The 2016 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) featured a bumper crop of Indian films, giving them a potent platform, but mainstream Bollywood couldn’t get any screen time.
Since Priyanka Chopra walked the red carpet for Mary Kom in 2014, the Mumbai masala factory has given way to another menu – from a choice of appetising documentaries to fulfilling features. And this appears to be a trend with North America’s most celebrated event of this nature. The nine films featured in 2016, a volume not seen in many years, fell well into the indie category.
The Indian documentary, in fact, was quite evident at TIFF. While it didn’t have a world premiere at the festival, The Cinema Travellers, directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, came with the cache of having won the special jury prize L'Oeil d'or: Le Prix du documentaire at Cannes.
It follows the mobile theatres of Maharashtra that once brought movies to rural areas, usually pitching their tents at religious fairs. But these cinemas are dying, even though “they are trying very hard (to survive) but not being very successful”, Abraham said.
TIFF programmer for documentaries Thom Powers described the film as “lyrical”. Madhesiya saw TIFF as an apt venue for such a film. “This is like a travelling cinema,” he said, pointing to the bustle around downtown Toronto during the 10-day festival, much like the crowds that gather for a mela.
Also on show was Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man, which tracks the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party by Arvind Kejriwal. The documentary ends shortly after Kejriwal first became chief minister of Delhi.
For TIFF audiences, Kejriwal was pitched as “the Bernie Sanders of India.” How matters have changed is evidenced by the fact that two of the three people that facilitated gonzo coverage of the party and its assembly election campaign, Prashant Bhushan and Shazia Ilmi, are no longer part of it.
The filmmakers embedded themselves in the process before many took Kejriwal or his political aspirations seriously. Shukla said, “None of us had imagined it getting as big as it did. That’s where we started, we just started on a hunch that this may be interesting.” In that sense, this is a pioneering political documentary in India.
Just as significant was Toronto-based Richie Mehta’s India In A Day, that catalogues the country from dawn to dusk, capturing moments from across the nation, with the footage crowd-sourced.
Ranka, meanwhile, earned the rare privilege of being a director with two films at a major festival as her virtual reality venture, Right To Pray, was also at TIFF.
If Bollywood was missing, one name from the industry, Konkona Sensharma, was present with her debut film as a director, A Death In The Gunj. A moving, often riveting ensemble drama with eerie atmospherics, this film will make its way to open the Mumbai Film Festival next month.
The movie is set in 1979 in the Anglo-Indian enclave of McCluskiegunj, in what is now Jharkhand, and Sensharma pointed out she would visit this town with her parents as a child and had returned now to use it as the setting for a fiction feature for the first time. While the film’s formal release in Indian theatres is yet to be settled upon, that’s likely to occur early next year.
The first-time director was surrounded by a clutch of veterans premiering their films in the Masters section of TIFF. There were Deepa Mehta’s Anatomy Of Violence, based on the Nirabhaya episode, Malayalam maestro Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum (Once Again), Bengali auteur Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tope (The Bait), the Serbian-Indian production Dev Bhoomi (Land Of The Gods) with a celebrated director from that Balkan country, Goran Paskaljevic.
Mehta said the reason she chose the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape as the subject was to have the film “used as a tool to start a dialogue about social inequities, patriarchy and society’s complicity in perpetuating these dark forces”.
Big Bollywood did have some representation at TIFF this year, in the form of director Karan Johar appearing in the “In Conversation With“ segment. That, however, was on the margins of the festival, not on the main stage that the industry is used to.
How things have changed:
Four years ago, two of the most celebrated directors of Indian origin, Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, had their films premiere at the TIFF. In 2012, both their films were based on novels – in Mehta’s case on Salman Rushdie’s Booker of Bookers-winning Midnight’s Children, while Nair brought Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to screen.
This year, both again had world premieres at TIFF, and both films are based on scripts based on real-life incidents. But that’s where the common thread snaps.
Nair’s Queen of Katwe is a Disney production, an uplifting tale of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, who goes from the streets of rural Uganda to become a chess champion. While this was a gala presentation at TIFF, Mehta’s Anatomy Of Violence featured in its Masters section.
Anatomy Of Violence deals with the Nirbhaya gang-rape-murder in New Delhi. “I don't believe in ‘message films’ which I find infinitely boring but rather in cinema that provokes our mindset and makes us question the status quo. The 2012 gang-rape was exactly that incident. It was outrageous in its brutality . I knew I wanted to explore the incident and make it accessible, questioning through the medium of film,” Mehta said of her decision to make this film, which is possibly her most unusual yet. Shot over two months, newcomer Janki Bisht plays the central role.
While Queen of Katwe releases on September 23, there’s no timeline yet for Anatomy Of Violence.
But another factor that ties the two together is it was a sort of homecoming for both directors – Nair filmed in Uganda, where she spends a lot of time and has established a film school, while Mehta’s shot parts of Anatomy Of Violence in her hometown of Delhi.