Surreal and haunting - that's how the Indian short films selected for the 65th Berlin International Film Festival are being described. Renowned filmmaker Amit Dutta's Chitrashala and FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) graduate Satindar Singh Bedi's Kamakshi will be competing for top honours in the short film category at the Berlinale, among only 25 other films from 17 countries.
Enhancing the Indian presence is documentary filmmaker and curator Madhusree Dutta, who will be part of the international short film jury.
Calling the film festival "one of the most critically evolved in the world", Dutta says the fact that the prestigious event has been around so long is part of its enduring appeal. Its 65th edition will open on February 5.
"I remember, on my last visit to the festival in 2010, it was snowing heavily. Yet even a screening that ended at 2 am had a packed hall. The only thing that would come anywhere close in India is the International Film Festival of Kerala. The Berlin audience is very well-informed and keeps track of various trends in filmmaking."
The Indian contenders for the short film prize, each in their own way, use mythology as a reference point in their films.
Thirty-seven-year-old Amit Dutta's Chitrashala (Hindi for House of Paintings) explores a museum in Jammu that was once a palace and is now a repository of 40 miniature paintings from the Himalayan region. In the film, the depictions on canvas come to life as animated characters, to narrate the story of King Nala and his wife Damyanti from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
Though the tale is a simple narration of their love, courtship and engagement, Amit uses the device to recreate to haunting effect the intricacies of miniature art - as he had done in his earlier work, Nainsukh (2010), which was a biopic on the 18th-century miniaturist of that name.
Mythology resonates also in the Marathi film Kamakshi, made as a part of Bedi's direction course at the FTII. Premised on the titular goddess of compassion and wish fulfillment, the film is a play on the pivotal scene from the Hindu epic Ramayana, where the warrior-king Rama's wife Sita asks Mother Earth to swallow her up after her morality and fidelity are questioned.
Shot in black and white, in the hinterland of Maharashtra, the film follows an old woman as she digs pit after pit in the dry arid soil, in search of water. Eventually the film drifts into surrealism. The woman discovers a ditch and a young girl standing at its edge; hallucinatory imagery eventually gives way to colour in the end.
"The idea for Kamakshi just came to me, without preamble," says Bedi. "Perhaps what inspired me was an image from the film Andrei Rublev , where the protagonist is burning muck in fire and someone is scolding him, egging him on, and he doesn't reply, just looks up… that one look."
The Jammu-born Amit Dutta is a four-time National Award winner best known for Kshy Tra Ghya (2004), Nainsukh (2010), The Man's Woman and Other Stories (2009) and The Golden Bird (2011). He has also bagged the FIPRESCI prize from the International Federation of Film Critics, and a special mention at the Venice Film Festival.
Bedi, on the other hand, showed his student production, Ru Cube, at the International Film Festival of India in 2011. The two entries are now vying for the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear awards, and a possible recommendation by the international jury, which will select one film as a nominee for the European Film Awards to be held later this year.