Watching Gangs of Wasseypur, the opening film of the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF), it was not the lyrics of the Bihari folk song which translates as: "You'll know my name when I fuck you dry ... Ain't I nice, I just fucked you twice" that stayed with me; nor the portrayal of the bigamist gang-leaders who casually bump each other off in dusty gullies; or even the fascinating backdrop of an arid landscape ruled by the politics of coal mines. No, what caught my attention was the refreshing characterisation of the 'strong Indian woman' who stands up to the extended circle of men she encounters with nerves of steel. While the likes of Hunger Games have announced the arrival of the strong butt-kicking female western protagonist, Bollywood still loves its women to be the stereotypical desi girlfriend, long suffering mother, holier than thou wife or the sultry vamp who is left behind.
As Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane, 2007) bemoans, "In mainstream Bollywood films, women are but objects of sex." In contrast she plays the feisty, outspoken, female lead in Dekh Indian Circus which also showed at the festival. The film holds up a mirror to an everyday reality where politicians twist villagers' lives to fulfil their own selfish ambitions. In the unique dichotomy that is India, the villagers don't have enough to eat but they carry mobile phones. Interestingly the character of the husband in this film is mute, by dint of which the woman--played by Tannistha, takes on the role of the voice of the family.
On the one hand, the movies at LIFF--now in its successive third year--indicate a coming of age for the spirited Indian woman on screen with a more honest portrayal of the pivotal role they play in everyday life. On the other--the most telling question, came from a young man in the audience of Wasseypur, who asked the director if he did not feel that he had portrayed a face of India which is likely to reinforce the impression of a country plagued by dacoits & lawlessness.
The question itself is not new, yet it was startling to hear it from someone so young--in his twenties--based in the UK, earning a living outside India. Someone I assume would have developed the confidence to move beyond the what will they think of us Indian middle class routine. So even as the new wave of Indian Indie films forge a beacon for female emancipation, we the Indian viewers, are yet trapped in the unseen morality chains which Indian society passes on with great relish to successive generations. Will we never get past the being judged by the world syndrome? It's a sentiment of which I am the first to be guilty of, being as I am the product of both--a conservative middle class South Indian upbringing, and a strict convent school student life in the outer suburbs of Bombay.
Just as I wearied of this inner soul gazing, along came a little film which stole my heart. Fresh from the Berlin Film Festival--Gattu--made on miniscule budgets, has a simple premise which pulls off a multilayered story with great success. Without the aid of sex, guns, violence or four letter words, director Rajan Khosa, has woven a delicate tale told through the eyes of the five year old lead character and his passion for kite flying, a popular sport in that part of India. The kites themselves become powerful characters playing out the age old theme of good vs. evil with great effect. Gattu's lead actor Samad Mohammad--an unknown with no acting experience, lights up the screen in every frame and is the undoubted discovery of the festival.
When it comes to India nothing is simple or as it seems--as witnessed by the sea of emotions evoked by the movies at LIFF--some of which even made grown men in the audience to cry (no kidding!). LIFF 2012 has delivered the much anticipated Indian summer to London. Its heady cocktail of the hottest Indie Indian cinema is a window to the arresting conflicts which will forever tie us--the diaspora--back to the motherland. What do you think? Do you agree?
London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) runs till July 3 at various venues across central London. http://www.londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/. Reach the author at http://www.laxmihariharan.com/