Mcleodganj or ‘Little Lhasa’ hosted the Dharamshala International Film Festival this year. And a fine host it turned out to be. Special mention must be made of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts or TIPA, one of the two venues for the festival. Perched in the shadow of the mighty Dhauladhar range and overlooking the huge Tibetan settlement of Mcleodganj, TIPA’s setting added to the experience. The eclectic mix of over 25 films from across the world, with a section for children’s films being introduced this year, was enough reason for film lovers to trudge across the hilly terrain, a short hike uphill, to reach the venue.
While a diverse assortment of international cinema was presented to an equally diverse audience, let the focus be on what Indian filmmakers had to offer at the festival. Two films, Titli and Masaan, both bold and hard-hitting, highlighted the subaltern, the realities of the society most of us are unaware of. The films portray how indie films are making inroads to the mainstream. While Titli is this social-realist drama set in the squalid, crime-ridden outskirts of Delhi where Titli — youngest of three brothers — tries to escape his family’s gangster roots, Masaan is a tale of class, caste and sexuality based in Benares, against the backdrop of the Ganga, capturing the essence of the saying of Kabir, ‘Rand, Sand, Seedhi, Sanyasi, Inse Bacche to Sevai Kashi’ (Widows, bulls, stairs and saints, escape them all to reach salvation).
Enough reviewers have already dwelled on these films, however. What stood out from the bouquet of films on offer, were two regional films, Kothanodi, an Assamese film by Bhaskar Hazarika and Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi-language film Chauthi Koot. And to some extent Prashant Nair’s Umrika, that is if you consider the Hindi dialect of Bundeli as regional cinema. Umrika, the film that created waves at Sundance, revolves around the story of two brothers where the younger one, the protagonist, sets out to try and figure out what happened to his brother, who supposedly left for the United States. (Umrika, for his fellow villagemen back home).
Chauthi Koot, takes viewers to the dark days of militancy in Punjab. Set in 1984, Gurvinder Singh’s film evokes the atmosphere of suspicion, fear and paranoia, typical of the time. The film is based on the short stories written by author Waryam Singh Sandhu which loosely connects two incidents — two Hindu men trying to board a train, which moves on to a tale of a farmer’s family caught in between the love for their pet dog Tommy and their safety. Tommy needs to be killed, because it barks at the militants in the dark.
Interestingly, Gurvinder reveals how many of his film cast was made up of non-actors. There is a role played by a stand-up comedian, a school teacher, an engineer and one businessman who he met during a screening. “I don’t differentiate between actors and non-actors. For me when I cast someone, I treat him or her as a non-actor. It’s just that if I want them to play a character and they are possibly the closest proximity to the character,” says Gurvinder. How the film quietly narrates the violent tale of the ’80s Punjab is fascinating, with almost a complete absence of violence on screen.
Kothanodi or the river of stories, is based on Assamese literature legend Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s famed book of fables titled Burhi Aair Xadhu (Grandmother’s tales). Director Bhaskar Hazarika has reimagined four of these folk tales for his debut feature film, a part of which was crowd-funded. These four stories explore the multiple shades of women. Set in pre-colonial era and shot at the river island of Majuli, Kothanodi appeals to those who enjoy horror and the surreal.
Another Indian film, a documentary, which received a standing ovation and loud applause from the audience, explored a grim reality that perhaps plagues every premier institute of the country. The film titled Placebo is a journey through the corridors of excellence of the premier medical institute AIIMS in New Delhi. Filmmaker Abhay Kumar infiltrates the complex mindscape of some of the bright minds of the country who have made it to the institution only to find themselves trapped in a web of soaring ambition, widespread depression and peer pressure. Kumar spends two years in the institution’s dormitories, armed only with a handycam, and returns with over 800 hours of footage, which he eventually edits in 80 different versions. It is during his stay that a first year MBBS student Anil Kumar Meena had committed suicide which led to protests against the AIIMS administration. More than just being the complete antithesis of the mainstream and focusing on the hard reality of the society, as Titli’s director Kanu Behl puts it, these films aim to strike a conversation. It is perhaps time we give more space to such films and not just run after big budget films shot at exotic locales and aim to get into the Rs 100-crore club.
(The writer was hosted by the festival organisers)