A Side Role

Despite increasing recognition, it is hard to correct India’s image in the domain of global cinema

Director Anurag Kashyap (centre) with the cast of his film Gangs of Wasseypur, which was shown in the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, 2012. COURTESY FACEBOOK.COM/WASSEYPURWORLD
01 July, 2012

LAST MONTH, a motley group of Indians drew some attention at the Cannes Film Festival. I am not talking about NFDC’s India party, known for its open display of grandeur. This isn’t, either, about the glamorous orbit of Aishwarya Rai, Mallika Sherawat and Sonam Kapoor who, because of fame or contracts with cosmetic companies, or both, walk the red carpet in the south of France nearly every year.

Images from the red carpet at this year’s Cannes stood out for some new and unusual faces, prominent among them an immensely talented actor named Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Though he recently received acclaim for his performance in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, Siddiqui is far from a household name in India. Dressed in a sharply stitched suit and a black tie, he stood beside his director Ashim Ahluwalia, whose obscure feature film Miss Lovely, which plumbs the depths of Bombay’s “C” grade film industry in the 1980s, was selected for the festival’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, a competitive category introduced in 1978. (Miss Lovely was, in fact, the only Indian film to feature in a competitive section this year; all the others were screened in non-competitive sections.)

Sharing the limelight was the crew of Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious two-part, five-plus hour saga Gangs of Wasseypur, spanning 70 years of Bihar’s coal mining mafia and its internecine wars, which packed a full house in the Director’s Fortnight section. Kashyap also used the platform to promote his small and offbeat in-house production Peddlers, directed by newcomer Vasan Bala and financed through appeals on Facebook, which was shown in the Critics Week section of the festival.

In recent years, Cannes has progressively showcased Indian films that are outside the mainstream fold, whether in scale, content or style. This trend has resonated across international film festivals with programmers selecting small, experimental films from India, not just in Hindi, but also in regional languages. Last year, Toronto held the world premiere of Sri Lanka-born Vimukthi Jayasundara’s edgy Bengali film Chatrak. Also last year, Venice picked a very Mani Kaul-inspired Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, perhaps the first Punjabi language film to travel to a major film festival. Two years ago, Berlin showed the Bengali film Just Another Love Story, with Rituparno Ghosh in the lead role of a gay director in love with his married, bisexual cinematographer.

Interest from international sales agents also attests to Indian alternative cinema’s growing appeal abroad. Over the last few years, Fortissimo Films, known for promoting Asian cinema and making Wong Kar-Wai a global cult figure, has bought the rights to Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie, debutant director Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael and Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely.

These trends point towards the possibility of a new place for Indian cinema on the global stage. In terms of reaching new audiences and doing more business, that’s good news for India, well known to be the largest film producing country in the world. But it also seems promising in its potential to change the nagging perception that Indian cinema is limited to mindless, bawdy musicals.

That, however, may be an ambitious hope. At international film festivals, Indian films have yet to create the same kind of excitement in media and critics circles as European films or films from smaller but equally significant film-producing countries like Iran, South Korea or Japan. The occasional film publication like Variety or Hollywood Reporter reviews Indian films, but it remains difficult to draw prominent critics to the screenings.

One week after the 2012 Cannes lineup was announced, Todd McCarthy, chief critic of IndieWire, an online American journal dedicated to coverage of independent cinema, made a list of the films he wanted to see at the festival. On the list were filmmakers Wes Anderson, Walter Salles, David Cronenberg, Jacques Audiard and the 89-year-old French master Alain Resnais. There was no mention of Kashyap, Ahluwalia or Bala. McCarthy, like his colleagues, is well-tuned to the developments in world cinema, but these new Indian films have not yet made an impact on him.

One would probably have to go as far back as Satyajit Ray to find an Indian filmmaker who received near universal acclaim from the western cinematic establishment. Since Ray, Indian filmmakers have been noticed in the west from time to time, but these occasions were too few and random to see the country acquire a sustained reputation as a producer of quality cinema. Our output itself is partly to blame for this. There was some promise of an emerging, strong independent film culture in the 1960s and 1970s, when films by a small group of avant garde directors like Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal corresponded with the new wave in global cinema. But in the 1980s, the indie movement in India entered a relatively dry period, before petering out in the 1990s.

The 1980s also marked a low creative point for popular Hindi cinema, but from that vacuum there emerged in the 1990s a new version of Bollywood as it exists currently, which reflected the ideals and aspirations of the global Indian. With most of these new movies releasing in the US and the UK to tap into their large South Asian diasporic audiences, India’s reputation as a potboiler factory began to grow and be cemented in the West.

It’s been a challenge for Indian cinema to shake off this stubborn stereotype, a fact that can be seen as a failure on the part of both the Indian film industry to export its finer work, and Western observers to see the difference when it does. This struggle might cause one to wonder about varied cinematic languages, and whether Indian films somehow restrict universal resonance.

Last year, Vishal Bhardwaj was at the Berlin festival with the riskiest work of his career—7 Khoon Maaf, a black comedy based on a short story by Ruskin Bond in which the lead character, a woman, marries and kills seven unsuspecting men one after the other. But only Indian journalists showed up at the screening and later at the press conference. 7 Khoon Maaf had its flaws, but even Bhardwaj’s most accomplished works—Maqbool (showcased at Toronto) and Omkara—both critically acclaimed in India, went unnoticed in the west. Both films are great adaptations of Shakespearian classics to Indian settings, so could it be that they missed the attention of western critics because they were rooted in the Indian film fabric, with songs, melodrama and moments of comic relief?

To Indian critics, the essential difference between a film like Maqbool and one like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is no doubt apparent. But it’s unclear whether that distinction would be evident to a Western observer lacking an intimate knowledge of the many traditions and tropes of Indian cinema. When TIME magazine listed Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, a film that many saw as little more than an audiovisual spectacle, among the top 10 films of this century, it led to debates in India about the ignorance about and prejudice against Indian cinema. Reacting to the choice, Lakshmi Chaudhry of FirstPost wrote: “Bollywood is now the official bimbo of the international film scene.”

Indian commentators could rightfully contend that it’s Anurag Kashyap’s ironic adaptation of the literary classic Devdas that is more deserving of critical praise. Dev D, a cynical take on the love triangle, is a fine example of the new Indian cinema. The film was shown at Venice in 2009 alongside another of Kashyap’s unconventional films, Gulaal, and was well promoted by the director, but it didn’t achieve the level of artistic recognition accorded to films like the Iranian A Separation or the Korean Old Boy.

This is where the question of cinematic competence becomes unavoidable. A Separation, last year’s Oscar winner for the best foreign language film, and Old Boy, the 2004 Grand Prix winner at Cannes, are rooted in their respective cultures, too, but in their case this doesn’t come in the way of a wider appreciation. One could suggest that their complex stories are executed through subtle, deliberate, almost European styles of storytelling, and that this makes them accessible to a western alternative film audience. But considered purely on the basis of craft, it is hard to deny that they are also more refined works of cinema.

The week before Kashyap headed to Cannes, he summed up the challenges facing the Indian film industry in an interview to Agence France Press, “Our strength is that we don’t need to sell one ticket to a non-Indian, world over, to sustain ourselves,” he said. “And that’s also our weakness, because it’s precisely the reason that we don’t grow.”