By Rohini Banerjee:2015 has truly been a great year for Indian indie cinema. Powerful, small-budget and independent films received not just widespread national attention, but also recognition in international film festivals. Though our industry still has a long way to go in giving these films the mainstream appreciation they deserve, but this year was definitely a step in the positive direction. So, if you missed the following films, go watch them now!
This courtroom drama directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, which first premiered in the Venice International Film Festival, won tremendous critical acclaim and went on to become India’s official entry for the Oscars. An incisive critique of the Indian legal system, the film follows the trial of an ageing folk singer in a Sessions Court in Mumbai as he battles charges of abetment of suicide, because one of his songs might have incited a man to jump into a sewer. The film also follows the personal lives of the judge, the public prosecutor and the lawyers as the case meanders along for months due to numerous excuses and delays. Narayan’s (the singer) pain, frustration and helplessness is palpable, harrowing and so real that one cannot help but be deeply affected by this film.
Another film that won accolades at the Venice International Film Festival and later won a National Award, this is an account of the various travails an unnamed married couple faces in their relationship, and in their daily working class lives. The woman works in a handbag factory while the man works the night shift at a printing press; and the film follows the couple as they go about their day, how they stay apart all day long except one brief moment when they get to be with each other. Despite its murky, urban, setting, the film is beautifully lyrical and poetic. Even the silences are filled with so much poignancy, that by the end of it, one can easily draw parallels between this and the works of legendary filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray or Wong Kar Wai.
Hilarious in parts, and emotional in others, this film chronicles a young village boy’s journey to the United States to discover what really happened to his missing and supposedly America-bound brother. Starring Suraj Sharma (of ‘Life of Pi’ fame), Prateik Babbar and Tony Revolori (of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame), this film premiered at the Sundance Festival and bagged the prestigious World Cinema Dramatic Audience award. Umrika takes place from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, and comments on both political and pop cultural events of the time. It uses Rama’s (the protagonist) lifelong obsession with America as a source of humorous cross-cultural commentary which cuts through an essentially serious narrative. A definite must-watch.
Screened at many major national and international film festivals (including Cannes), this film looks at the fear and paranoia that pervaded Punjab’s social and political atmosphere in the 80s. Through the story of a farmer and his dog, the film dramatizes the tense stand-off between Sikh militants and the government authorities in the 1980s. Though the narrative is not linear, and keeps shifting between flashbacks and present day, and intertwines many other minor stories into its fabric, the film is gripping from start to finish. This is definitely a film that stays with you even months after watching it.
This has truly been a great year for independent Marathi cinema, and Killa is yet another feather in its crown. This film, which revolves around an 11-year old boy’s life as he struggles with reconciling himself with the death of his father, received rave reviews and awards in the Berlin International Film Festival. The boy, Chinmay, stumbles upon a deserted fort—which is clearly a metaphor for Chinmay’s abandoned and desolate mind—and begins exploring it. His exploration of the fort leads to important self-discoveries. This film delves into child psychology with such simultaneous incisiveness and warmth, that one can help but be charmed by it.
First screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and nominated for the Camera D’Or, this film hit Indian theatres in November and instantly wowed critics. In Delhi’s seedy underbelly, Titli, the youngest member of a violent car-jacking brotherhood, plots to escape the ‘family’ business. His struggle to do so is thwarted at each stage by his indignant brothers, who finally try marrying him off to ‘settle’ him down. However, Titli finds an unlikely ally in his new wife, despite her being caught in her own web of dysfunctional dreams. They form a mutually dependent partnership, only to ultimately confront their inability to escape the trappings of their family roots. Its portrayal of the volatility of a society where violence lurks beneath every surface is truly haunting.
This film, which first premiered in the Busan International Film Festival, combines folklore and oral history in retelling popular stories that are an important part of Assamese culture. Based on characters and events described in Burhi Aair Sadhu (Grandmother’s Tales), the four fables referenced in the film are Tejimola, Champawati, Ou Kuwori (The Outenga Maiden) and Tawoir Xadhu (the Story of Tawoir). Starring veteran actors such as Seema Biswas and Adil Hussain, the film evokes such a vast and complex range of emotions, that one really has to watch it to truly experience it.
This documentary, directed by Abhay Kumar, is a chilling examination of one of the most competitive institutions in the world—All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Every year thousands of aspiring doctors apply, but only 0.1% of the applicants can actually get in (Harvard’s acceptance rate is 7% in comparison). In 2011, a violent student brawl left Kumar’s younger brother Sahil with an immobile right arm, a year before he was expected to write his final exams at AIIMS. With Sahil’s dreams of a successful career in medicine seemingly dashed, Kumar — equipped with only a Handycam—sets out to understand life amongst the “geniuses” at AIIMS and to investigate why more and more medical students are committing suicide. And this is not just AIIMS, but a reflection of the larger problems within the Indian educational system.Through extensive student interviews over a two-year period and surreal animated sequences, Kumar reveals a student body plagued by overwhelming pressure from parents, faculty, administrators, other students, and themselves. Still, despite the many demons haunting current students, the best of the best continue to strive for the “placebo” of prestige granted by their esteemed institutions.
Starring Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkumar Rao, this film is based on the real-life story of Dr Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University and was suspended from his post because he was homosexual. The film delves into Siras’ psychology and renders him so humane and real, that his loneliness and pain is palpable and poignant. The film premiered in the Busan International Film Festival where it was met with a standing ovation and had its Indian premiere at the JIO MAMI Film Festival held in Mumbai. In the contemporary Indian climate where Section 377 is still being enforced and homosexuality is still being penalized and discriminated against, this film is even more relevant and heartrending.
This film made India extremely proud at Cannes this year, winning two awards and widespread critical acclaim. It tells two parallel stories—that of Devi (played by Richa Chaddha), whose reputation is called into question when she is discovered having sex with a man in a hotel room by the police, and that of Deepak, a Dalit corpse-burner, who falls in love with a Brahmin girl. The way it handles the sensitive topics of both gender and caste is remarkable, moving and often heartbreakingly beautiful. The ending, especially, will leave you both simultaneously crying and smiling. If you haven’t already, do go watch this right now.
Like I said earlier, 2015 was a genuinely wonderful year for independent cinema in India, with such a variety of remarkable films emerging from so many different regions. Amongst more honourable mentions include Gaalibeeja (Wind Seed), the genre-bending metanarrative Kannada road movie, Rajkahini (No Woman’s Land), national award winning Bengali director Shrijit Mukherjee’s feminist rendering of various partition stories, and the Nawazzuddin Siddiqui starrer Haraamkhor (The Wretched), an arresting, uncanny love story.
Here’s hoping this streak of incredible indie films continues and gives us more exceptional, real stories to look forward to in the coming years as a breather from big-budget “masala” entertainers.