Alternatives to mass market escapism

BY Frederick Noronha| IN Media Practice | 05/12/2004
Stories from the real India jump out of the cine-reel at the 35th International Film Festival of India, held at Goa

Frederick Noronha


In a country of a thousand million-plus, so many stories are just waiting to be told. The 35th International Film Festival of India, held Goa on the west coast of India in December, saw a number of independent films exploring alternative themes making it to the screen. 

For a sector which thrives on selling glamour and dreams, Indian cinema is throwing up interesting alternatives. From the nuclearisation of South Asia to the human price of war, films on artists and folk musicians, about ethnic tribal clashes in the North East, and even a film about a film - these themes and more feature among the 20 `non-feature films` in Iffi-2004`s Indian Panorama section. 

India`s film market currently consists of big-budget mass-market films with big stars, and independent films made on a shoe-string by aspiring auteurs, as is also the case with today`s Western film market. From across India, films being showcased in the Goa capital of Panaji -- a riverside town also called Panjim or Ponnje -- were in Malayalam, Hindi (three films), Hindi-Punjabi, Tamil, Manipuri, and Marathi. Ten films were in English, with one more coming as an English-Gujarati mix. One was even without any dialogue. 

`Agni`, by KR Manoj (30), a long-time activist of Kerala`s film society movement, reflects on rape and its aftermath. This 14-minutes Malayalam isin black-and-white and says its "shuns the easy, condescending or patronizing orthodox `feminist` line". 

Hindi-Punjabi film `Chaurus Chaand` is about revolutionary and poet Avtaar Singh Sandhu, gunned down in 1988 by Khalistani militants in the north-western state of the Punjab. Director Vibhu Puri, a student at the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India, says he grew up in old Delhi "on a staple diet of Hindi masala movies and Punjabi folk music". 

Sans dialogue, `Ek Aakash` is set in a multi-cultural and multi-religious sub-urban town. It`s the story of Rahul and Abbas, whose playful kite-flying session turns into a battle of one-upmanship leading to a strange mix of ego and aggression blinded by emotion. 

English-language films from India range from `The Green Warriors - Apatanis`(which looks at the unusual tribal sustainable agricultural practices in Arunachal), to `I Couldn`t Be Your Son, Mom` (about a gender crisis in a young person), `Invisible Parsis: The Poor of a Prosperous Community` by Kaevan Umrigar, and Sanjivan Lal`s `Is God Deaf?` (on religion-linked noise pollution and the campaign against it taken up in Mumbai). 

Dhananjoy Mandal (37) of Howrah looks at an often-misunderstood normadic tribe, that kills crows for their meat in `A Journey With The Kakmaras`. The Manipuri-language 39 minute film `Nongdi Tarak-Khidare` (But It Never Rained) looks at the Naga-Kuki ethnic clashes of the 1990s, and highlights how social unrest impacts innocent people. 

Lawyer Satyajit Bhatkal`s `Chale Chalo... The Lunacy of Film Making` is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of the making of the Bollywood blockbuster film `Lagaan`. It was shot separately, over three years, on digital video. Says Bhatkal (40), "As a member of the `Laagan` production team, I sensed the drama in the process of making it and began shooting what was happening  in and around the set. It was only when my camera captured the various crises in the `Laagan` journey, that I realised that my rushes deserved a film." Incidentally `Lagaan` was one of the few films from the huge Bollywood Indian film industry that got nominated for an Oscar. 

Some other `non-feature` films show-cased at this year`s IFFI include noted socio-political documentary maker Anand Patwardhan`s `War and Peace`, and others dealing with the trivialization of the media, Sunni Muslim folk musicians of western Rajasthan, aging, and documentaries on the work of eminent artist Rabin Mondal as well as Santiniketan, the institution built by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. 

In an industry that otherwise focuses on entertainment and creating a happy make-believe world, there`s also a number of stories of the stark reality of India emerging, with little of the melodrama, sentimentalism and musical action that otherwise goes into feature films. 

Besides commercial cinema, India has long had a high-minded Indian art cinema (dubbed by film critics as "New Indian Cinema" or "the Indian New Wave"). In India, it`s also called "art films" as opposed to mainstream commercial cinema. From the 1960s through the 1980s, art film was usually government-supported cinema. Aspiring directors could get Central or state government grants to produce non-commercial films on Indian themes. 

Many of these directors were graduates of the government film school, FTII.But today, there`s coming from a wider range. For instance, K Bikram Singh(whose `Passing Out` cautions about the threat to certain kinds of folk music) was a senior government official till he quit in 1983 to become a full-time film-maker. Singh says: "All traditions are subject to change and it is the changes that helps the traditions grow. What is new in our times is the exceedingly fast pace of change or `development` which is creating a disconnect between arts and ordinary life." 

Others emerging as `alternative` film-makers have the background of being activists, an anthropologist, film students, employees of commercial TV channels, and even the odd engineer or lawyer.





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