The Indian films screened at the 57th London Film Festival send a clear message that independent filmmakers in India are gradually emerging and beginning to change the landscape of popular cinema. The film that became a reference point for audiences in London was Ritesh Batra’s Lunch Box. The buzz created by this refreshing film was followed by veteran Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Sniffer (Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa) and Rituparno Ghosh’s swan song, Jeevan Smriti, that documents the life of Rabindranath Tagore.
Although the basic idea of Lunch Box is quite naïve and one would not buy it if narrated as a concept. Nevertheless, under Batra’s deft handling, the film casts a spell even before the storyline unfolds on the screen.
The strength of the film is the freshness that filmmaker Ritesh Batra brings to it. Its biggest strength is the unpredictability of the narrative. A lonely housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), sends a lunchbox through Mumbai’s age-old and highly reliable daily lunch couriers – a ‘Dabbawala’ to her cold husband, but it ends up at a wrong place. Sajaan (Irfan Khan), an accounts clerk on the verge of retirement, receives it to his delight. With the real husband not noticing the difference, the two strangers come together. Batra’s narrative is humorous as it unfolds. He skilfully weaves an incredible plot into a watchable film which evokes a range of emotions interspersed with humour. Strong character actors, Irfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, have both given stellar performances.
Another film that holds and stays with the audiences is Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Sniffer (Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa). ‘The film is a richly textured black comedy, set against a magical, surreal tableaux of the Bengali city and countryside that’s typical of Dasgupta’s works. Anwar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a well-meaning though clumsy private detective or ‘sniffer’, who can’t help getting personally embroiled with clients he is spying on. His only true companion is an old dog. His pet and his regular drunkenness put him at odds with the local orthodox Muslim housing block who want him out. At the same time, Anwar increasingly struggles to cope with his small-time sleuth work that shows him that, in the modern world, even love is for sale. When a court case takes Anwar back to his rural homeland, he is forced to confront his own love tragedy. Through Siddiqui, Dasgupta succeeds in lighting up the screen and also displays a talent for deft comic timing that makes Sniffer sheer joy to watch.’
Dasgupta’s experience and directorial depth also lends the film a philosophical tone. It encompasses in its fold, several crucial issues of urban decay in Kolkata and present day India.
Another outstanding Indian film of the festival was the late Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s last offering and personal tribute to Indian poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore – Jeevan Smriti.
The film was completed before his passing away in May 2013 at the age of 49. It is an inspired docu-drama about his own inspiration – the legendary poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore. ‘The flamboyant Rituparno, with his camera team, set off from Kolkata during the Monsoon to Tagore’s country birthplace on a journey of love and poetic admiration. On the way, they uncover the lesser-known personal life of this Bengali hero. A stunningly photographed dramatic story, backed by great actors like Raima Sen, depicts the inner struggles of the young, introvert Tagore who, in spite of his comfortable background, was constantly tortured but also inspired by love and terrible loss.’
Although beautifully presented and inspiring, the film has less depth than Satyajit Ray’s documentary on Rabindranath Tagore produced by the Indian Films Division.
Last but not the least, one heritage historic film from India was the 1948 restored classic Kalpana by India’s legendary dancer Uday Shankar (the eldest brother of Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar). ‘The credit for its new avatar goes to Martin Scorsese’s Bologna-based World Cinema Foundation which is committed to rescuing neglected global film treasures. Uday Shankar was one of the central figures in the history of Indian dance, fusing classical forms with western techniques. When his Himalayan dance academy closed in the early 1940s, he set out to immortalise its work with his one and only film, an autobiographical narrative of a dancer who dreams of establishing his own academy, starring himself and his wife Amala. But this is not merely a film adorned with dance sequences – its primary physical vocabulary is dance: delirious, hallucinatory, expressionistic, playful and joyful, employing double exposure and other cinematic tricks to achieve a unique, ecstatic beauty. The film was restored by the WCF from elements preserved at the National Film Archive of India.’
Presumably, such films are only like the proverbial tip of the iceberg and also hold the promise of better cinematic things to come!