The last two years in Punjab have mostly witnessed the hoopla around one or the other Punjabi film release, featuring yet another singer trying his hand at acting, and lately, a Bollywood sidekick or starlet hoping to strike luck with the region’s bustling film industry.
But, these films’ record-breaking box office collections mask an essential trait—lacklustre content. With a handful exceptions, the storylines are so drab and repetitive, you could predict in your sleep what would happen next; performances so poor you wouldn’t know how to rate them. While audience in Punjab is being inundated with such films, there is a change happening somewhere. Like a quietly growing rebellion that has the potential of turning into a fierce war for meaning, for sense.
If names such as Qissa: The Ghost is a Lonely Traveller, Surkhaab or Woman From the East (Kudessan) don’t ring a bell, you have a lot of catching up to do. Meet these films’ directors, most of whom are also financiers and co-actors in their projects, as they take you along on a journey of grit, belief and applause—not at home—but in the international film festival circuit where their projects found space.
It sounds like he is narrating a fable when Anup Singh tells us the source of inspiration for his Punjabi film Qissa: The Ghost is a Lonely Traveller. Based in UK, Anup, the film’s writer and director, was born and brought up in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa. Having had to leave his place of birth and settle in Mumbai, Anup has taken bits from his life to weave into the story. “The real source of Qissa is that last journey I took with my parents from Dar-es-Salaam to Bombay, when we were forced to leave the land of my birth. It was my first harrowing journey into homelessness, what has now become a life-long journey of a refugee. However, what gave me some hope then and continues to nourish me today is what I experienced after a few nights on the vast ocean between Africa and India,” he says.
Anup goes on to share the surreal experience that propelled him towards filmmaking. “One night, a huge screen was raised on the deck of the ship and a film flared bright between the starry sky above and the boundless sea below. I knew at that moment that as long as I could invoke this experience of cinema where it pulsed as a part of the larger cosmos, I would never be homeless. Qissa also takes a lot from the journeys of my grandfather, whose tales of 1947 scarred my imagination as a child. Throughout his life, my grandfather carried a bitter resentment about the loss of his home. Often, he could not help but turn on his own family with a remorseless violence. Somehow, any which way, he needed to avenge his loss. When you view Qissa, you’ll immediately see that this is the inspiration for the character of Umber,” says Anup.
With an ensemble cast of acclaimed actors such as Irrfan, Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, the film has been invited to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada this year.
Shot in January 2012 in villages near Wagah border and the outskirts of Chandigarh, Qissa is the story of Umber Singh, (played by Irrfan) a Sikh who is uprooted by the Partition and attempts to build a new life for himself and his family in India. Traumatised by the loss of his home and identity, he determines to bring up his fourth daughter as a son, leading the characters to their fates.
As gripping as the story sounds, Anup reveals he was under pressure to make the film in Hindi. “While almost everyone who read or heard the script wanted to be a part of it, they would insist on doing it in Hindi, while I was convinced that it could be made only in Punjabi. The other thing we could never come to an agreement about was the casting. I would rather not make the film than do it in a way I did not believe in,” he says.
Surprisingly, the film did manage to find producers, albeit foreign. It has been produced by Germany’s Heimatfilm, Dutch production house Augustus Film, France’s Cine-Sud and the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Anup shares how it happened. “As luck would have it, I was invited to Rotterdam to present one of my projects, Lasya—The Gentle Dance. There, I met Bettina Brokemper of Heimatfilm. There was something about her that allowed me to narrate the story of Qissa to her. Her response was immediate and electrifying, ‘We’re doing it,’ she said to me and her partner, Johannes Rexin,” he recalls excitedly.
Throwing more light on the film, Anup adds, “Once Heimatfilm decided to do it, they started the caravan rolling and slowly, we had more people joining us, all of whom could contribute only a small amount to the film’s budget. But, I’m sure that collectively, these international co-producers will help the film reach a wider audience. For me, the real edge was that they were ready to respect the fact that I wanted to make the film in Punjabi and with specific actors.”
Is he comfortable accepting Qissa in the league of ‘art’ films? “Oh yes, as long as we accept that Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam are ‘art’ films. And of course, to me, they are art of the highest calibre in the history of Indian cinema. Qissa, then, I would say is as different from a regular Punjabi film as, let’s say, Balraj Sahni was from Shammi Kapoor. They are obviously both very different from each other. But, one without the other would have made Indian cinema so much less. Together, they give Indian cinema the gravity and energy that makes it reach out to a larger audience worldwide.”
What about the multitude of Punjabi films releasing every week? “The more successful are the films made in Punjab, the more fertile becomes the ground for other kinds of films. What I like about actors Neeru Bajwa, Diljit Dosanjh and Gippy Grewal is that they’ve gathered like-minded and talented filmmakers to work together in camaraderie. Punjabi cinema, like every other mainstream cinema, can grow only if it stays in active dialogue with other possibilities,” he says.
Another film, Surkhaab, can safely pride itself on the numerous international film festivals that it has travelled to. From winning this year’s Remi Platinum Award for Best Feature at the Houston International Film Festival to the Best Producers Award at the Madrid International Film Festival (awarded to Surkhaab’s actor and co-producer Barkha Madan and US-based producer Vivek Kumar), the film has also been screened at this year’s annual Cinema At The Edge Independent Film Festival at Santa Monica, US, amongst other festivals.
Directed by Sanjay Talreja, Surkhaab was shot in Canada and Chandigarh last year in under-rupees-two-crore budget. Says Vivek, “I am a chartered accountant and an information technology auditor by profession and Surkhaab is my first film as a producer. We deliberately didn’t prefer money from outside sources so that the film’s outcome wouldn’t be influenced. So, it was my nine-to-five job that funded the film. I saved a little over the past few years and decided not to purchase a car and a house to make the film. But, after seeing the results, I have no regrets and am ready to do it all over again.”
A story of globalisation, immigration and survival, Surkhaab is about one woman’s courageous journey to build a life of dignity, honesty and integrity, reveals actor Barkha. “My character Jeet, a state-level judo champion, finds herself tackling the chauvinistic and corrupt life in a village in Punjab as she tries to adjust to life after excelling as a sportswoman. She has no desire to leave her roots, but is left with no other option but to manage a counterfeit visa to visit her brother in Toronto. The film explores the challenges faced by a reluctant immigrant to one of the most beautiful, peaceful and “safe” countries in the world,” she adds.
The filmmakers’ satisfaction with a project well made is only half the battle won. The other half comprises finding distributors in Punjab when Surkhaab is ready for release by the end of the year.
“We could face resistance from established cinema houses and distributors since they don’t share our opinion that content is king. But, I am hopeful for the film since the Indian and Punjabi audience has welcomed different films this year,” says Vivek.
For now, Surkhaab’s team is looking at the film’s release in Punjab, North India, Canada, Australia and UK, but they ultimately aspire to take a Punjab-centric story to the Cannes International Film Festival.
Woman From the East (Kudessan) is a film having much in common with Surkhaab. Chronicling the life of a girl from east India who is sold off to a Punjabi, Kudessan has also been co-produced by its director Jeet Matharu. It stars Bhojpuri actor Pakkhi Hegde in the lead, apart from Nirmal Rishi, Sukhbir Razia, Satwant Bal, Pradeep Sandhu, as well as Jeet amongst others.
Shot between 2009 and 2012 in Shyampur, a village near Hapur in UP, and parts in Punjab, Kudessan is a disturbing tale of the realities in the underbelly of rural India.
“I didn’t want to make a typical Indian movie that only people in certain parts of the country would be able to relate to. That’s when I came across a well-known play Kudessan, written by renowned playwright and director Jatinder Brar, owner of Punjab Natshala in Amritsar,” says Jeet.
The film depicts the plight of Ganga, a girl from a Bihar village, who, after the death of her mother lives with her stepmother and father. Her father is an addict who sells his daughter for a small amount to an already married 65-year-old man in remote Punjab, Paala Singh. Paala is a small farmer greedy for a son, for which he marries Ganga after selling off his cattle. In Punjab, Ganga is called ‘Kudessan’, meaning a woman from far away with doubtful ancestry and character.
On the reason for having had to produce his film, Jeet says, “Such films don’t get financial backing from outside because people don’t want to take a risk. My debut film Aadi Tappaa  didn’t do well despite being content-driven. The audience wants to watch known actors, something I’m not in favour of because their dominance spoils the filmmaker’s independence. So, along with my producer-partner Suresh Varsani from London, I decided to make an issue-based movie that is relevant to the world audience.”
According to Jeet, his film is “a movement to bring the harsh realities of cruelty towards women to light, to educate and understand the roots of the cause.” Interestingly, the director-producer shares there was many a hurdle that Kudessan had to face before making it to the finish line. “Almost 80 per cent of the film had to be shot again because our original protagonist backed out. Then, Pakkhi came into the picture and took the film to a different level altogether with her performance.”
Despite having had to spend rupees 2.5 crore—double their original budget—Jeet is profusely proud of his venture, especially because of the film’s technical sophistication. “Today, filmmakers are shooting on digital cameras, but Kudessan was shot on film, with the use of ‘digital intermediate’ [a picture finishing process that allows for colour correction or colour grading],” he informs.
The film has already been screened at this year’s London Asian Film Festival, the Punjabi International Film Festival (PIFF) in Toronto and the South Asian Film Festival (SAFF) in Vancouver. “When Baldev Gill, writer and co-producer of cult Punjabi film Chann Pardesi saw Kudessan, he said that it was the first time that he had seen a film better than Chann Pardesi,” Jeet boasts about his film, whose release date is not yet confirmed.
With two other bilingual films— Planchet (Hindi) and Sikka (Punjabi)—set for release, Jeet is no longer contemplating what genre to put his movies in. “There is no proper definition of commercial cinema, whatever clicks is commercial and whatever makes money is successful. A film like A Wednesday! [2008 Bollywood film] was considered to be a part of parallel cinema before it became a commercial success. I don’t slot my films into any category. For me, a movie is a movie and it must move—move itself, the audience and the society at large,” he says.
However, the current state of the Punjabi film industry disturbs Jeet. “Firstly, there aren’t proper distributors in the Punjabi film circuit. Then, there are films being made left, right and centre that are without good content. We need to pull up our socks and take the audience’s growing interest seriously,” he opines.
Then there is Satdeep Singh’s one-and-half-hour film, Proud to be a Sikh, made by the Ludhiana resident on the life of a Gursikh professor who performs his duties and initiates a revolution. “The present generation does not know about Punjabi heritage because of lack of education,” he says. The film was premiered at PIFF this year, where it got a standing ovation from the audience.
While these directors managed to garner funds to kickstart their dream projects, there are many others who are rendered helpless by the lack of resources. That is when they find refuge in short films that don’t require a lot of money and at the same time deliver the intended message. Nabar’s director Rajiv Sharma claims to have taken to making short Punjabi films when they weren’t “in trend”. “When the media were limited, I made documentaries. Now, when there are enough media, I’m making films since their reach is wider. My first short film was Aatu Khoji , made with rupees one lakh,” he says.
Mandeep Singh Aujla’s 10-minute film Aab is an instance of technology at its best. It was shot in Delhi in March this year, but Mandeep surprises us when he says he coordinated the shoot while sitting in Canada, through phone applications such as Skype and Whatsapp. A story of the impending water crisis, Aab stands out for using the latest software for special effects. “Fifteen artists worked on a combination of 2D, 3D and ‘matte painting’ to depict the environment,” says Mandeep, who belongs to Khanna. The film, shot over 45 days using 13,000 Canadian dollars, includes Amar Noorie, Jasbir Jassi and Raj Mishra in its cast.
While Aab aims at creating awareness on water scarcity, Amardeep Gill’s film Sutta Naag is based on Sahitya Akademi Award winner Ram Sarup Ankhi’s 1963 short story of the same name. Gill, a Punjabi lyricist, says he had read the story almost 30 years ago as a child. “I started writing the film’s script in 2012 and shot it in February this year in two villages: Bhabaan in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan, and Sikh Wala in district Muktsar, Punjab. Apart from the story being an inspiration, I was also eager to recreate Punjab of the 1960s,” he says.
Sutta Naag is based on a woman’s battle with emotions, her deep-seated love for a man she couldn’t get married to and the events that follow when she realises her husband is the murderer of her lover. The 43-minute film has actors Kul Sidhu, Raj Joshi, Gurnam Sidhu, Sohaj Brar, Dharminder Kaur and Jagtar Aulakh.
Gill says he decided to make a short film when he couldn’t find producers. Made with a budget of rupees 3.5 lakh, half of its finances have poured in from Gill’s fans abroad. “The film also premiered at the PIFF this year and I am planning to send it to upcoming film festivals in India too, apart from releasing its DVD soon,” he says.