Utpal Borpujari

December 21, 2009

A pleasant, leisurely Bombay Summer

By Utpal Borpujari

New York-based Joseph Mathew-Varghese belongs to the new breed of filmmakers India is throwing up in recent years, the kind that wants an Indian story to tell to the world, going beyond the usual domestic-NRI audience that Hindi filmmakers remain generally contended with. His debut film Bombay Summer reflects this urge, as it refused to fall prey to elements of masala-style storytelling, instead adopting a minimalistic approach to tell the story of young people of a new India.

For Joseph, it would have been very easy to use elements of masala cinema, going by the character profile of his protagonists and the Mumbai setting of his story. But he stays away from such allurements, and succeeds in creating a visual world that does not intimidate with style and use of technological chutzpah. Instead, the world inhabited by the three lead characters of the film is real, like the one you and I live in, with surroundings we are familiar with.

It is only the journey of the characters that set them apart from their mundane surroundings. At one level a very personal story of a young, successful woman, her struggling writer boyfriend and a commercial artist friend of theirs whose ways create problems for all of them, Bombay Summer eschews all the usual visual elements any Hindi film would have used of the city – the film is primarily in English and Hindi – and takes the viewer to a Mumbai that lives beyond the glitter.

In fact, it is the leisurely unfolding of the story that works for the film to a great extent, though some viewers might find it a little slacken-paced for this very reason. For those who like their stories told like the unfolding of a novel read sitting in the winter afternoon sun, Joseph’s film would, however, be the perfect evening engagement.  Tannishtha Chatterjee, who wowed global audiences with her powerful performance in Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane, lights up the film with her performance in the role of Geeta, a young graphic designer who loves to live her life. US-based actor Samrat Chakraborti matches steps with her as Jaidev, Geeta’s wannabe writer boyfriend coming from a rich family who is unsure about future, while FTII-graduate Jatin Goswami comes up with a convincing performance as Madan, the struggling commercial artist with whom the two strike up a friendship but later becomes the cause of trouble for them. Another FTII-graduate, Gaurav Dwivedi, also performs creditably.

Joseph creates an almost languid scenario of Mumbai, otherwise a city that has been depicted umpteenth time as a megapolis always in a frenzied race with itself. It is not surprising that wherever the film has been screened till now – in the Film India Worldwide section of the 40th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival in New York (where it won the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress awards), FilmFest Hamburg, Middle East International Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, and San Diego Asian Film Festival – it has been able to connect with the audiences through its story of troubled relationships in the backdrop of changing mores in the conflict zone of traditionalism and modernisation.

Joseph, who has earlier made several documentary films, including Crossing Arizona that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, says the idea for the film had been in his mind for several years. “Having grown up in India, I always knew that I would eventually go back there to make films. Because of my experiences there, I feel I have a unique opportunity to tap into stories and a culture that an American filmmaker does not have access to. I am both an insider as well as an outsider. And I feel this gives me a different perspective and sensibility,” he says.

He denies that the film’s title is targeted to lure Western audiences more than Indians, and explains, “On the contrary, I feel it is a very Indian film and it is in India where the film needs to find its audience. Until now it has been playing in film festivals abroad. The idea was to create some awareness and buzz about the film so that distributors in India would be more open to releasing it. You already know about the challenges of distributing a non-mainstream film in India.”

The director says there is a part of him in each character in the film – “I wanted to create well rounded characters who possess both flaws and strengths.”. While he took around 18 months to complete writing the idea that was in his mind for a long time, Joseph says he could actually go forward only after Middle-East-based Johnny Kuruvilla came on board with required financial help. “The characters in Bombay Summer are also searching for their identity in a society that is rapidly changing. I am still hopeful about finding distribution in India because the film is about youth culture in contemporary urban India. Also, it’s got a fabulous soundtrack by French musician Mathias Duplessy,” says Joseph about his work that he says was intentionally given a “minimalist and unhurried” look. ‘The idea was not to rely on the typical narrative arc but to invite the audience to go on this journey along with the characters,” he explains. A pleasant journey, no doubt.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 20-12-2009)


December 14, 2009

40th IFFI: Debutants shine in Indian Panorama

By Utpal Borpujari

The Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) has over the years provided the cinema world a window to what is supposedly the best of Indian cinema of that year. It is through the Indian Panorama films that foreign film festival programmers have discovered many talents to be taken to the world stage. It is also the section that more or less captures the ups and downs of the filmmaking trends in the country’s myriad languages.

But over the years, Indian Panorama, despite still being the most-respected platform for Indian films seeking an international focus in an Indian festival, has slightly lost its sheen. This has more to do with several other film festivals assuming important proportions within India – Kolkata, Kerala, Mumbai (MAMI) for example – than to any diminishing of the Panorama’s importance. More pertinently, with Kolkata and MAMI happening before IFFI, quite a few of new Indian films get shown in these festivals before taking their bow at IFFI.

This year too, at the 40th IFFI, the Indian Panorama presented a kaleidoscopic view of the country’s fiction cinema in all its riches as also warts. In fact, this year’s Panorama section presented a highly-uneven mixture of some fine cinema, some mediocre work and a few which shows up the country’s film movement in a not-so-positive light. Of course, finally it is for the jury – this time chaired by filmmaker Muzaffar Ali – to decide which films to include in the section, but then the selection also reflects on the jury itself. This year it was especially so as one member – Gautaman Bhaskaran – publicly questioned the jury’s decisions and alleged that two of his colleagues – Ali and producer Bobby Bedi – had not only remained absent during a large part of the selection screenings but also insisted on inclusion of specific films.

The best of this year’s lot comprised some gems from Marathi cinema – the industry, always in the shadow of the glamorous Hindi film industry in Mumbai, in recent years has thrown up quite a few excellent movies – along with some excellent works particularly in Konkani, Bengali and Hindi. The Panorama comprised 26 films, including five picked from a shortlist of commercial fare sent in by the Film Federation of India, a practice started since last year after the abolition of the Indian Mainstream section, though the Directorate of Film Festivals for some reason chose not to mark them out as so, unfairly for the 21 that got selected competing with about 100 others as against this “quota” for the mainstream.

The best of the lot this year, without doubt, was Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s Konkani film Paltadcho Manis (The Man Beyond the Bridge), an almost meditative film which has proved that the young filmmaker is a major hope for Indian cinema, provided he can live up to the promise he has shown in this film. Set in the thick forests of Karnataka-Goa border, the story takes one to the life of Vinayak, a lonely forest guard and his relationship with a mentally-unsound woman. Through the story, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)-produced film raises questions regarding morality and ethics as practised by the society as well as its sense of responsibility towards the hapless.

If it gave the perfect start to the Indian Panorama as the opening film of the section, the package shone through several other efforts, significantly, like Shetgaonkar’s, all by first-time directors. Satish Manwar’s Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain) in Marathi and Atanu Ghosh’s Angshumaner Chhobi (A Film Made by Angshuman) in Bengali, both India’s entries to the IFFI’s competition section, along with Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory in Marathi, were definitely the top of the lot in the section where there were works by 11 first-time directors.

Manwar’s film marks the emergence of another powerful voice in the already-shining Marathi film industry, as it uses black humour to tell the story of farmers’ suicides, the biggest tragedy to hit many parts of rural India, and more particularly of Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, in recent years. The film opens with scenes of a farmer committing suicide, followed by how the worried wife and mother of another debt-ridden farmer decides to keep an eye on him, fearing he too might end his life. A powerful portrayal of our times, it also serves up as a strong contrast to the mainstream cinema which has almost forgotten to depict rural India barring stray exceptions, and does that in a way which is neither didactic nor preachy. On the other hand, Ghosh’s film takes one into the complex world of the human mind through the story of a young filmmaker who wants to make a film with a retired actor and a recalcitrant actress despite their reluctance to come on screen. Slightly weakened by an unnecessary lengthy murder investigation subplot, the film succeeds largely to an otherwise nuanced screenplay and superb acting the thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, Indrani Haldar, Indraneil Sengupta and Tota Roychowdhury.

Mokashi’s film, on the other hand, takes one in a roller coaster ride, using comedy to recreate the story of how Dada Saheb Phalke had made India’s first film, Raja Harishchandra. The film, India’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 2010, effectively uses humour to tell what is perhaps the most-important story of Indian cinema’s birth. The other first timers who impressed with their work are Sona Jain, whose For Real (English), starring Sarita Choudhury of Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala and Kama Sutra fame, explores how young minds are impacted by disharmony among adults at home, and Aijaz Khan, whose The White Elephant (Hindi), despite the awkwardness of using Malayalam words for the authenticity-effect, pleases one to a great extent through its a fable-like story set in Kerala and starring Tannishtha Chatterjee and Prroshanth Narayanan.

Some of the other Panorama films that impressed were Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhthankar’s Ek Cup Chya (A Cup of Tea) (Marathi), which sets a fine example of how an activist film should be made through its story of a lowly-placed government servant’s use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act to fight the system, debutant Avantika Hari’s Land Gold Woman (English) which brings alive the social malaise of honour killings among some South Asian communities in Britain, and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (Hindi) that took a sensitive look at the scars left in individual minds by communal violence. Also impressive was Aniruddhar Roy Chowdhury’s Antaheen (The Endless Wait) (Bengali), a take on relationships in an urban backdrop uplifted by the dignified acting of Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen, Rahul Bose and Radhika Apte.

But the weaker links in this year’s Panorama, unfortunately came from the veterans. Be it M S Sathyu’s Ijjodu (Kannada) or Shaji N Karun’s Kutty Srank (Malayalam), viewers were left asking if they are from the same masters who gave us classics like Garam Hawa and Piravi but now have given us meandering executions of interesting premises. Comparatively, another veteran Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Janala (Window) stimulated the senses better, though he too could be charged with being repetitive with certain signature motifs of his. Rituparno Ghosh’s Shob Charitro Kalponik, starring Bipasha Basu and Projenjit, despite being quite verbose as his recent works has been, provided viewers with a world that scratches more than the surface of relationships. In contrast, a few of the mainstream “quota” entries, usually the weakest links in the package, this year provided a window to fresh ideas at work in the Hindi industry – be in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye! and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 13-12-2009)


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