Utpal Borpujari

April 19, 2010

Digging Out Lost Voices

By Utpal Borpujari

Sandhir Flora had a question in his mind, a question that exercises the minds of probably countless Indians. The question was – why is nobody interested in the common man’s viewpoint when it comes to important issues such as religion and the society, and why the same people take on the role of self-appointed spokespersons of various communities on every available platform? He tried to seek out an answer, and since he is a filmmaker, an aspiring one if one may call him, his search resulted in a film. Self-searchingly titled Kya Main Qaafir Hoon? (Am I a Non-believer?), the one-hour film has been able to strike a chord with the discerning viewer, even getting selected for the Non-Feature section of the Indian Panorama at the last International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa as well as the Persistence Resistance Film Festival in Delhi in February.

Flora, a Sikh from Jabbalpur, refuses to call his venture a short film, stressing that it has the structure of a long feature though minus the length. But more than that aspect, it is the subject that he feels is more important in the context of the present times. The young director chose to delve into the debate within the Muslim community about religion and its impact on them in the backdrop of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and though a little too verbose, his film has been able to raise pertinent questions. For Flora, it has been a worthwhile venture, even though he would have loved to make it into a full-length feature film but for lack of finances. As he puts it, “I am trying to analyse the irony of the fact that in following principles of a religion with the same purpose, two persons can find themselves on opposite sides. My film tries to showcase that everything stems from a certain value system, education and most importantly certain experiences in life that mould people into completely unique individuals.”

Flora, who took the help of several of his Muslim friends to interact with various viewpoints in the community, fleshed out realistic characters in the story. “Such a story cannot stand on its own if its characters are not real with real flesh and blood and do not have a strong opinion.  Initially, people doubted my intentions but with some effort I managed to break that barrier and found some authentic voices.  I decided to take a backseat and let those voices talk and interact independently in my film, as I did not want to pass a judgement or offer a clear-cut solution either as there is none,” he says.

Flora has been clear that he would highlight the fact that the common man’s views on religion are never heard or taken into consideration. He puts it in a matter of fact tone, “I wanted to make this point heard loud and clear.  Whenever any such issue of national interest talked about in TV or print, the Muslims are generally represented by same faces again & again.  Not that there is anything wrong in their views but sadly, the voice of a common Muslim is lost in this whole commotion.  I decided I must include this very firmly when I tell my story.”

In the film, Abraham, an NRI Muslim who escapes death in the Taj Hotel firing incident, goes to his native place in Central India, where he sets out to achieve his long-time dream to set up a madrassa to provide education to poor Muslim children.  Through the city’s SP Suleiman Shaikh, he gets in touch with TV journalist Maria, who also has a similar wish. But when Maria and Abraham meet, it is found out that they have very different ideologies, which is what develops the drama.

Flora is aware that the market for the short film genre is almost zilch in India, but he is hopeful that if not a regular theatrical release, it will at least be picked up by a general entertainment channel for screening. The film has already found a distributor of its DVDs, in the form of Delhi-based Magic Lantern Foundation that distributes a lot of independent documentaries as also short and full-length films.

The filmmaker is aware that a lot of films are being made on socio-religious themes, even though most of them are getting restricted only to the festival circuit. While he says that there is no direct visible impact of cinema on society, he believes that it can be one of the many tools that can be used effectively for social change.  “It is a powerful medium. Therefore I am very much against its abuse. As a filmmaker I wish for the sake of society that private satellite channels should pick up such relevant content to broadcast on TV, rather than that same mindless shows merely for the sake of TRPs,” says Flora, an MA in economics and an MBA in tourism who has assisted in films like Manoj Punj’s Zindagi Khoobsoorat Hai and Parvati Balagopalan’s Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 18-04-2010)


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)


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