India's indie cinema scene stretches into taboo territory
Stories of sexuality and politics topline Toronto's International Film Festival of South Asia, the largest event of its kind in North America
Earlier this year, India's Central Board of Film Certification refused to issue a certification for the Hindi-language movie Lipstick Under My Burkha, stating that the story was "lady-oriented, their fantasy above life," and that the film contained "sexual scenes, abusive words [and] audio pornography."
"It was basically a ban, because without a certification you cannot show the film in India," says Alankrita Shrivastava, the writer-director of Lipstick Under My Burkha. Last month, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overruled the decision, saying there "cannot be any embargo on a film being women-oriented or containing sexual fantasies and expression of the inner desires of women," and gave it an adult certificate.
Before it hits theatres in India, however, Lipstick Under My Burkha has screened in Toronto as part of the sixth-annual International Film Festival of South Asia (IFFSA), which bills itself as the largest South Asian film festival in North America. That screening sold out, says Sunny Gill, IFFSA Toronto's president and co-founder. Other festival film screenings, which run until May 22 primarily in Brampton, include such similarly daring cinema as Harikatha Prasanga, a Kannada-language film from India exploring gender identity and Live from Dhaka, a Bangladeshi film about a man looking for ways to escape his circumstances by emigrating. The festival closes with Newton, a Hindi-language dark comedy that looks at the election process in a remote, conflict-ridden village in India.
Films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha and Newton reflect India's growing indie scene; issues of female sexuality and the democratic rights of marginalized people were traditionally the stuff of festival fare – movies that never made it to cinema halls. But that equation has changed with an increasing appetite for substantial stories versus Bollywood's spectacle.
"I had been interested in Lipstick Under My Burkha for a long time. I had seen the screener, and I couldn't figure out why this movie was banned in India," says IFFSA's Gill, adding that South Asian Canadian viewers with conservative mindsets might find some of the scenes "a little bit liberal."
The film follows the stories of four women, two Muslim and two Hindu, whose small-town lives intertwine in Bhopal, a bustling city in central India. There's a university student who wears jeans and T-shirts under her burka (full body covering) and aspires to sing like Miley Cyrus; an aesthetician who dreams of escaping to New Delhi with her boyfriend, even as her single mother is trying to set an up arranged match for her; a mother of three kids who has to endure the sexual demands of her errant husband while hiding her day job as a winsome door-to-door saleswoman; and a widowed matriarch who yearns to be seen as more than just "Buaji," an elderly aunt figure.
Shrivastava says the story came out of her "own feeling of yearning for freedom, this idea of not feeling fully free." The filmmaker was speaking on the phone from New York, the latest stop on a festival circuit that saw her attending the Miami Film Festival and France's Films Des Femme, among others, earlier this year. "I wanted to explore this feeling of something holding me back internally through characters who had something holding them back externally."
She also wanted to explore a "milieu that was different" from her debut film, Turning 30!!!, which was inspired by personal experiences living in Mumbai. Although her characters are entirely fictional, a chance encounter with her landlord's wife assured Shrivastava that she was on the right track as she was developing her script. "It felt like one of my characters had walked into my real life," she says. "I thought she had come to talk to me about my rent and suddenly she started telling me about her business plan, what she wanted to do. I realized how much we put people into boxes … when there is so much more going on in their minds."
The title character of Newton, which closes IFFSA on May 22, is another out-of-the-box individual. Newton Kumar is a rookie clerk on election duty in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, a resource-rich province in central India that's also home to a conflict between Indian security forces and a Maoist armed group. An idealist in his personal and professional life, he wants to conduct free and fair elections in a remote village, despite the apathy of both the army battalion assigned to the election team and the villagers going about their daily lives, as well as the threat of Maoist rebels.
"The [Indian] constitution guarantees fairness to all, but people on the fringes of society feel disenfranchised," says Amit Masurkar, the writer-director of Newton, in an e-mail interview on his way back to Mumbai from New York, where his film screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. "All over the world, there is a big gap between what is written in the book and what is practised. I wanted to explore this gap through cinema.
"I was 18 when I first voted. It might have been a local election in 1999 or 2000. I remember standing in a long line and getting my index finger inked. I don't think it was an informed choice. I knew nothing about the candidate except what he had promised in his manifesto. I voted for the same person my family voted for."
Given the current conversations around democracy across the globe, Newton has struck a chord with audiences far removed from remote Indian villages, sparking discussions long after the end credits have rolled. "I have screened [Newton] in three countries – U.S., Germany and Hong Kong," Masurkar says. "Germany, like most [European Union] countries, is seeing a rise in neo-Nazi parties. In Hong Kong, only candidates approved by Beijing can stand for elections. And Trump is dragged into every conversation in New York. People are realizing that there is a big difference between the democratic machinery, which relies on what the majority wants, and democratic principles, which take into account even the weakest voice."
As for a Canadian audience, there are many parallels to be drawn between Indian villagers and Canada's Indigenous people, Masurkar says.
"Their rights have been taken for granted. Their lands are being plundered for natural resources without their consent and they are not getting their due compensation," he says. "I hope the audience watches it in the right spirit."
IFFSA Toronto runs at various GTA venues until May 22 (iffsatoronto.com).