Offbeat to mainstream

Never before in its 60 years of existence did the Berlinale ever screen nine Indian films, including Ray's Charulata
Mehru Jaffer Berlin

Thanks to a fresh crop of filmmakers, audiences at this year's Berlinale were able to get a healthy glimpse into the life of ordinary Indians. It was exciting to hear individuals talk about real, complex conundrums faced by them in their mother tongue.

Laxmikant Shetgoankar, the 35-year-old director from Goa, told the story of Vinayak, a lonely guard on duty in the heart of the forest on the Goa-Karnataka border, in Konkani. Anup Mandal's poetic cinematography in Shetgoankar's The Man Beyond the Bridge revived memories of Satyajit Ray, who was a member of the jury at the 1961 Berlinale. Two years later, Ray participated in a panel discussion with other directors, including Roman Polanski. In 1973, Ray returned home with the Golden Bear, Berlinale's highest prize, awarded for his extraordinary film in black and white, Ashani Sanket. In 1965, the Berlinale played host to the Indian team of Shakespearewallah when Madhur Jaffrey and Jennifer Kapoor draped in satin and silk and wearing high beehive hair dos paraded down the red carpet with the dashing Shashi Kapoor. 

Never before in its 60 years of existence did the Berlinale ever screen nine Indian films, including Ray's Charulata that played to a full house in the homage section.

It is a pity that none of the Indian films won a prize this year, but all of them did enjoy packed multiple screenings in auditoriums. It was impressive to see directors Dev Benegal and Umesh Kulkarni take to the stage with a long line of unknown colleagues in tow, answering endless questions of audiences that seemed deeply involved with the Indian stories.

Kulkarni, 34, led his team of the Marathi film Vihir screened in the Generation 14 plus section. Anna Cheaffer, the German filmmaker, was so charmed by Vihir, a lyrical film capturing the fantasies of a group of children as they come of age in just another Indian family, that she filmed the entire cast of the film all over again for a documentary.

In Dev Benegal's Road, Movie which is an imaginative attempt at self-discovery by ordinary people, critics found an 'immense likeability'. Critic Allan Hunter was impressed with the calm confidence of Benegal: "...this film's engaging spirit and gentle nature render it very approachable for international audiences looking beyond Bollywood for what Indian cinema has to offer," was Hunter's verdict in Screen Daily.

Rituparno Ghosh, better known as 'a director from Calcutta', came with Arekti Premer Golpo or Just Another Love Story. In this film, for the first time, Ghosh faces the camera in the role of a trans-gender director making a documentary on a trans-gender theatre actor of years gone by.

The cast includes Chapal Bhaduri, Indraneil Sengupta, Jisshu Sengupta, Churni Ganguly and Raima Sen. The film is remembered for sensitive portrayals that are even throughout the over two hours taken to unfold the passion involved in this same-sex love story.

Anusha Rizvi's Peepli Live entertained at the historic Paris Cinema in Berlin's Kufeurstendamm district where the Berlinale was headquartered throughout the Cold War when a wall divided the city. This film amused audiences even as it showcased an extremely grim reality of rural India with mass suicides among helpless farmers.

Peepli Live won praise for its high production values and lack of moralising. This debut film by Rizvi, 33, was appreciated for exposing the transparent hypocrisy in Indian society where everyone is made to share the blame for everything that goes wrong.

The Shahrukh Khan starrer My Name is Khan won accolades for different reasons. After all, it falls into quite another genre, another kind of story-telling that revolves around no ordinary Indian but a particularly gifted one. The film received rave notices from fans and critics alike.

Ironically, Abhay Deol, the ordinary folk from parallel cinema, who plays the lead role in Road, Movie, made prima donna'suggestions like first getting permission from the public relations agency in Mumbai before he could talk about films. Unlike him, however, Rizvi and Shetgoankar happily shared their thoughts on what it feels like to be feted by the Berlinale, the world's most revered film festival. It enriched the Indian experience, from offbeat to mainstream cinema.

Interview: 
A History graduate from Delhi's St Stephen's College, Anusha Rizvi, 33, studied human rights at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Rizvi produced documentary films for NDTV before directing Peepli Live, her first feature film produced by Aamir Khan.   

What makes Peepli Live so special?
The actors. It is an actor's film. I think it is the combination of humour and brilliant performances by each and every actor.

Tell us how the film was realised?
I was at NDTV and quit my job at the television station because I felt I was done with journalism. Initially, I raised some money to make a documentary. Than began the work on the script and the search for a director. I am glad that I was able to make and also direct the feature film on my own.

Do you think recent Indian cinema is becoming a bit more realistic?
Personally, I feel concern over certain issues and that is what went into my story and comes through in the film. The inspiration to make my kind of film has come from the works of Anurag Kashyap. It is remarkable that for a while now Anurag has been tenaciously making films he believes in. That is very inspiring. I am a great fan of Nandita Das and I loved Firaq simply because the director had the courage not to fantasise at the end of the film.  

With nine Indian films screened at the Berlinale this year, do you think contemporary Indian cinema has finally arrived?
This is a very exciting time for Indian cinema. But I would wait and watch. It is perhaps still too early to say that Indian cinema has arrived.

Your style of story-telling is such a contrast to Bollywood films and yet your film has succeeded in wooing the audience here as well. Why?
Audiences everywhere have the right to be exposed to different kinds of cinema. They can watch candy floss kind of Bollywood films and also other films that insist that it is no longer possible to push certain problems under the carpet. Peepli Live is not about the plight of Indian peasants only. Agriculture is in a mess all over the world. Even food and water have been handed over to private companies. This is not good for any society anywhere on this planet. And the audience here recognises that in the film.

How was Aamir Khan like as a producer?
Aamir is a dream producer. He is courageous to have trusted my script. He asked me to go ahead and make the film and not to worry about anything else. Aamir took care of everything.

Interview 2
Laxmi Shetgoankar, 35, graduated in theatre acting but always dreamt of making a feature film. A Seaside Story, his first non-feature film received two national awards in 2005. After a grant by the British Council, he wrote the screenplay of The Man Beyond the Bridge.

How did you manage to make this lovely film?
I graduated in Theatre Arts from the Goa Kala Academy and earned my living holding workshops in acting all over the country. While teaching at the National School of Drama (NSD) I got the chance to attend international film festivals in New Delhi. I was exposed to a variety of international cinema and it became my dream to make a feature film. All this while, I always wanted that the film should be about Goa and in the local Konkani dialect.

Why is that many films made in Goa are hardly about Goa?
Exactly. Filmmakers come to Goa to film the landscape and hardly take note of the local people. When characters from Goa are depicted in Bollywood films they are either caricatured as drunk, comedians, smugglers or as a secretary dressed in skimpy clothes and with few morals. At the moment I am preoccupied with spreading cinema literacy by screening different kinds of films in schools and villages all over Goa. 

Is that a grudge you hold against Bollywood?
I do. Mainstream Bollywood cinema is not just popular but very, very popular; but it is not my kind of cinema. It is star-oriented. I want to make films in my way and in my language. Cinema is not merely a source of entertainment for me.

How did you meet the cost of The Man Beyond the Bridge?
I made my first film in 2003. In 2005 I wrote the screenplay of The Man Beyond the Bridge. It took me four years to find and manage finances for the film. It cost me Rs 1 crore.

Do you think the digital revolution will help filmmakers to make more films with less money?
Yes, it will. It is the star-oriented films that demand unrealistic budgets. I look forward to that space in the future when I can make a film without worrying too much about money.

How do you feel being at the Berlinale?
At home. I love the audience. People here are so cinema literate. It is a very professional film festival. After it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, a Canadian distributor bought the film. I am still in search for a distributor in India so that a larger audience can enjoy the film at home too.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010