In the annals of Indian cinema, 2010 could well go down as the year in which Aamir Khan courted the arty film festival circuit with as much commitment and dedication as he does the material world of the box office. He will be remembered not for the mega success of 3 Idiots, released last year, but for the two ‘indies’ he produced and promoted with characteristic passion. Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli [Live] opened at the Sundance Film Festival, and later travelled to Berlin and several other events, before having a successful run at the theatres last month. Last week, Aamir was back at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), promoting his new home production Dhobi Ghat, written and directed by his wife Kiran Rao. He was joined by Kiran and actors Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra and Kriti Malhotra at the film’s sold-out world premiere at the 1,560-seat Elgin Theatre.
Dhobi Ghat carries a second title—Mumbai Diaries—and is a fitting ode to the maximum city. It tracks the lives of four disparate individuals and deals with the theme of breaking class and religious boundaries. The film is a remarkable feat coming from a first-time director. In the programme notes for the festival, Cameron Bailey, the co-director of TIFF, wrote that Kiran is “informed by (the Asian masters) Wong Kar-Wai and Tsai Ming Liang, but (directs) with her own intimate sensibility”. High praise that surely set higher expectations. “Do not expect another Ghajini,” Aamir told the screaming Toronto fans who had filled up the Elgin. And he was right. In Dhobi Ghat, Aamir (playing a reclusive painter, Arun) delivers one of the quietest performances of his career. But the real star is Babbar, playing Munna, the dhobi. The actor has tremendous screen presence and carries the weight of the film with ease. No surprise, then, that after the screening, Babbar received louder applause than Aamir.
Each year, TIFF features nearly 300 films from over 60 countries. This year, there were four features from India—Dhobi Ghat, Harud, Soul of Sand and That Girl in Yellow Boots. Each one distinct from the typical, commercial Bollywood that India has been identified with in the West. Bailey even coined a new term for them—Hindie, reflecting the emergence of the new Hindi-indie films from Mumbai, most of them directed by a bunch of young, ground-breaking filmmakers.
Apart from Kiran, the other celebrated Indian debutant director at the festival was Aamir Bashir. He has acted in several Bollywood films, but with Harud, he makes a smooth transition to filmmaking. It is a quiet film, capturing the everyday life of a Kashmiri family coping with conflict in the Valley and the disappearance of the older son who was a tourist photographer. In quiet tones and pacing, reminiscent of the new Iranian cinema, the Kashmir-born Bashir reflects on the decay of the Kashmiri psyche. Harud features a heartbreaking performance by veteran Iranian actor Reza Naji as the father of the family. But the story unfolds from the perspective of the younger son Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), who picks up his brother’s camera to continue his journey.
A contrast to the gentle narratives of Dhobi Ghat and Harud was the searing Soul of Sand (Pairon Talle) by Delhi-based director Siddartha Srinivasan. It explores the caste system, the remnants of feudalism and even honour killing along the edges of Faridabad and Gurgaon. A security guard sits outside an abandoned mine, convinced about the purpose of his life, unaware that every Saturday his boss sleeps with his wife. Meanwhile, the boss is willing to sell off his own daughter in a business deal with a much older man. Soul of Sand is a tough film, and Srinivasan makes no effort to ease the viewer’s discomfort.
That Girl in Yellow Boots
Writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots is just as discomfiting. Kashyap continues to provide a mature voice to the Indian indie cinema. He narrates the story of Ruth (played by Dev D actress Kalki Koechlin) who works out of a massage parlour while on a quest to find her father. Kashyap’s previous films have been layered with several sub-plots. Yellow Boots is a much tighter and focused with strong performances by Koechlin and newcomer Prashant Prakash.
There was also a British film with a South Asian connection—writer Ayub Khan Din’s West is West, the sequel to his 1999 autobiographical hit East is East. West is West takes place in 1976, five years after the setting of the original film. Om Puri is back as George (Jahangir) Khan, while his co-star Linda Bassett reappears as his harassed and much-abused British wife, Ella. In the sequel, most of the Khan kids have moved on, other than the youngest Sajid (played by a charming new actor, Aqib Khan). West is West has a different director, with Din and producer Leslee Udwin replacing Damien O’Donnell with Andy De Emmony. But along the way, a lot more was lost. Although West is West is also Din’s personal story, it lacks the fresh humour, energy and honesty that made East is East one of the most notable South Asia-focused films from the UK. Instead, it is a rather dull and uninspiring story about George’s trip back to Pakistan (the film is mostly shot in Punjab, India) to introduce Sajid to his roots.
West Is West
The film moves from the grey colours of Salford where George owns a fish and chips outlet to sunny Punjab, but suddenly loses its heart. We meet assorted relatives of George—from his first wife (Ila Arun) to son-in-law (Vijay Raaz). There are some tough scenes between George and his first wife, when suddenly Ella turns up to take Sajid back.
In the 11 years since they shot East is East, both Puri and Bassett have aged. It shows on their weathered faces and their performances seem a lot less convincing. But West is West is mostly flawed because of Din’s writing. This film appears to be an afterthought, a desperate attempt to cash in on the success of the first film. East is East was a prize show for the distribution company Miramax. West is West is yet to find a distributor.