A lone Sikh boy among a group of students, a school picnic, a protective teacher and the dark backdrop of the 1984 riots. That's the brief of Subhashish Bhutiani's 20-minute drama 'Kush', the only Indian movie to have made it to the 70th edition of the world's oldest film festival at Venice (Italy), to be held from August 28 to September 7.
The Hindi film, titled after the Sikh boy's character Kush, will be premiered at the festival's Orizzonti (Horizons) section dedicated to new trends in world cinema. Behind the movie - whose cast includes Sonika Chopra, Shayaan Sameer and Anil Sharma - is a real-life inspiration. Mumbai-born, Mussoorie-bred director Bhutiani (22) made it as his graduation project at New York's School of Visual Arts.
Talking to HT on the phone from New York, Bhutiani says it's the story of his Class-11 economics teacher. "While she was telling us the story, I kept seeing the film play out in my head. I was attracted to the story because it was commenting on India as a country, but was doing so in a very real and unique way. It was bleak, yet inspirational."
Though he has fictionalised her account - "the circumstances have been adapted for the film" Bhutiani says we are still seeing days like those dark times: "In the West, there are multiple instances of violence against Sikhs."
The movie was made on a shoestring budget of less than Rs. 10 lakh, with cast members being friends and neighbours of Bhutiani's parents in Mumbai. "I shot on the outskirts of Mumbai, and in a national park for the picnic scenes."
Asked how he entered the Venice festival, he said, "My dad suggested I shorten the film and send it. I submitted it with hope but not much expectation. It took about a month and a half for us to get notified."
There are at least nine other short films from Kosovo to Iran, Kazakhstan to the US in the section that has 21 longer films, too, competing for a Jury Prize, besides Best Film and Short Film awards. Some of these movies star Hollywood A-listers such as Sandra Bullock and James Franco.
After the festival circuit, in a few months, Bhutiani plans to put the movie online for free, as a commercial release for a short movie remains a distant dream in India.
In 2011, two Indian films - Bengali movie 'Sonchidi' (The Golden Bird), directed by Amit Dutta, and Punjabi movie 'Anhey Ghore Da Daan' (Alms of the Blind Horse), directed by Gurvinder Singh - were presented in the Venice fest's Orizzonti section. The latter went on to win the National Awards for direction, cinematography and best feature film in Punjabi.
Bhutiani plans to make a love story next, but 'Kush' remains special because of personal experiences too: "My cousins and family saw the horror of 1984. But I am connected to this story through my teacher. In retrospect, she is a hero and role model for me."
On what he watches himself, he lists "Alfonso Cuaron (who is opening the festival), Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, Walter Salles, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap..."
His plan is "to be a part of the next generation of Indian filmmakers who take new roads and tell great human stories with humour and truth".