After Los Angeles-based director Shonali Bose’s third feature, Margarita, with a Straw, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the audience gave the film a standing ovation. As that happened, TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey informed Bose, the film’s producer Nilesh Maniyar and heroine, Kalki Koechlin, that this occurred rarely.
As Margarita played out to additional shows, the applause continued, and noticeably, the majority of those who had gathered in the theatres were not of Indian origin. “It was really nice to see the whole audience, 600 people, just stand up like that. I would say 70% were non-South Asian,” Bose said in an interview over coffee, excited after another successful screening.That is not wholly unexpected. Very recently, Indian independent filmmaking has focused on stories that appeal to global audiences. Almost 50 years after they captured international imaginations, this is a revival of the sort of filmmaking that made Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan cinematic icons outside their country. As Bose said, "I think we’re seeing a resurgence of that, what is really crossover, which is wonderful."
TIFF has played a significant role in providing a platform to promote these films, not just to critics from across the world but also to distributors to make deals. In fact, soon after its premiere, Margarita had already clinched one for Japan.
But it still takes quality to make such an impact. Bailey described Margarita as a “real pleasure” and most who watched its initial screenings agreed: This layered tale of a young woman, Laila, afflicted with cerebral palsy, factors in two complex issues, disability and alternate sexuality, and manages to strike a fine balance, without becoming preachy. Bose said, “I knew I didn’t want anyone to pity or sympathise or be maudlin. I wanted empathy.” And Koechlin, far removed from her Bollywood persona, delivers a subtle performance, a testament to nearly three months of training.
But just as Koechlin has gone beyond Bollywood, the makers of another TIFF premiere, Tigers, roped in Emraan Hashmi, in the role of a sales agent peddling infant formula in Pakistan for a multinational. Once again, while Hashmi’s celebrity may help with attracting filmgoers, his earnestness comes through.
Tigers is made by an Oscar-winning Bosnian director, Danis Tanovic, and produced by, among others, Guneet Monga of Sikhya Films, who also shepherded the breakout indie movie, The Lunchbox. The Lunchbox has gone and made $18.5 million worldwide, $4.5 million in India. There are a lot of times we are projected as art house.
Even the Tamil film, Crow’s Egg, with two slum children as its protagonists, delighted TIFF’s audiences. It was a film Bailey was “charmed and moved by”, emotions shared by many as they viewed it.
According to Monga, the Indian film industry has traditionally been “very insular and we are very content with the Friday, Saturday, Sunday box office. We don’t really look at the world market like a Korean film does or a French film does.” That may be changing.
Among those rooting for this trend to continue is Bailey, “I’m thrilled to see Indian filmmakers becoming more and more global.”