November 13, 2021 7:35:05 pm
India’s 75th year of independence is a good time to visit a film like Kaushal Oza’s The Miniaturist of Junagadh. Naseeruddin Shah’s miniature artist Husyn Naqqash has lost his eyesight in having dedicated a life to his art. The artist and his art has no value in the new post-Partition reality, compelled to leave Junagadh for Karachi. There’s a sense of longing for the lost past, for the lost glory of the Mughal era, when artists were valued, the onset of a longing for the lost motherland. His lost eyesight is a blessing in disguise for his family (Rasika Duggal, Padmavati Rao), who could escape starvation thanks to his invaluable art but that’s a reality they can’t divulge to him. When art leaves, can the artist survive?
The film is part of the 10th edition of the eclectic, glocal Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) that draws to a close, on November 14 (a regular pass to watch will be available even on the last day). Here is a look at 10 other Indian indies that made us reflect, on life and lives:
Laila Aur Satt Geet (The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs)
Writer Vijaydan Detha’s stories of female agency readily lend themselves to screen adaptations. Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, 1973, its remake, Amol Palekar’s Paheli, 2005, and Pushpendra Singh’s films Lajwanti, 2014. The poetic Laila aur Satt Geet (from Detha’s Kenchuli) transcends both time and space. It’s divided into seven chapters/folk songs/life-phases of Laila (Navjot Randhawa, of Mehsampur, 2018), a girl from the nomadic sheep-herding Gujjar-Bakarwal community. The unenthusiastic prize won in marriage and dutiful wife evolves into a free-spirited playful seductress, self-respecting, with strong boundaries. Laila is a metonym, an allegory, for Kashmir, referred to by her physical beauty, with men (powers/countries fighting over it) wanting to conquer/possess her. Singh marries state and gender politics, feudalism with feminism. Poet Lal Ded’s verses flow stream-like, and silent frames, with sheep meandering in the Valley and Laila blending in with nature’s bounty (cinematography by Ranabir Das; Cannes winner A Night of Knowing Nothing), emit a meditative slowness reminiscent of Amit Dutta’s style of filmmaking (Singh has acted/assisted in Dutta’s films).
Uljhan (The Knot)
Ashish Pant’s Uljhan, to borrow JJ Abram’s phrase, a “blood relative” of Mrinal Sen’s Kharij (1982), in the way it establishes class relations, and lays out events/facts. Both their look at middle-class (Sen’s lower-middle-class Kolkata to Pant’s upper-middle-class Lucknow) aspirations and immorality is dispassionate. A road accident embroils a seemingly happy marriage, and social relations in Pant’s gripping, assured debut. It is a study in class dynamics, among the social haves and have-nots and between husband and wife. She’s born into wealth, he, Shirish, has made his way into it, and is unwilling to part with it. Recurring door/window/boundary wall/gate motifs establish a world shut out, and another eager to breach it. Through Geeta (Saloni Batra), Pant’s dark lens, in close-ups and tracking shots, looks both outward and inward. Guilt and a sense of moral responsibility grips Geeta, like it did Shah Rukh Khan/Tabu after their car hit Rani Mukherji in Saathiya (2002). Kindness surfaces from guilt, which arises from class consciousness and awareness of one’s privilege. But can money buy, or rid oneself of, guilt?
What’s in a name? Sometimes, everything. In his debut feature, Faraz Ali shows the parallel undoing of the personal and the political. A reflection on how when things don’t work, replace it instead of repairing. In his worldmaking, Ali captures his home-city just as it was getting changed, in 2018, from Allahabad to Prayagraj, razing the old, from single-screen theatres to malls and multiplexes. If Allahabad is shown to be morphing into a different beast, Ali foregrounds it with the story of Mampu (Amrita Bagchi), whose father Madhav Chatterjee (Purnendu Bhattacharya) is a dinosaur in the new ecosystem — much like Bubu da in Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta. He wants to hold on to his Palace Theatre single-screen cinema hall. He and his family pay a price for his adamancy. Very Herzogian, Ali places documentary elements within the nooks and crannies of his feature. The sense of desolation absolute with the muted blue filters and sarod notes.
In her 21-minute short film, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, director Alisha Tejpal subverts the gaze to tell the story from the eponymous help’s (Shobha Dangle) perspective, whose identity is synonymous with her labour — as much internalised as it is imposed. The ambiguity of time heightens the monotony, like days piling on days, it could be a day in Lata’s life or her daily routine over months and years. The frame stays indoors. The static camera cuts close, at Lata’s eye level, not looking down at her — when she’s sweeping/washing floors, waiting outside a neighbour’s door, eating “her” food in steel utensils, looking in and out of doors/windows. The opening and shutting of doors demarcate the worlds — she has access into or has to wait outside of. The gaze is also directed inwards at the upper-class/upper-middle class whose lives can’t run without the help. The house is Tejpal’s, who implicates herself into the narrative, as being part of the problem.
Through a mosaic of six stories couched in layers of separation, displacement, remembrance, longing, and hopes of repatriation/homecoming, director Samarth Mahajan makes the invisibilised border subjects heard, minus any anger or lament. Deepa, a Pakistani Hindu refugee, whose identity is used often to make the case against Pakistan, shows that migrations are for economic reasons. Rekha, the director’s mother, in Dinanagar in Punjab, 10 miles from the Pakistan border, couldn’t cross the threshold of her home and role of a housewife for her own aspirations. Marriage brought Dhauli from Bangladesh into West Bengal. Her story and identity exist in the in-between. Kavita, an interceptor, in Birgunj, stops Nepali girls from being trafficked. Filmmaker Surjakanta is trying to not forget Manipur’s “complicated” history (forced to become a part of India) and relationship (sandwiched between an internal/state border with the Indian union and international border with Myanmar) purely from the place of an artist. The border is a demarcation between the legally acknowledged citizen and the officially non-existent subject. At once observational and participatory, Borderlands tells a living story of our time, in an indelibly soulful manner.
Ek Tha Gaon (Once Upon a Village)
Srishti Lakhera’s documentary is like visiting an ancestral home/village without any ancestor/relative in it. About 800 years ago, a village settled by one kind of migration is today empty because of another kind of palayan. If people make a village, what remains of it when they leave? Ek Tha Gaon (Once Upon a Village) is the story of Semla, one among Uttarakhand’s 1,053 “ghost villages”. Semla is also Lakhera’s father’s ancestral village. In looking at an empty village, lost way of life, she’s looking back at her own childhood, the days she grew up at her grandparents’ place when visiting during school holidays. Nothing is more haunting than a place, once brimming with laughter and cries, falling silent to the ravages of time and the draws of an urban/modern life.
In political decisions about conflict zones, are a child’s predicaments taken into account? Minus polemics, posturing, statements, Ashish Pandey’s 22-minute short film is a moving portrait, is telling without having to tell. It shows the world, the Kashmir problem — in that Iranian-cinema style — through a child’s eyes, effectively to critique war. Her actions and reactions are innocent. The eight-year-old Noor (Saima Latief) dozes off in school, she cannot sleep at home — on the high-altitude LOC village Izmarg in Gurez — at night, amid the sounds of gun-firing and shelling, but when she’s up, she believes, the gun-firing stops. She’d rather study, or play Ludo with herself, if it brings in peace/sleep. She and friends count bullet marks on house walls on their way to school, they see the security force’s bunkers, secured by concertina wires, moochh-wale fauji uncle, ask an old woman “who died today?” to the sound of wailing women in the backdrop. As the news spreads of Nooreh’s make-believe trick to peace, the film closes with a winsome shot, light in the heart of darkness, as Habba Khatoon’s song Roshe reverberates deep in the Valley.
Like the name of its protagonist, Raag, Aakash Chhabra’s 20-minute short film unfolds gently like myriad mellifluous ragas, in the span of a day. Raag is the homecoming of a young man and the resuscitation of an old. On returning to his hometown, after a long absence, he tries to rekindle his friendship with his ailing grandfather, dressing him up the way he was on the day they last met. The film is meditative and patient, transcends in the scenes between grandfather and grandson, the young slides in his sturdier feet for the old man to stand on, the old touching the fresh stubble of the young, a smile and a known glance. The nuanced film, immensely observational, speaks for all of us and hits where it hurts the most — of us neglecting our ageing parents/grandparents, never finding the time to meet/spend time with them, and living with a sense of guilt/regret at not making the time when they were around.
Can a stranger fill in for your absent loved one? Amrita Bagchi’s short film reminds one of Werner Herzog’s 2019 film Family Romance, LLC, about an agency that provides rental people, on contract, to fill in the gaps in people’s lives. Bagchi’s futuristic film is our rendezvous with a dystopian reality/future. Ingenious, yet scary. Her company, like a cubicle out of a sci-fi movie, sends M (Merenla Imsong) PDFs, clothes, pen drives, and training material to become a said person she’s to replace for a given duration. Sometimes, M has to become a Kannadiga, sometimes a Jain, a sister, daughter, granddaughter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. M has for companion green friends, and, despite her efforts, the only things she can bring back to life are plants. The nameless, identity-less M is human at the end of the day, she too crosses the line, gets attached, and pushes back. There are no easy answers. The film calmly leaves us with questions: Can people be replaced? Can you lose your identity to adopt another’s? Can you deceive yourself?
Mono No Aware
Another film about the missing bond of a grandparent-grandchild. The title is a Buddhist term, often translated as a pathos of/empathy for things, “watching the passing”. In his 20-minute short, set in suburban Mumbai, Koushik Sarkar pits life’s/relationship’s transience against the monolith’s permanence. A school outing takes 10-year-old Poorna to Andheri’s 200-ft, 66-million-year-old, black-basalt-rock-column Gilbert Hill, standing tall amid an indifferent, brake-less, bustling city, and to an old-age home, where she confronts a tragic reality, finds what she thought she’d lost.
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