of the three brothers, desperately trying to “run away from this fu*@ing hell hole.” He is trying to save money by any means possible, to buy a parking garage space in a shopping mall. His brothers, who live with their infirmed but intrusive father in a broken apartment in poor neighborhoods, are criminals. They hijack cars and sell them, beating, hurting and abandoning the drivers in the process. They are violent brutes, repulsive and disgusting. When a hijacking and kidnapping attempt goes awry, someone at the police station steals Titli’s money, making him broke again. His divorced elder brother asks him to get married so they could “have a helping hand in the business and a front” to their shop selling sundries. Titli is forced to marry[…..]
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