By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on December 19, 2015
If you follow us regularly then you know that we are fervent cheerleaders of films that stray away from the template, have their own voice & have something to say. Words tend to get thrown around a lot these days. 'Indie cinema' or 'independent films' are much abused words, which now, if stretched, could cover a wide range of films.
How do we define independent cinema, then? We've struggled with the term a lot. The term is quite established in the west where independent films are films produced out of the studio system, mostly by necessity, but sometimes by choice too. The spirit of independent cinema is supposed to resist the formulaic themes, templates & production methods of the studio system. India, as usual, has developed its own models that do not fit the exact boxes as defined in the west.
Like so many things in Indian cinema, Phalke was also our first independent filmmaker. That should be obvious, given that there existed no 'industry' or studios then to produce films. Over the years, as the industry evolved and studios emerged, Indian cinema, like elsewhere, got straight-jacketed by the demands of the market, which continues till today. However, there have always been filmmakers across India who've made films outside the dominant structure. When a few of these filmmakers & their films came out together in the 70's, it led to the birth of the so-called Parallel cinema movement. The Film Finance Corporation, a government organization created to promote Indian cinema, played its role in supporting this movement.
Every few years since then, whenever a few films that challenge our notions of cinema, by not following the diktats of the 'mainstream', we tend to get excited and start proclaiming the emergence of a new wave or movement of indie cinema. That seems to be happening yet again.
With that disclaimer, we would like to say that the excitement this time is not without reason (maybe it never is). Barriers to filmmaking have never been lower than they are today, with cheap, yet high-quality cameras & post-production facilities within the reach of (almost) everyone. Distribution is still centralised but atleast you can make your film. And filmmakers across the land are doing precisely that. New voices are sharing new stories (or old) of a changing India.
Last few years have seen quite a few of these independent films (Miss Lovely, Shuttlecock Boys, The Lunchbox, Peddlers, Kshay, Ship of Theseus to name a few) coming out of India. The fact that various issues, perspectives are being explored through films & filmmakers are experimenting with the medium suggests a favourable environment for indie cinema, whether a movement or not. This churning has been noticed abroad with many of these films winning acclaim at almost all major international film festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance amongst others.
2015 has built on the energy of last few years. Even mainstream studios like YRF, realizing the tone of our times, have become open to the idea of backing such films, Titli been a case in point.
We've picked up 15 such films that we saw this year that we feel signal a turning tide. These films have been chosen on the basis of the uniqueness & freshness of either of their form or content. While one can debate endlessly over whether a certain movie should be a part of this list or not, this is the list we feel represents the diversity of the new energy that our cinema is gaining from. We would love to know which ones you agree with & where you disagree with our choice.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature Court was the film of the year for us & a film we believe, will still be spoken & seen with awe years down the line. Court is a film with its own cinematic grammar that doesn't conform to any Indian or international notion of right or wrong, but to the requirements of Tamhane's story.
The film is a gritty satire that delves deep into the Indian judicial system by taking a fly on the wall point of view to look at the curious case of Narayan Kamble, an elderly shahir (a ballad singer) and a grassroots organizer, who is arrested and tried in the court, for abetting the suicide of a manhole worker through one of his performances. The film follows the various people involved in the case - the middle-aged single defence lawyer, the public prosecutor who is also a simple homemaker, the family of the worker who has committed suicide and the judge, a part of the upper middle class. The merit of the film is in its realism, shot as it is almost like a documentary with the camera maintaining its distance & objectivity, just observing.
Chaitanya Tamhane, worked in theatre, then with Balaji Telefilms as an assistant writer, before making a documentary and an award-winning short film, that was well received in the festival circuit. His friend and actor Vivek Gomber supported him for a year as he researched and wrote the script for Court. Gomber later went on to produce the film and has also acted in it.
Premiering at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, Court won the Best Film award in the Horizons category and also the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion Of The Future) award for the director. The film has, since then gone on to win various awards all over the world, along with winning the Best Feature Film award at the 62nd National Film Awards in India. It was also India's official entry for the 88th Annual Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category but didn't make the cut.
As the soulful song of Masaan composed by Indian Ocean says...Mann Kasturi Re, Jag Dastoori Re, Baat Hui Naa Poori Re... Masaan tells the story of unfulfilled love, loss and the longing. Creating an immersive experience while bringing together the threads of the lives of its strongly rooted and realistic characters, the film captures the as yet unseen flavour of the holy city of Benaras, where death is a celebration of a kind & people come to die from every part of the country. Death & shame (worse than death in India) looms over the city like a thick mist and also over the lives of the two main characters- Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and Devi (Richa Chaddha).
As the director Neeraj Ghaywan himself has pointed out in an interview, more than love and loss and longings, Masaan also talks about escape, and its central characters strive for it throughout. Devi, though unsure about what she wants in life, wants to escape the small town and the moral policing. Deepak, with all his might is trying to escape his fate as someone born in the lower caste, whose family has been burning the dead on the ghats of Benaras.
An engineer with an MBA, Ghaywan quit his job to become a filmmaker. After assisting Anurag Kashyap on the sets of Gangs of Wasseypur, Ghaywan did a thorough research for his debut feature along with his co-writer Varun Grover, which included learning Bhojpuri, staying in Banaras hostels, going around the city and trying to capture its flavour.
An Indian-French co-production with names like Manish Mundra, Phantom Films, Sikhya Entertainment, Arte France Cinema and Pathe productions involved, Masaan premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received a five-minute standing ovation post its screening, before eventually winning the FIPRESCI Prize and the Un Certain Regard - Avenir Prize at the festival.
It released later to wide acclaim and a decent box office performance. Hopefully a harbinger of things to come.
Raam Reddy’s debut feature Thithi is a dark comedy revolving around three generations of a family and their different approaches towards life. The film captures the span of 11 days in the lives of Gadappa, his son Thamanna and grandson Abhi, after Gadappa’s 100 year old father ‘Century’ Gowda passes away. The film narrates a light-hearted, yet deep story of attitudes and life choices of the males of three generations, each having an entirely different take on life. With non-professional actors in lead roles, the film has a startling authenticity, and paints an intriguing and realistic picture of life in rural Karnataka.
The character of Gadappa, who has renounced the worldly life and simply roams around the fields drinking and smoking bidis, is the most interesting of the lot. Reddy, while talking at the Mumbai Film Festival, said that Gadappa is his favourite character too, because however whimsical and weird he seems, he has his own philosophy of life and is quite interesting.
Reddy, a Prague Film School graduate, found the story when he visited his friend Eregowda to his village and both of them decided to write a film based in this village and keeping these real-life characters at the centre. The film then evolved into a feature plot, where Eregowda, who is born and brought up in the village has put all his life experiences and observations into the script, which makes it so rustic, authentic and thoroughly enjoyable.
The film won a couple of awards at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival and is still enjoying its festival run.
Cinematographer Avinash Arun’s first directorial venture Killa is as beautiful in its content and narrative, as it is in its fabulous cinematography. The coming-of-age tale of an adolescent boy, who shifts from a city to a small coastal village after the death of his father, brilliantly captures the ripples this transition causes in his world.
The film captures the essence of Konkan, capturing the many moods of the ocean, the incessant rains, the fishing boats and the mossy green sea fort. The story is inspired from Avinash’ own childhood experiences when his father had a job where transfers were inevitable. Working closely with his writer, Tushar Paranjape, they drew from their own experiences and recreated the 90's for an entire generation that came of age then.
The film gained critical acclaim as well as awards in the festival circuit, including the Best Children’s Film award at the National Film Awards.
Avinash Arun had a great year, with 3 of his films coming out in a span of 50 days. Alongside Killa, two films he shot, the Cannes award-winning Masaan and the thriller Drishyam, released to wide appreciation. Marathi cinema has enjoyed a good run in the last few years, with many filmmakers hitting the right balance between craft & commerce & Avinash continues that trend with Killa.
Though the cinematographer-director who is working on two scripts says that he is in no hurry to make his next film, we are definitely eager to see some really good work from him in the coming time.
A film that follows the tradition of filmmakers adapting folk tales into film narratives, Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi, chooses to narrate these tales using the bhayanaka (fear) and vibhatsa (disgust) rasa. The dark magic realism of Kothanodi at points could be unnerving and scary, for it takes us into a world where anything and everything can happen- women can be witches, pythons can be Gods and women can give birth to vegetables.
Intertwining four fables from the book Burhi Aai’r Xadhu (Grandma’s Tales) by the famous Assamese writer Lakshminath Bezbaroa, the film links four stories showing different shades of motherhood, (almost) all dark, subverting the typical narrative linked to it. The cast includes Adil Hussain and Seema Biswas and several other excellent Assamese actors like Asha Bordoloi and Kopil Bora.
Another special mention from the film has to be its background music. Bhaskar has used the folk music recorded over decades by Assam’s legendary Birendra Nath Dutta, which compliments the film's eerie mood and gives a rustic, raw tone to the narrative.
The film’s production, however, wasn’t a piece of cake for Bhaskar. He ran out of funds halfway through the film and had to turn to crowdfuding to be able to complete his project. Fortunately, the film raised over 22 lakhs and Hazarika could complete the film.
The film premiered at Busan and was showcased at BFI London Film Festival and Jio MAMI Mumbai International Film festival, where it received a lot of critical acclaim. The film is likely to release sometime next year and it would be interesting to see the response, especially in Assam, to Hazarika's interpretation of these popular folk tales.
A social experiment, as Abhay Kumar calls it, Placebo is an important film, and one that needs to be seen by parents, educationists, policy makers, teachers & students across India.
When filmmaker Abhay Kumar's brother got seriously injured in an incident in his medical institute, he decided to stay back in the campus and capture the life there. He started documenting the lives of 4 students without knowing what the eventual narrative will be. Kumar had earlier made award-winning short films like Just That Sort of a Day, which won the 2nd prize at Busan & National Award for best narration in a non-feature film.
In an interview to Midday, Abhay tells how he came to focus on these four students while shooting his debut documentary undercover. “I spoke to several students, but four of them naturally gravitated towards the project. I felt they would open up to the camera. It also helped that all four, who had no connection to one another, had very different outlooks to life.”
The narrative developed over a period of time as Kumar came face-to-face with the various issues facing these students. 4 student suicides took place over the almost two years that Kumar spent secretly at the hostel, highlighting the pressure that these young students in one of India's most premium education institutes, were under.
The film is as indie as it gets, with luck & goodwill helping Kumar & Phadke (her producer) get the film out. They edited around 800 hours of footage to finally get to the final cut that has since traveled widely to film festivals like International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam 2014, Cleveland International Film Festival 2015, Brooklyn Film Festival 2015 and New York Indian Film Festival 2015. It premiered in India at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, where it received the biggest applause for any film at the festival.
Say Punjab and images of flowing mustard fields & sounds of Bhangra beats start playing in your mind. For years that is what Punjab has been to those of us outside Punjab. And Hindi cinema has played a major role in creating & perpetuating this imagery.
With Gurvinder Singh, we finally have a filmmaker who’s intent on breaking that stereotype. He’s two films old & both his films show a side of Punjab that hadn’t been seen before on the big screen. While Anhey Ghore Da Daan focuses on the plight of the farmers & labourers in rural Punjab, Chauthi Koot brings to life the frightening atmosphere of 80's Punjab that was beset with insurgency.
Shot during the monsoons, the overcast weather in the film, adds to the ominous overbearing climate of suspicion & repression that Punjab faced during those days. The film pulls you in slowly, and the slow camera movements & still frames bring the tension & uneasiness home. You are forced to see what the common man had to undergo then, and still does in those parts of our country as well as the rest of the world that are torn by strife.
Gurvinder Singh is a man of few words. He follows the Ghatak & Mani Kaul school of filmmaking, while counting others like Bresson, Kiarostami & Ceylan as inspirations. He’s elusive & lives in an artist colony at Bir, up in the hills of Himachal, away from the hustle & bustle of Mumbai & Delhi. Perhaps that’s why his films are so far removed from the cinema of Mumbai. Or Punjab for that matter.
He finished his formal film education from FTII in 2001, but that didn't satiate his urge to learn. In a brief chat following the screening of his film at DIFF earlier this year, Singh spoke about his early years.
He said, “Coming out of the film school, I realized I didn’t know anything. So I took my camera & started shooting.”
Following a grant from the IFA, he spent over 3 years, between 2002 & 2005, travelling with lower-caste Punjabi folk balladeers, documenting their lives.
A reluctant filmmaker, he says, 'he's not particularly interested in running around to raise funds, happy to not make films if that becomes too much of an issue'. Luckily for us, there are people who value what he does. His film was shortlisted in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year and has since won awards at multiple festivals like Singapore International Film Festival, Auteur Film Festival - Belgrade & MAMI.
There is nothing to know. Just acceptance. There is no other 'truth'. It doesn't need a journey through complex mental gymnastics to come to 'enlightenment'. There is no other side of Nirvana, it's all here.
There are films that are difficult to write about or explain. No, we are not abdicating our responsibility here, but sometimes we need to admit to our inefficiencies. Kaul happens to be one of those films. That the director of this film, Aadish Keluskar, refuses to explain the film or be bound by normal conventions of filmmaking, adds to our conundrum.
Why then, is the film in this list?
Because, it is an experience in itself.
The plot of the film is fairly simple. It follows a young teacher, who after murdering a woman, moves to a small town with his pregnant wife. Here the young man experiences an event that 'he cannot accept or reject’. The film takes us through his (mental) journey, from confusion to philosophical attempts at grappling the experience to eventually accepting it.
Much like the protagonists experience, Keluskar's film is an experience that defies easy (or even difficult) categorizations, in both content & form. The fact that the philosophical journey of its main protagonist doesn't end with a neat, fulfilling answer adds to the unease. And the way he frames his shots, his use of sound & the non-performance of his actors, all combine to unhinge you.
And that is probably what Keluskar desires. Or not. Any pre-conceived notions you might have of films & filmmaking (and everything else) are quickly shred apart by an extremely curious intellect that seems to question everything.
Probably that is why he dropped out of FTII, believing, "One can possibly learn a lot if one is not in awe of FTII or any such institute or person or group. FTII is there to help one learn but not teach."
With a film like Kaul as his debut, we can only wonder what he will serve up next. Anyone who cribs about not being able to want what he or she really wants to make, should take a leaf out of Keluskar's book & just go ahead and do it. Kaul is a welcome sign of the possibilities that this day & age offers filmmakers, who really have something to say & want to say it their way.
Though produced under the big banner of Yash Raj, we think it’s important to include Sharat Katariya’s debut feature in this list. Challenging the Bollywood stereotypes of beauty and perfection, Dum Laga Ke Haisha tells the story of an arranged marriage, where the 10th fail guy, who runs a failing cassette shop of his overbearing father in the rising era of CDs in the 90’s, gets married to a simple, intelligent plump girl, who is to become a teacher. The slice-of-life love story flows subtly, in a string of wonderfully well-written scenes running seamlessly into each other, delving into the minds of its main characters and tracing their journey towards acceptance.
The film has broken stereotypes in more ways than one. Not only is the lead girl plump, the lead guy is far from perfect in this film. Prem has no achievement of his own to show, is often dominated by his father and friends and yet is rude and proud enough to reject his intelligent, loving wife only because she doesn’t look a certain way.
Sharat Katariya, who started as an assistant in 2002, got the idea from a calendar featuring unusual sports, which also included the wife-carrying championship. Backing his idea with a strong plot, Katariya developed his script, which got selected in the NFDC Film Bazaar and from there, found its way to the Yash Raj, who produced the film. That’s also where Katariya got referred to Kanu Behl, with whom he later associated as a co-writer for Titli.
Director Kanu Behl’s debut feature Titli narrates the story of Titli, who hails from a family of carjackers, consisting of his father and brothers Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Pradeep (Amit Sial), a family he wants to escape. However when he's forcibly married off to Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), Titli struggles to accept it, but eventually finds in her an accomplice to escape from his hellish world.
Through the four male protagonists, Titli explores patriarchy & the rigid structures that bind us. Family & societal pressures to conform to expectations are challenges that millions face in a conservative society like ours. The film is raw & gritty, showing a side of Delhi (and India) not often seen on the big screen. Like someone said in a review of the film, one must understand today’s India to understand Titli, but one must understand Titli to understand today’s India.
Produced by Dibakar Banerjee and Yash Raj Films, the film premiered at Cannes last year in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section. Also, the film was also screened at several other international film festivals like Beijing, Rotterdam, BFI London and Zurich and has also released in many territories overseas. It had a limited release in India a couple of months back, with Indian audiences largely staying away from the film, reinforcing the notion that films with darker themes do not do well at the box office.
Behl, however, has already moved onto his next project 'Agra', and has traveled to Busan's Asian Project Market & NFDC Film Bazaar's Co-Production market, looking for producers.
Behl, who is an alumnus of the prestigious Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute Kolkata (SRFTI) started his filmmaking journey by making documentaries before working with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Love Sex Aur Dhokha as assistant director and writer.
Behl wrote the script initially from his own experiences and relationships, but the script really came into its own when he was joined by Sharat Katariya, who co-wrote the film. Incidentally both made their debuts this year, in films produced by Indian's leading production house Yash Raj Films, with films that would typically not be associated with the banner known for its mushy romantic taste in cinema.
For big banners, the formula is believed to be eloquent locations, huge sets and a big budget paired with a glittering star cast. However, these two films, point to the possibility of a coming together of disparate forces, to deliver interesting cinema that we are so hungry to watch.
With Kalki Koechlin’s amazing performance as Laila, a strong-willed girl with cerebral palsy and director Shonali Bose’s unique approach towards presenting the story of a specially-abled protagonist, Margarita, with a straw was another film that broke many norms.
Very few films deal with so many complex issues simultaneously as this film did, tackling disability, sexuality and exploration of one’s sexual preferences.
The film goes beyond the physical constraints faced by someone with cerebral palsy, exploring more pressing issues like her struggle to explore her sexuality and the desire and effort to fit into the ‘normal’ world. Though giving in to a little melodrama at times, the film stays true to the journey of its protagonist. Apart from Laila’s character, which was inspired from the life of the director’s cousin, the characters of Laila’s mother and her lover Khannum, played by Revathy and Sayani Gupta respectively, are especially well-written and etched out.
Shonali Bose, who debuted with the critically acclaimed Amu in 2005, had been working on the script for over a year, before the script got selected for the Sundance Lab. The film premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was screened at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, BFI London Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) before releasing in the country earlier this year.
Bauddhayan Mukherji is one of the most prominent ad filmmakers in the country, who is best known for the campaign against domestic violence called 'Bell Bajao', which picked up the Silver Lion at Cannes. His debut feature Teenkahon (Three Obsessions), an arthouse triptych film in Bengali, made last year, traveled to multiple festivals (including Madrid International Film Festival and MAMI Mumbai Film Festival), before releasing earlier this year.
His latest film The Violin Player, follows 'a sessions musician (played by Ritwick Chakraborty) who works in the Hindi movie industry and lives a precarious existence in Mumbai. A chance encounter with a producer (Adil Husain) at a railway station sets him on a strange journey.’ The film was conceived as a short, but Mukherji decided to abandon the idea of length (it's 70 min long) thus letting the story flow, taking its own course.
The protagonist of The Violin Player is essentially an escapist and the film explores his psyche. It explores the dream of any creative person: making money whilst pursuing and creating original art. Mukherji plays with long shots, minimal dialogues and relies heavily on musical pieces. The final twist of the film resembles the crescendo in an orchestral performance, making The Violin Player a compelling and an interesting watch.
Mukherji shot the film in 10 days, cutting down production costs, that enabled him to keep the overall budget low enough for him to self-produce the film. If he can continue to do this, then he's probably found an interesting solution to the problem of funding that plagues most independent filmmakers. We hope he stays the course, and we get to see another film from him next year yet again.
After graduating from FTII in 1998, Ruchika struggled for a long period of time to get an opportunity to make films. She worked on several television shows in order to pay her bills. However, she considers this as a learning experiences and says it with a smile, “It was a fun experience and helped me develop a way of writing stories that had black comedy in it.”
And that’s what her film Island City is about. 3 stories set in three different milieus, all derived from Ruchika’s interactions and experiences with people staying in Mumbai, the film is a personal account that comments on how existing power systems play with us & have the ability to modify or influence our behaviour.
Each of the segments has a different tone, so while the 1st story is almost dystopian, the 2nd is satirical while the 3rd is tinged with realism. The transition from one to another is seamless and one senses, however vaguely, that there is a thread that binds the stories together. Funded by the NFDC, Oberoi's film is one of the few films in this list where the story is based in Mumbai. And that highlights the geographical diversity of imagination which is so integral to this new wave of independent cinema. Even Oberoi's Island City, isn't the same city that we are so used to seeing in our films, and that is probably why it speaks so strongly to us.
The film is still enjoying its festival run and will hopefully complete that to come home to a theatrical release. Do watch, when it does come out.
Time and again we keep hearing instances of innocent Indian citizens becoming victims of an unjust system. Newspapers & Facebook feeds are replete with these stories. This victimization becomes worse when the law makers turn into law breakers. And the ones expected to help innocent people from falling prey to such injustice, end up perpetrating the same system.
Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai (Investigation) talks about one such harrowing true story of 4 migrant workers who get falsely implicated in a robbery case. What follows is the gruesome depiction of the worst excesses our system is capable of.
Since his first film Polladhavan, director Vetrimaaran is known to make gritty fares set in rural India and Visaaranai is no exception. It’s just that this film is far more brutal, raw and visceral compared to Vetrimaaran’s earlier films. From the first scene, there is a sense of impending doom that awaits the protagonists and the film slowly prepares audiences for it. But what you cannot be prepared for is the intensity of torture that is heaped on the protagonists of the film.
Every beating taken by the protagonists (most of it real), every scream and helpless cry which they let out is stressed upon. It is done with the intention to make us aware of the trauma undergone by thousands of such people across our country every day. The film also makes an important point that the system spares none, be it the rich or the poor.
Visaaranai is one of the most hard-hitting Indian films we've seen this year and provides an uncompromising and stark view of an issue that deserves our immediate attention. It is not surprising that the film won the ‘Cinema for Human Rights' award at this years Venice Film Festival. Hopefully it will go beyond that & highlight the issue as well. While expecting films to have a real impact on society is probably asking for too much, we hope it does lead to at least some dialogue on the topic.
Indian films are often accused of being verbose. Indian filmmakers love dialogues & long-drawn expositions. This possibly stems from the low regard in which they hold their audience. Or maybe it’s to do with the theatrical origins of our cinema. Cinema, however, is an audio-visual medium & the power of the cinematic medium is in communicating by showing more & not by telling more. Hence the adage, show, don’t tell.
Labour Of Love is one of the few Indian films to have done that admirably in the recent past. The film had a limited release early this year, but it was received with love & unstinted admiration by critics across the board. Rarely do we see a film so poetic & soulful that dialogues seem to be unnecessary. The young debut director, Aditya Vikram Sengupta goads you into the world of his protagonists, and before you know it you are a part of their routine.
The visuals are beautifully aided by delightful music, replete with Shehnai, complimented by the sounds of daily hustle-bustle. Kolkata probably never looked as beautiful as it does in Sengupta’s film.
The camera is almost languorous as it follows the characters going about their lives. You are forced to watch, at first unwillingly - spoiled as we are by all the fast-cutting action-filled ‘modern’ cinema - but then as you let go of yourself, you start enjoying the beauty in the small things of life. There is a meditative quality to the film & it makes you observe, in minute detail, the present.
The Buddhist call it mindfulness, a state of being where you are aware, just aware of the present. The past & future do not matter as much and beyond the simple plot of the film, that is what the film achieves. But only to those who are willing to let go.
Sengupta is currently working on his second film, Memories & My Mother, which was part of the Co-Production market at this years’ NFDC Film Bazaar.