This year, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) celebrated its 10-year anniversary. On the whole, it presented a satisfying line-up that marked one decade of existence for the festival. The cadre of Indian independent feature films showcased were well-executed and had great potential for dialogue between them at the level of theme and content.
Below is a recap of some of the films screened at the festival. Looking forward to another terrific 10 years, IFFLA.
Between Dreams and Obsessions
Certainly the differences between Abu, Son of Adam (2011, Salim Ahmed) and Corrode (2011, Karan Gour) couldn’t be more pronounced at first glance. The former presents in lush colours a small village in Kerala, shot on film, while the latter is in digital black-and-white and whose story is located in an urban setting. Moreover, Abu focuses on an elderly Muslim couple who feel the weight of their age and attempt to realise their joint dream of traveling to Mecca, while Corrode follows a young married couple living day-to-day within a very limited and unstable income. At the same time, these two debut films possess thematic similarities that draw out the fine line between dream and obsession, steadfastness and overzealousness.
Ahmed’s Abu is a veritable exercise in patience, humility, and determination, as lived by Abu and his wife Aisa and as experienced by the spectator. In their pursuit of making real a journey to Mecca, a very costly pilgrimage, they gradually dismantle the life that they have been living in their village to cover the travel and tour expenses. Following the trickling rhythm of village life, Ahmed traces in painstaking temporal detail the different ways in which Abu and Aisa try to match the amount for the journey; the dramatic point lies tranquilly in the possibility of not having enough money. All the while, with the firm belief and hope that if they were to make the journey they will not return to their village, they act upon the precepts of asking forgiveness from those whom they have wronged and bidding adieu to everyone. It is an uncompromising work, in that it will try the patience of some while inducing marvel in others, both through the exemplary characters of Abu and Asia and its glacial pace. In truth, the film would hold much less interest altogether if not for the compassionate performances of lead actors Salim Kumar and Zarina Wahab.
Gour’s Corrode, winner of IFFLA’s Grand Jury Prize for Feature Film, is also about the dismantling of one’s life. Like Abu and Aisa, Arvind and Chhaya live with narrow resources; they make do with what they earn and are content in their togetherness. Unlike Abu and Aisa, they are much more vulnerable. If Abu and Aisa constitute a rock that can withstand the fiercest of waves slapping against it, then Arvind and Chhaya constitute a rock that becomes dislodged and descends into deep, murky psychological waters. The thing that triggers Chhaya’s emotional unraveling is a statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi; Chhaya is so beholden with the beauty of the sculpture that she must have it. While Arvind falsely promises to buy it and becomes occupied with improving his financial lot, Chhaya gradually becomes consumed with possessing the statue at all costs. Gour and actress Rasika Dugal convey well how Chhaya pours her disappointments and fears (miscarriage, not being able to conceive again) into the statue of Lakshmi, making her and the development of her obsession both chilling and pitiable, so that she is not just a monster. A work of notable control in tone and atmosphere.
Journeys Geographical and Social
Paan Singh Tomar (2011, Tigmanshu Dhulia), Delhi in a Day (2011, Prashant Nair), and Lucky (2011, Avie Luthra) all explore very distinct worlds in varying degrees of insularity in an entertaining, touching, and unexpected way. Paan Singh Tomar recounts the exploits of the star athlete on and off the field; Delhi in a Day examines class and cross-cultural issues when a British artist arrives in Delhi and stays at a wealthy Indian family’s house for a day; and Lucky follows the unlikely friendship between a Zulu orphan and an elderly Indian woman in the South African port city of Durban. But what connects these films are the ideas of journey and of the consequence of a changed perspective, which impact those that surround them.
Dhulia’s vibrant biopic on Paan Singh Tomar, played by Irrfan Khan, follows Tomar’s career trajectory as an athlete who discovered in the army, which brought him to Japan to represent India in the 1958 Asian Games. But one also sees Tomar’s transformation from a track-and-field star to a dacoit (“bandit”) due to a family land dispute in his home village.
Despite Tomar’s turn as a dacoit, Dhulia presents him affectionately and heroically; after all, Dhulia dedicates the film to Indian athletes who had been neglected by the state and died unknown and broke. In fact, the film begins with a bumbling, endearing reporter set to interview Tomar clandestinely and get his story, which puts the spectator in a position of cautionary admiration towards Tomar. Actor Irrfan Khan makes Tomar rather hard to resist, especially through the small yet significant details about Tomar’s character that the film chooses to emphasise -- e.g. his unending appetite for food and he and his wife’s awkward yet passionate relationship. Khan holds the spotlight and the spectator’s interest like it’s an afterthought, so effortless is his performance. A well executed film in its balance of comedy, drama, and action to fantasise and depict simultaneously Tomar’s experiences.
Delhi in a Day is an ironic title because most of the film takes place inside the Ghambir mansion. But that is the point. Nair examines the relationships between the Ghambir family, their domestic staff, and a young Englishman visiting India for the first time, in order to address the interrelated issues of class, cross-cultural encounter, and capital in Delhi. Admittedly, the film is rather predictable once the core plot point of Jasper’s missing money is revealed through to its resolution. The Ghambirs wallow in their prejudiced ignorance and ideas about the domestic staff -- centered on Rohini and her elderly father -- in relation to the monetary disappearance, while the domestic staff become steeped in fear and are pushed to extremes. In the middle is Jasper, the foreign presence whose actions will tip the balance for one or the other. Jasper’s pursuit of an "authentic" experience in Delhi, outside the Ghambir fortress, is thus also ironic in the face of what happens inside the house -- meant to be a microcosm of the city. However, Nair doesn’t really hammer this last point, which is the film’s saving grace.
In contrast to Paan Singh Tomar and Delhi in a Day, Lucky’s setting is outside of India entirely. The film’s title refers to 10-year-old Lucky, forced to grow up all too quickly upon the death of his mother. He decides to uproot himself from his village and live with his uncle in his apartment in Durban. Lucky soon realises the kind of unhealthy environment in which his uncle lives, and at the same time gets to know Padma, an elderly Indian woman who lives alone in the same apartment complex. Regardless of their differences in age and language, Lucky and Padma strike a bond, first based on annoyance and suspicion, then on a growing empathy. The risk in transforming a short film into a feature-length one is that it feels forced or stretched thin just for the sake of the running time. But Luthra successfully avoids this pitfall. No awkwardness here: just a subtle emotional impact whose development stems in part from the documentary film-like rawness and closeness vis-à-vis characters and their spaces. Particularly effective is the way the film navigates between Padma and Lucky, their respective pasts and presents.
Kite-flying as Celebration and Reunion
IFFLA’s weekend line-up was bookended by Gattu (2011, Rajan Khosa) and Patang (2011, Prashant Bhargava). Coincidence or not, both of these films pivot around kite-flying and childhood (memories) and constitute some of the highlights of the festival. Gattu takes place exclusively in the present through the experiences of a homeless boy who wants nothing more than to take down the kite that flies the highest, cutting off any other that gets in its way. Meanwhile, Patang revolves around a man’s journey back to his hometown, which happens to host the largest kite festival in India, encountering both past and present through his family members. In overlapping ways, these two films present kite-flying not just as a pleasure unto itself but also as a mode of expression of community, belonging, celebration, and reunion, however bittersweet it can be.
Khosa’s second feature Gattu teeters between the fantastical and the actual to tell the story of orphan Gattu and his love for kite-flying. Though Gattu works at a junk shop, he spends most of his time thinking up schemes to duel Kali, the black kite that reigns over all the other kites in the village. No one knows who flies Kali, but no matter. So determined is he to take down Kali that it brings out the little businessman in him, sweet-talking everyman who could somehow better his chances at kite-flying. He even sweet-talks an entire school by masquerading as a student, the results of which are comical, touching, and thrilling all at once. Not surprisingly, Gattu, his fellow students, and children of the village are always one-uping the adults. Their joint exploits at the school thus provide an alternative "education" that leads to a buoyant conclusion for all. In this way, Gattu follows the footsteps of child-centered fairy-tale-esque films like I Am Kalam (2010) and Stanley ka dabba (2011). Though still markedly different from Iranian New Wave films, in spirit Gattu thankfully recalls more The White Balloon (1995) than, say, the "poverty porn" of Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Patang is Bhargava’s debut film, which took him 6-7 years to make. A true labour of love if ever there was one, Bhargava invites the spectator to take part in India’s largest kite festival in Ahmedabad, through Jayesh and his daughter’s visit back to the city for a family reunion. The marvelous, dynamic quality of Patang comes from the way it tightly knits together the family reunion and kite festival. Rather than push to the forefront the tensions rankling Jayesh’s re-encounter with his family, Bhargava lets them bubble up and manifest themselves and die down organically throughout the festival, much like the kites themselves. In this way, the tensions become all the more impactful. In this way, too, the film avoids the more frequent dramatic set-up of conflict-resolution. Nothing is really resolved in the film; it begins and ends in an open-ended way, with no pretensions to deliver a message. Also crucial to Patang’s dynamic quality is the mix of non-professional and professional actors, coupled with Bhargava’s close camerawork. A sensitive debut work, even if at times the editing and sound mixing are overwrought in their layering.
For more information, go to the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles' official website.