NYIFF 14 – Knights of the Directors’ Round Table
Anurag Kashyap. Aparna Sen. Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Gurinder Chadha. Nagesh Kuknoor. Nagraj Manjule. What if they all wandered into the New York night with megaphones and cameras and created their own tapestry of the city? While that did not happen, the combined star wattage of several talented directors certainly amped up the proceedings at the recent New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF).
Long before Slumdog Millionaire became a monster hit, it was shown here. Such is the legacy of the New York Indian Film Festival. Now in its 14th year, it is the oldest and most eclectic of Indian film festivals across the U.S., featuring substantive cinema which is also usually off-the-beaten track. It is organized by the Indo-American Arts Council whose executive director Aroon Shivdasani has led the film festival through many name changes and avatars, and it remains as vibrant as ever.
“This year we had some films which were very pertinent to what’s happening in India and the world today. A lot of awareness is being brought to these topics and we had good films which showed that,” observed Shivdasani.
NYIFF 2014 kicked off on a fun note, paying homage to India’s best known cinematic tradition with a Bollywood flash dance mob in Times Square. Festival director Aseem Chhabra talked about what distinguishes this festival from others – unusual films, regional cinema, and little gems picked up after screening hundreds of films. Some of them are national award winners, others have been shown at Sundance while many were acquired through serendipity.
Independent Cinema that Makes a Difference
Many of the films have yet to be released in India, and each is remarkable for its unique back story. Happily, for fans of alternative Indian cinema, all the directors were there to talk about their creations. Much to the joy of diehard ‘Wasseypur’ fans Anurag Kashyap sat with them to dissect scenes from his classic cult film, and to explain the violence in his films.
Opening night saw Kashyap’s ‘Ugly’, a tale of corruption and violence with an ending you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. The centerpiece screening was the Geethu Mohandas directed ‘Liar’s Dice’, a stunning film which won the Best Feature award. Nagesh Kuknoor’s provocative ‘Lakshmi’ was another crowd puller which received great word of mouth appreciation even as its theme of violence against women continues to dominate the headlines in real life. The festival closed with Aparna Sen’s ‘Goynar Baksho’, a humorous ghost tale interwoven with the larger theme of the changing roles of women in society.
Cinema – A Mirror to Society
The lineup of about 45 films reiterated the fact that cinema entertains, but is also a mirror to society and a rediscovery of what we may have known but forgotten. Perhaps the most powerful film screened this year was ‘Fandry’, the bleak tale of a young Dalit boy and the indignities heaped upon him – devastating in its impact and one that the viewer cannot help but internalize. The dialogues, shifting between English, Hindi and Marathi movingly conveyed the real life injustices meted out to Dalit communities. The knockout punch, so to speak, was the Q&A with Nagraj Manjule, the film’s director who based ‘Fandry’ on his own life.
‘Apur Panchali’ was about the road less traveled. What happens to young child stars, how does the world treat them after their short spurt of fame? This was inspired by the real life story of the child actor Subir Banerjee who played Apu in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Then there was ‘Mrs. Scooter’, an offbeat tale of a clerk, his new bride and a new scooter. ‘The Coffin Maker’ by Veena Bakshi was another surprising subject, studded with gleaming performances by veterans Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s ‘Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa’ was a treat for audiences, starring alternative Indian cinema’s current hot actor, Nawazuddin Siddique.
Audiences also lapped up regional films such as ‘Astu’ in Marathi, ‘Sheshar Kobita’ in Bengali, and ‘As the River Flows’ in Assamese, films that transcended language and culture to the drama within. ‘Zinda Bhaag’ was a cross-border film co-directed by Farjad Nabi from Pakistan and Meenu Gaur from India. The film, which stars Naseeruddin Shah, is in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu and shows the common aspirations of youth in both nations. There was even a short film, ‘Dr. Chavan’, in Vietnamese! An eclectic audience that included many Americans lapped it all up, thanks to effective subtitling.
Rubbing Shoulders with Great Directors
For this writer, the thrill of NYIFF lay in its informality and easy access to top-notch film folks. It was quite surreal to sit just seats away from noted directors and dissect the movies with them after the screenings. There was a sense of camaraderie and informality during this festival – I interviewed Gurinder Chadha in an impromptu chat, sitting on the stairs of one of the screening rooms inside the theater, and one was just as likely to run into some of the famous and not-so-famous directors sitting next to you in one of the screenings. What you realized was that all these directors were passionate fans of cinema and as anxious to catch new, offbeat films as the next moviegoer!
Among other directors who were present to share their insights with audiences were Amit V. Masurkar (‘Sulemani Keeda’), Ed Owles (‘The Auction House’), and Geetu Mohandas (‘Liar’s Dice’ ) There were several women directors as well as directors from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Notably, the festival attracted a number of young filmmakers writing about contemporary issues and offering their own take on a diverse range of topics from child trafficking to Alzheimer’s disease.
In the hectic buzz of the festival, I did manage to connect with some of them, including the wonderful Aparna Sen whose film ‘Goynar Baksho’ is told through comedy but has the underlying theme of the changing condition of the women as seen through their changing relationship to a box of jewelry that is passed on from one generation to the next.
Sen’s films like ’36 Chowringhee Lane’ and ‘Mr. & Mrs. Iyer’, have always dealt with relationships and the human condition but in this latest film she has moved away from stark realism to ghosts. She said: “I think I am becoming more interested in doing films like Goynar Baksho, films which have a lot of magic realism which I like – I do get bored with everyday reality. And I am just tired of constantly being logical!”
Sen always enjoys the road less traveled so she is now working on a short film based on a play by Madhav Sarkar and this is actually a filmed play. At the end of the year she’s also directing a Bengali musical and the dialogue will be – in Italian verse!
Different Film Directors, Different Lives
Sen, who has acted in films directed by Satyajit Ray and acted with leading men like Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar, has led a life seeped in cinema. She recalled, “Well my early life was very much as a child of the film society, since my parents were founder members of the Calcutta Film Society. My father was the secretary, and he and Satyajit Ray together founded it and my entire childhood was spent looking at world cinema. My father was a filmmaker, he was a film critic, and the atmosphere at home was just cinema, cinema, cinema all the way.”
Meeting Anurag Kashyap was to understand how different childhoods shape different people. He did not get to see world cinema till he was a young man. Earlier he had told me, ” In childhood it was just one Sunday in the month when we would rent a VCR to watch a movie. We went to cinema halls very few times, only when an Amitabh Bachchan movie released in Lucknow – then we would travel to the theater. Otherwise it was all on a rented VCR. Later, much later, at a film festival in Delhi where I saw the films of de Sica, for the first time I related to what I was watching not as something separate or other worldly but something that I could do too.”
Now of course, Kashyap is one of the most creative names in Hindi cinema, known for pushing the envelope further than anyone else. His latest film ‘Ugly’ which showed at the theater left everyone shaken, as if just getting off a rough roller coaster ride. Yet he managed to humanize the distasteful characters in ‘Ugly’ with his understanding: “I believe there’s a bit of darkness in all of us – and these are desperate people who’ve made bad choices in life, caught in circumstances where they get manipulated.”
‘Ugly’ is based on a melange of true stories based on the startling fact that 3000 children disappear in Maharashtra every year. The film was shot in actual houses and locations, and realism was the mantra. Rahul Bhat, the lead actor in this kidnapping tale, recalled the film was emotionally very taxing: “Every night I used to sleep just three hours – sometimes the assistant would call me ‘Please don’t sleep tonight sir!” Grinned Kashyap as the audience heard this tale in a Q and A: ” I wouldn’t let him sleep and I kept him drunk all the time! ”
In an earlier interview Kashyap had told me about his directing style, of workshops where everyone talks about themselves: “Scenes come out of that, out of their own lives. I can write them and put them together very well but I cannot imagine all those scenes. I’m not that big a genius. I’m a thief – I borrow from people’s lives.”
The Gift of Thoughtful Cinema
Besides meeting famous directors, there was also a thrill in meeting first time directors who are already making remarkable films. Meenu Gaur is the co-director of ‘Zinda Bhaag’ which was Pakistan’s entry for the Oscars. It is a powerful film about illegal immigration abroad and of the young lives destroyed in the process.
Gaur, who is Indian, is married to a Pakistani journalist and lives in Karachi. She grew up in Calcutta, studied in Delhi and then went on for her PhD to London. She grew up watching parallel as well as popular cinema, and has a fondness for Guru Dutt films. Since her husband is a British national, home is now between the three countries. She says, “Home is in more than one place – and that is a nice thing.”
Can there be collaborations between India and Pakistan? Gaur says they are already happening, although not officially. Her own film stars the superb Naseeruddin Shah who actually accepted the film without having ever met the unknown filmmakers, and accepted after reading their letter! Most Pakistani films get their post-production done in Bangkok, but this film had this done in India, which may indeed lead to future collaborations between the two neighbors. Gaur also had Urmi Juvekar from ‘Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!’ collaborating with them – all done via Skype! A brave new global world indeed.
Fandry – the Reality of India
The Power of Independent Films
Finally, I was able to sit in on the Q and A with Nagraj Manjule, the filmmaker of ‘Fandry’, the film about caste in India which has won audiences and awards alike, including the National Award for Best Film. In his childhood, his father’s profession too was that reserved for the low castes, rounding up the wild pigs in Brahmin villages. “It used to pain me a lot when I was called Fandry (wild pig), I used to wonder why I’m here, why my life is like this, why am I fandry,” recalled Manjule. “I used to think about my life, why my circumstances are the way they are, why am I in this place. I carried this with me for 30 years.”
Asked if things had changed in India, he said that this is a tale of 30 years back, of 100 years back and of the current times – India is unchanging -and the thinking process for a lot of people has not changed. There was pin-drop silence as he added, “I cried a lot during the process of writing it and I experienced the grief that this is very bad and that nobody should have to have this level of sorrow. I still find it hard to watch the film.”
Someone asked him, “Whenever Godzilla strikes, he strikes New York. In your film, Godzilla was the fandry or pig striking the village. How was it, handling this subject?”
“America needs a big fear,” replied Manjule with a smile. “They don’t get scared by chote mote dar (small fears). They need Godzilla and they need it again and again. India has many fears – small, unknown fears hidden in its heart. To be afraid in India, you don’t need a Godzilla. I hope soon we will get relief from these fears and then we will deal with Godzilla!”
And that is the strength of these independent film directors, they examine the underbelly of Indian society – warts and all.
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Khabar magazine)