We are a people of rambunctious cinema. Arthouse films especially the ones about the underdog barely tickles our fancy here. But thanks to film festivals, there are spaces where these gems can take centre stage and be appreciated for their original, impactful storytelling. This year, that's exactly what happened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) when Indian cinema stole the show with over 30 titles presented at the two-week event.
Manoj Bajpayee's Joram, a survival thriller about a displaced indigenous man torn between the past and present was screened at the festival as part of the Big Screen Competition aiming to bridge the gap between popular, classic and art house cinema.
Varun Grover's directorial debut, All India Rank, a slice-of-life dramedy was part of the Bright Future segment that showcased feature-length debuts. A semi-autobiographical tale, centering on a middle-class boy named Vivek, who enrolls in coaching classes for the notoriously competitive entrance exams of IIT, the film was a closer at the 52nd edition of the festival.
Joining it in the Bright Future segment, was Vignesh Kumulai's Karpaara, a heart-rending drama about an elderly bedridden couple in rural Tamil Nadu who are living separately under the care of their sons. A story of filial neglect and the casual cruelty that is brought upon the dying parents by their children through the inevitable cycles of nature, Kapaara presents the decay of life through the reminiscence of the past.
Short films Dear Me by Suchana Saha, a poignant tale of a 25-year-old taking care of her mother in the hospital and A Flower In A Foglight by Gaurav Puri, a displacement story of the residents of a centuries-old village in the light of the construction of a state-of-the-art airport were also screened at the festival. The Jaaved Jaaferi and Shaylee Krishen starrer, Moha about a spiritual male hermit and a female nymph, directed by Santosh Sivan along with two Malayalam movies, Senna Hegde’s comedy-drama 1744 White Alto and Family by Don Palathara set in a devout Syrian Christian community were featured at the festival as a part of the Harbour segment championing contemporary cinema.
Ladakhi-language movie Last Days of Summer, directed by Stenzin Tankong about two shepherds journeying into the unknown to unravel the mystery of a strange recurring sound from the Himalayas that only they can hear, and Lipika Singh Darai's Night and Fear, 'an experimental personal essay of the past, present, the fear and the intuitive self, finding shelter in the characters and spaces from the world through image and sound' competed in the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the festival.
A special segment dedicated to India, 'Focus: The Shape of Things to Come?' read, "In 2022, India celebrated the 75th anniversary of independence. But is really all well in the ‘world’s largest democracy’? Both documentaries and fictional narratives reflect on the socio-political development of the past 30 years – and ask: Is the institutional success of right-wing Hindu-nationalist groups and the persecution of dissenting voices a sign for the shape of things to come – and not only in India?"
This segment featured 21 works, from a stand up set to short and feature films and documentaries all touching on the socio-political unrest in the country.
Nothing irks cinephiles more than an arc they can predict. We cringe at the expected; it's a disappointment of the highest degree. Yet, we have fallen into such a stagnant puddle of repetition that is Bollywood. The stories of the underdog that touch the most intimate narratives of grief, injustice and humanity in our country have to sadly seek the havens of film festivals while blockbusters occupy the theatres and that's not going to change anytime soon except for a few Indie films infiltrating Indian cinema. But one can always depend on film festival line-ups for culturally and emotionally informed, salt-of-the-earth stories.