10th DIFF: Rumors on Loss and Searching Through 10 Independent Films

The 75th year of India’s independence is a great time to watch a movie like Kaushal Ojha’s The Miniaturist of Junagadh. Naseeruddin Shah’s miniature artist Hussain Naqash has lost his sight in dedicating a life to his art. The artist and his art have no value in the new post-Partition reality, forcing Junagadh to leave for Karachi. There is a sense of longing for the lost past, the beginning of the longing for the lost motherland, for the lost glory of the Mughal era, when artists were valued. His lost sight is a boon to his family (Rasika Duggal, Padmavati Rao), who can survive starvation thanks to their priceless art, but it is a reality they cannot tell them. When the art is gone, can the artist survive?

The film is part of the 10th edition of the eclectic, global Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF), which ends on November 14 (a regular pass will be available for viewing on the last day as well). Here’s a look at 10 other Indian indies that made us reflect on life and life:

Laila Aur Sat Geet (The Cowboy and the Seven Songs)

Laila Aur Sat Geet transcends both time and space.

Writer Vijaydan Detha’s stories of female agency easily lend themselves to screen adaptations. Mani Kaul’s Dilemma, 1973, its remake, Amol Palekar’s Paheli, 2005, and Pushpendra Singh’s films Lajwanti, 2014. Poetry Laila and Sat Geet (from Detha Ki Derm) transcend both time and space. It is divided into seven chapters/folk songs/life-stages of Laila (Navjot Randhawa of Mehsampur, 2018), a girl from the nomadic sheep-herding Gujjar-Bakarwal community. The zealous prize won in marriage and the dutiful wife develops into a free-spirited playful seductive, self-respecting with strong boundaries. Laila is an allegory for Kashmir, referred to by her physical beauty, with the men (powers/countries fighting over it) wanting to conquer her. Singh married feudalism, state and gender politics with feminism. Poet Lal Ded’s verses flow like a stream, and the silent frame, with the sheep in the valley and Laila blending with the generosity of nature (cinematography by Ranbir Das; Cannes winner A Night of Knowing Nothing), Amit Dutta emits a meditative slowness reminiscent of the style of filmmaking (Singh has acted/assisted in Dutta’s films).

tangle (knot)

confusion Uljhan is directed by Ashish Pant.

Ashish Pant’s confusion, a “blood related” borrowing of JJ Abram’s phrase, Mrinal Sen’s Kharij (1982), describes the way in which it establishes class relations, and events/facts. His gaze on the aspirations and immorality of the middle class (Sen’s lower-middle class Kolkata to Pant’s upper-middle class Lucknow) is both indifferent. A road accident takes a happy marriage and social ties in the grip of Pant, sure debut. It is a study of class dynamics, between the socially affluent and the downtrodden, and between husband and wife. She is born in wealth, Shirish has made her way into it, and she is unwilling to part with it. Recurring door/window/boundary wall/gate motifs close off one world, and another eager to break it. Through Geeta (Saloni Batra), Pant’s dark lens, in close-up and tracking shots, is visible both outside and inside. A sense of guilt and moral responsibility grips Geeta, as did Shah Rukh Khan/Tabu after hitting Rani Mukerji’s car in Saathiya (2002). Mercy emerges from guilt, which stems from class consciousness and an awareness of one’s privilege. But can money buy or get rid of guilt?

shoe box

shoe box A still from Showbox.

what’s in a name? Sometimes, everything. In his debut film, Faraz Ali shows parallel undoing of the personal and the political. When things don’t work out, a reflection on how to replace instead of repair. In his world-building from Allahabad to Prayagraj, from single-screen theaters to malls and multiplexes, from Allahabad to Prayagraj in 2018, Ali captured his home-town as it was transforming. If Allahabad is shown transforming into a different animal, Ali takes it forward with the story of Mampu (Amrita Bagchi), whose father Madhav Chatterjee (Purnendu Bhattacharya) is a dinosaur in the new ecosystem – Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once I am like Bubu Da. Upon a time in Calcutta. He wants to occupy his Palace Theater Single Screen Cinema Hall. He and his family have to pay the price for his actions. Very Herzogian, Ali keeps documentary elements within the nooks and crannies of his specialty. A sense of complete desolation with the muted blue filter and sarod notes.

Creeper

Creeper Lata was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

In her 21-minute short film screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, director Alisha Tejpal gazes at the story from the perspective of Madad (Shobha Dangal) of the same name, whose identity is as synonymous with her labor—as much as internally. So much is internal from that it is imposed. The ambiguity of time adds to the monotony, as the days go by, be it a day in the creeper’s life or their daily routine over months and years. The frame remains indoors. The stationary camera cuts close at eye level, not looking down at her – while she is sweeping/washing the floor, waiting outside the neighbor’s door, “her” in steel utensils. Eating food, looking in and out of doors/windows. Opening and closing doors demarcates the world—he has access or has to wait outside. The gaze is also directed at the upper-class/upper-middle class whose life cannot go on without assistance. The house belongs to Tejpal, who, being part of the problem, finds himself trapped in the story.

Limit

Limit Borderlands tells a lively story of our times in an indelibly soulful manner.

Through a mosaic of six stories intertwined in layers of alienation, displacement, remembrance, longing, and hopes of repatriation/homecoming, director Samarth Mahajan narrates themes of invisible limits, barring any anger or lamentation. Deepa, a Pakistani Hindu refugee, whose identity is often used to make a case against Pakistan, suggests that the migration is for economic reasons. The director’s mother Rekha could not cross the threshold of her home and the role of a housewife for her aspirations in Punjab’s Dinanagar, 10 miles from the Pakistan border. Marriage brought Dhauli from Bangladesh to West Bengal. His story and identity lie in the middle. Kavita, an interceptor in Birgunj, stops Nepali girls from being trafficked. Filmmaker Surjakant draws on Manipur’s “complicated” history (forced to be a part of India) and relationships (sandwiched between an internal/state border with the Indian Union and an international border with Myanmar) purely from an artist’s place. Trying not to forget. A border is a demarcation between a legally accepted citizen and an officially non-existent subject. At once observational and engaging, Borderlands tells a vivid story of our times in an indelible sense.

Ek Tha Gaon (Once Upon a Village)

there was a village Ek Tha Gaon (Once Upon a Village) is the story of Semla, one of the 1,053 “ghost villages” of Uttarakhand.

Srishti Lakhera’s documentary is like going to an ancestral home/village without any ancestors/relatives. About 800 years ago, a village that was inhabited by one kind of migration is empty today because of another type of migration. If people form a village, what is left after they leave? Ek Tha Gaon (Once Upon a Village) is the story of Semla, one of the 1,053 “ghost villages” of Uttarakhand. Semla is also the ancestral village of Lakheda’s father. Seeing an empty village, a lost lifestyle, she looks back on her childhood, the days when she grew up in her grandparents’ house during school holidays. There is nothing more haunting than a place, at once with laughs and cries, to be silenced for the devastation of time and the allure of urban/modern life.

nureh

nureh Ashish Pandey’s 22-minute short film ‘Nooreh’ is a moving picture.

In political decisions about conflict zones, is the child’s plight taken into account? Minus polemics, posing, statements, Ashish Pandey’s 22-minute short film is a moving picture, telling without being told. It shows the world, the Kashmir problem – in that Iranian-cinema style – through the eyes of a child, effectively criticizing the war. His actions and reactions are flawless. Eight-year-old Noor (Saima Latif) sleeps in school, she can’t sleep at home – in Gurez’s LOC village Izmarg – at night, amid gun-fire and gunfire, but when she wakes up, she believes. Yes, the firing of the gun stops. If she brings peace/sleep, she would love to study, or play Ludo with her. He and his friends count the bullets on the walls of the house on their way to school, they see the bunkers of the security forces protected by concertina wires, the mustache military uncle asks an old woman “Who died today ?” To the sound of women crying in the background. As news of Faith’s move to peace spreads, the film closes with a spectacular shot, light in the heart of darkness, as the song of Habba Khatoon resonates deep in the Roche Valley.

mintgomery

mintgomery Mintgumri slowly unfolds like innumerable melodious ragas over the span of a day.

Like the namesake of its protagonist, Raag, Akash Chhabra’s 20-minute short film unfolds slowly like innumerable melodious ragas over the span of a day. Raag is the homecoming of a young man and the revival of an old man. Upon returning to his hometown, after a long absence, he tries to rekindle his friendship with his ailing grandfather, having groomed him the day they last met. The film is meditative and patient, moving into scenes between grandfather and grandson, the young man slides into his strong legs to make the old man stand up, the old man touching the young man’s fresh stubble, a smile and a known glance. The nuanced film, extremely observable, speaks to all of us and hits where it hurts the most – those of us neglecting our aging parents/grandparents, never having time to visit/spend time with them Withdrawal, and living with a sense of guilt/regret for not making the time when they were around.

succulent

succulent Lush is our union with a dystopian reality / future

Can a stranger cater to your absent loved one? Amrita Bagchi’s short film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s 2019 film Family Romance, LLC, about an agency that hires people on contract to fill gaps in people’s lives. Bagchi’s futuristic film is our meeting with a dystopian reality/future. Simple, yet scary. Her company, like a cubicle out of a sci-fi movie, sends M (Marenla Imsong) PDFs, clothes, pen drives and training materials so that she can be replaced for a certain period of time. Sometimes M has to become Kannadiga, sometimes Jain, sister, daughter, granddaughter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. M’s companions are lush friends, and despite her efforts, the only thing she can bring back to life are plants. The unnamed, unrecognized M is human at the end of the day, she also crosses the line, joins up, and pushes back. There are no easy answers. The film calmly leaves us with the questions: Can people be changed? Can you lose your identity to adopt the identity of another? Can you deceive yourself?

mono no aware

mono no aware A still from Mono No Aware.

Another film about the missing bond of grandparents. The title is a Buddhist term, often translated as sympathy/sympathy towards things, “watching as they pass”. In his 20-minute short set in suburban Mumbai, Kaushik Sarkar pits the fickleness of life/relationship against the permanence of the monolith. A school walk takes 10-year-old Poorna to Andheri’s 200-foot, 66-million-year-old, black-basalt-rock-column Gilbert Hill, which stands tall in the midst of a gloomy, break-less, bustling city , and an old age home, where she encounters a sad reality, finds what she thought she had lost.

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