Watch 5 Homegrown Indie Films That Defied Conventional Storytelling In 2023

Independent cinema is not afraid of broaching subjects shunned by Bollywood.
Independent cinema is not afraid of broaching subjects shunned by Bollywood.L:, R: IMDB

Under the incumbent regime, India is trembling under a crescendo of nationalist propaganda that threatens to muffle our pluralistic, multicultural reality. In such a time when the press is restricted and the masses are losing trust in their political leaders, the burden of catharsis falls upon the artistic medium to document and analyse our collective experiences. But our country has historically been a tough market for independent filmmakers, staying afloat through grants and discovery programs at festivals, unwavering in their dedication to bring authenticity to fictional narratives. In a bid to appreciate transgressive cinema that rises above the sanitised and frothy entertainment offered by mainstream fare today, Homegrown has compiled a list of 5 cutting edge indies that have made a mark this year, and contributed to our storytelling legacy.

I. Lost Ladies by Kiran Rao

Glimmering as the centrepiece selection at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year, Laapataa Ladies is a comedy of errors by Kiran Rao that follows the trajectory of two men who lose their veiled brides while travelling in the same train. Sharing the grey matter of understated social satires like Peepli Live (2010), the film depicts the primitivism of institutionalised marriage that herds women like cattle across the hinterland, without trying to overhaul the cultural machinery underlying such traditions. Deeply aware of the patriarchy that sits like a loose brick in the conventional family structure of rural India, the director strives to not alienate her audiences, believing that the fatuous suppression of femininity in day-to-day life is compelling enough without adding scenes of gratuitous violence or preachy soliloquies.

II. A Match by Jayant Digambar Somalkar

Premiering at TIFF, this plangent rhapsody of arranged weddings by first time director Jayant Digambar Somalkar, recounts the experience of Savita who is subjected to a nightmarish carousel of suitors streaming in and out of her house. Resplendent in the finest clothes her family owns, the young girl self consciously perched on a stool, is surrounded by men assessing her cooking and physical appeal. Representative of countless such matches contrived over kanda poha and invasive interrogation, Sthal (A Match) is shot entirely in Dongargaon, the village that the director grew up in.

A tint of melancholia is infused in the film, swallowed like bitter medicine by the girls who never awaken to their own agency, learning to sacrifice their aspirations at the altar of undying rituality.

III. Goldfish by Pushan Kripalani

The discordant outro of ageing hums like subliminal static in Goldfish, an elegy by Pushan Kripalani to the unifying powers of suffering, making for a rather doleful directorial debut. An intractable Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) must leave behind a cushy job and her infantile resentments in the face of the degenerative dementia of her classical singer mother Sadhana (Deepti Naval). The quandary of retaining autonomy through a time when you must rely on the compassion of your friends and family is the underlying conflict in this film, accompanied by Tapas Relia's fervid background score, Goldfish handles the role reversal between mother and child with unsentimental sensitivity.

IV. Rimdogittanga by Dominic Megam Sangma

A bashful sincerity pulsates through this magical realist saga of a ten-year-old grappling with night blindness, Rapture directed by Meghalaya born Dominic Sangma is the second instalment in his trilogy, set against the backdrop of insular village life in northeastern India. A dystopian eighty day spell of darkness is foretold by a church prophecy, sowing the seeds of terror among the villagers, who are worried that their children shall be kidnapped by outsiders. Completely narrated in the Garo language, this film seeks to decode the baseless terror inspired by religion or political skulduggery, dividing people and making them pliable by brainwashing.

In a beguiling rendition of life imitating art, some of the scenes in Rapture were reportedly cut out because of how closely they resembled the tragedy unfolding in Manipur. Sangma hopes that art and cinema can help people transcend the otherness of partisanship and remember how peaceful coexistence can vanquish their fear of the dark.

V. Agra by Kanu Behl

According to the 2018 annual crime report released by the Ministry of Home Affairs, one woman reports sexual assault every 15 minutes in India, stemming from the sexual repression prevalent in our society. Agra is one of the rare films that addresses the gender based violence that arises from the segregation and social taboos surrounding interaction between men and women. Reminiscent of the graphic viscerality of filmmakers like Gaspar Noé, the character study of Guru who works at a call centre and wants to build an extension in the cramped apartment he shares with his family, is uncomfortably immersive in the way it unpacks the aggressive fantasies springing from unsated sexuality.

Directed and co-written by Kanu Behl, Agra throws a wrench in the ostensible respectability of gender relations, baring the moist underbelly of a diseased generation overstimulated by dating apps but underserved by the Victorian stigma around lovemaking that still persists in the collective consciousness of our country.

Independent cinema is not afraid of broaching subjects shunned by Bollywood.
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The indies of today are a cross pollination of parallel cinema from the 70s and surprisingly incisive regional productions that explore micro-narratives of life in the less-understood small towns of our country. Holding space for the outcasts of Bollywood — themes that big money studios deem too uncomfortable for the conventional cinema-goers such as sexuality in the digital era, systemic casteism, disability and queerness — independent movies are a sanctuary for socio-political discourse that takes place in the living rooms and minds of ordinary people.