Art & Entertainment

Indian Films And Filmmakers Dazzle Like Never Before At 73rd Berlinale

It is a landmark year for Indian and South Asian talent at the annual, iconic Berlin International Film Festival

Iranian-Indian Excellence: Actor Aida Mohammadkhani and director Jafar Panahi in a still in Sreemoyee Singh’s Be Kucheye Khoshbakht (And, Towards Happy Alleys)
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"I can’t believe this,” exclaimed Indian director Dr Sreemoyee Singh, as she stood onstage, tears streaming down her face, overwhelmed by the rapturous, three-minute standing ovation her film, Be Kucheye Khosh­bakht (And, Towards Happy Alleys) received at the Berlin Inter­national Film Festival, or Berlinale for short. It was the most beautiful silver anniversary gift one could have imagined, on my completing 25 years working for the Berlin Film Festival, as its India and South Asia Delegate, pre-selecting films since 1998. The film is Singh’s debut feature, a personal documentary exploring Iranian cinema and poetry, starting with a PhD student’s interest in the Farsi language and arts, and moving seamlessly into the heart of the Iranian revolution for human rights, women’s choices and democracy. It is a particular triumph because India, by and large, is an insular nation, with negligible interest in even her immediate neighbours—unless they excite us as enemies. So, for an Indian student from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, to be passionately interested in Iranian poetry and cinema—and politics—resulting in a poignant, heart-war­ming film, completely shot in Iran over about six years, in Farsi, is a thrilling breakthrough. It is also a sign of what original and exciting things can happen to the contours of Indian cinema when Indian women filmmakers speak their minds.

Explaining her filmmaking journey, Singh says, “When I joined the Film Studies department at Jadavpur University, I was fascinated by Iranian cinema and poetry, particularly of poet-filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad. I wasn’t happy with the English translations of her poetry, so I decided to study Farsi at Tehran University. My PhD was on ‘The Exiled Filmmaker in Post-Revolution Iran’. I interviewed a number of Iranians, including filmmakers in exile such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, and others including Jafar Panahi (who is in the film) and Mohammad Rasoulof, who were in internal exile.”

Asked if she saw similarities in the socio-political situations in Iran and India, Singh says, “I never felt far removed in Iran. I never felt free even in India; a woman is always on her guard. In Iran, it is 100 times worse.” The Iranians took to her, she says, “because I offered an Eastern gaze; an informed outsider position, but with a shared history and culture. And, as an Indian woman speaking Farsi, they opened up to me much more.”

It has been a landmark year for India and South Asia at the 73rd Berlinale, with 30 official South Asian selections, that include eight Indian films and 22 Berlinale Talents from South Asia. For India, too, it is a milestone year, with 21 official Indian selections by the festival, that include eight films, 11 Berlinale Talents and at least two film professionals—all selected from thousands of entries worldwide.

Bollywood appeared at the Berlinale via the Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi-directed web series Dahaad (Roar) that was selected in the Berlinale Series. It features Bollywood stars Sona­kshi Sinha, Vijay Varma and Gulshan Devaiah. Zoya Akhtar’s Tiger Baby produced the series, along with Excel Entertain­ment; Akhtar had earlier directed Gully Boy that made it to the Ber­linale in 2019. Set in Rajasthan, Dahaad is a policewoman-led crime thriller and is a feisty feminist series that tackles important social issues. Abhinay Deo’s Brown, a crime series starring Karisma Kapoor and produced by Zee Studios, was selected for the Berlinale Series Market Selects, its market section.

In the main official selection for films, Chhatrapal Nin­awe’s Ghaath (Ambush, Marathi), starring Jitendra Joshi, and Singh’s Be Kucheye Khoshbakht were both in the Panorama section. Ashish Bende’s Aatmapamphlet (Autobio-Pamphlet, Marathi), was in the Generation 14-plus category for teenagers and adults. There were three films in the Forum, with Priya Sen’s No Stranger At All featuring in the Forum Expanded section that explores the relations between cinema and the other arts. The Forum also selected a restored version of Assamese dir­ector Gautam Bora’s An Autumn in Bärwalde Country, his 1983 film made when he was studying film direction at the film school HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. Also in the Forum was an exhibition, ‘Our Dau­gh­ters Shall Inherit the Wealth of Our Stories: The Imaginactivism of Yugantar Film Collective’, India’s first feminist film collective. Finally, Saty­a­jit Ray’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished), released in 1956, was in the Retrospective section. Its ‘Young At Heart’ series asked 28 filmmakers worldwide to choose their favourite coming-of-age film, and this was the choice of Aparna Sen.

As an academic in the film world, Sreemoyee Singh was not the only Indian outlier at the Berlinale. Nin­awe’s Ghaath is one of the relatively rare instances of an indigenous Indian artist speaking in his own voice, and at an A-list festival. The film is a crime thriller about an indigenous forest community caught between Maoist rebels and the state; it also philosophically explores what constitutes civilisation. Nagpur-based Ninawe, who belongs to the Halba (tribe)-Koshti (caste) community, studied engineering at Nagpur University before studying management at the prestigious Indian Institute of Mana­ge­ment-Ahmedabad (IIM-A). “The Halbas were traditionally a tribe of bodyguards of Odia kings, and Koshtis are a weaver caste,” he expla­ins. “Having got a reserved seat at IIM-A, I was frequently taunted: ‘You are not competent. You are spoiling someone’s seat.’ So I was determined not to use my IIMA qualification in my career, and turned to film. I used to watch up to five films a day and cut fresh trailers for films at IIM-A, so later, I decided to become a filmmaker. I’m entirely self-taught.”

Also in Marathi is Bende’s brilliant coming-of-age debut feature Aatmapamphlet, which is a truck of TNT, as it were, against caste and religious discrimination in India but is sweetly and cleverly wrapped up in a school romance. The film is about a charming schoolboy, Ashish, who has a crush on his classmate Srushti Damle. One day, while filling up a school form, he discovers that he is Dalit/neo-Buddhist, whereas Srushti is an upper caste Brahmin, and the film revolves around his buddies rallying round to stamp out discrimination to expedite the romance. The performances are delightful, and Paresh Mokashi’s screenplay, flecked with satirical humour, is brilliant.

A large number of Berlinale Talents were selected from South Asia—22 of them— who had been selected in 2023, 2022 and 2021, as the festival very generously also invited those who were selected in previous years when the Berlinale Talents was held online. From India, the Berlinale Talents included Modhura Palit, Udit Khurana, Koel Sen, Gayle Sequeira, Apoorva Charan (Indian-American), Nihaarika Negi, Pooja Chauhan, Payal Sethi, Prantik Basu, Tanmoy Dutta and Ameya Gupta. A number of Berlinale Talents were also selected from elsewhere in South Asia such as Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Shuchi Talati, who was invited as a Mastercard Talents Footprints Fellow of 2022, is currently wrapping up her film Girls will be Girls, and critic Nirmal Dhar was on the FIPRESCI Jury (of the International Federation of Film Critics) of the Berlinale.

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This altogether amazing show of talent from India and South Asia at the Berlinale should augur well for the cinema of the Indian sub-continent.

(Views expressed are personal)

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia delegate to the Berlin Film Festival

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