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Mumbai 2007

Beyond Bollywood
By Steve Ayorinde

With a billion people and more than 800 films a year, demography is a huge advantage for India 's sprawling motion picture industry. And even though 13 films are hardly enough to gauge the pulse of an industry that is the largest, in terms of production, in the world, they nevertheless presented a good representation of how Indian cinema is spread across language and cultural lines at the last International Film Festival Mumbai.

Bollywood, of course, is the dominant global term used in referring to the prolific Hindi language film industry in Mumbai. But with the exception of one or two of such films – like Khosla's Nest (Khosla Ka Ghosla), by debutant Bollywood director Dibakar Banerjee, which is a blackly comic portrayal of the greedy side of middle-class India – the 9 th edition of the IFFM succeeded in showcasing the diversity of the entire Indian cinema.

There were films produced in the Marathi language, which is particularly important to the cinema-loving, south-eastern part of the country; Bengali, Kannada, Assamese, Monpa, Malayalam and the Telugu-Lambada dialect of India .

With about 20 languages spoken across the length and breadth of the country, and thriving film industries built around each specific language and culture, part of the attraction of a major film festival in India is the opportunity to get immersed in the cinematic appeal of the other Indian films – films that do not often enjoy the luxury of international exposure like the Bollywood films so frequently characterized by music, dance routines, melodrama, lavish set designs and emphasis on star and spectacle.

It could, of course, be argued that most Bollywood films give preference to big film festivals abroad as a panacea for global distribution. However, the fact that the IFFM featured predominantly non-Hindi films, even as a Mumbai-based festival, was particularly pertinent in highlighting different facets of the big screen in contemporary India .

The issues tackled in each of the films are as topical as they appear timely; and their diversity covers both local and issues of the Indian diaspora. The three films in Marathi language, which had the highest number of entries at the festival, for example, show India from different templates. Crystal Clear (Nital) by directors Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar focuses on the issue of social caste system in middle-class India through its treatment of Vitiligo, the medical condition that leaves white patches on the skin of the sufferer.

The story is weaved around a Bengalore-based doctor who has to deal with social prejudice about her condition when she accompanies her colleague – the man she loves – to his home town in Pune. Though a non-Bollywood, the film curiously employs a number of the Bollywood-type songs and dances to drive the story, and thereby underscores the place of songs and dance in a typical Indian film that does not necessarily sell itself as a musical.

Restaurant, also in Marathi, by Sachin Kundalkar, is a straight drama, more on the persona of a daughter her mother struggling for retainership of a property while living through the pains of the loss of a lover. Even when lacking in songs and dance, the poise, elegance and skills of the lead actress, Sonali Kulkarni, gives an indication on how divas are spread across the Indian films regardless of the language in which they were shot.

Lady By the Sea (Bayo) by Gajendra Ahire, tough in Marathi, toes similar lines with A Resonance (Anuranan) by director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, in Bengali, by exploring how the interface between lives in Indian and abroad affect key characters in the film.

Jatingaa et al… (Jaatingaa Ityaadi…), directed by Sanjib Sabhapandit in the Assamese language may lay little claim to great cinematography, but it depicts the increasingly popular theme in a number of current Indian films in which characters from Europe or the United States are scripted into the film. It is an English couple in honeymoon in India that falls prey to the kidnap plans of the same man they engage as interpreter, in this film, to set off an intricate scenario of distrust and misadventure.

Sashi Paravoor's beautifully framed The Gaze (Nottam) takes the issue of foreign actors in Indian films to a higher level by having Europeans to confer appreciation and legitimacy to the art of Koodiyattom, a culture in search of revival in the little Indian town where the film is set.

A bit of biopic is attempted in Behind the Screen (Aideu) by Arup Manna. The Mumbai-trained director makes a bold attempt to document the pioneering spirit of Aideu Handique, the heroine of the first Assamese feature film, Joymoti, which was shot in 1935. Though a great piece of history, no doubt, the film however fails to fulfill the potential of making a convincing dramaturgy out of that awesome act of bravery by that woman who lived almost like an outcast till her death in 2002.

One of the few films that stand in a class of its own at the Mumbai film fest is Cyanide, by the enthusiastic director, A.M.R Ramesh. In Cyanide, which was shot in the Kannada language, the viewer gets a full load of all the popular cinema regulars – action, thriller, suspense and emotions. However, the film's strongest point is its unpretentious attempt at authentically capturing the human drama of the last 20 days in the lives of the LTTE assassins who escaped to Bangalore after the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, India 's former Prime Minister, on May 21, 1991 .

Whether in their deep, reflective cultural form or in the new-age, glossy outlook of the recent offerings of Hindi films, cinema in India encompasses a great deal of diversity and a filmmaking tradition with huge following that the world is yet to acknowledge in its entirety.

Steve Ayorinde
© FIPRESCI 2007

Steve Ayorinde is the Arts Editor and Chief Film Critic of Punch, Nigeria 's largest circulating daily. He is a film-festival freak who reckons that film appreciation is in his DNA.

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Mumbai 2007

Indian Cinema
Beyond Bollywood
Behind the Screen