Spotting India at the Toronto International Film Festival

September 5, 2011 8:31 am by

Freida Pinto in ‘Trishna’.

At any film festival, it is always interesting to find out what the films that deal with Indian themes, whether diasporic or local, have to say about us as a culture. Usually the mainstream cinema we are accustomed to supplants our cultural identity with a manufactured one that is woefully one-dimensional (all that spice-loving singing and dancing). Luckily, that kind of cinema is under-represented at most prestigious international festivals. That’s when a different kind of picture emerges—something more rich and diverse—that for a second the miscellany almost fleetingly represents a kind of “national” cinema that a country of such immense contradictions surely deserves. Here are ten films that form the “unofficial Indian selection” at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Azhagarsamy’s Horse
South-Indian director Suseendran brings us the lively satire Azhagarsamy’s Horse which has all the subtlety of a standard-issue Tamil potboiler but also has some genuine socio-realist concerns that raise it several notches above mindless commercial fare. The horse in question is  a ceremonial statue that has gone missing in a fictional Tamil village from the 1980s. The actor Appukkutty leads this melee through a mind-boggling array of twists and turns before the satirical aspects of the narrative can hit home with the requisite bite. This style of cinema, loud and bawdy but laced with snatches of brilliant observational comedy, has marked Suseendran’s cinema.

The Punjabi-Candian film Breakaway has been cheesily rechristened Speedy Singhs for its Indian release in September, a nod maybe to the “Singh” connection of its unlikely producer, Akshay Kumar; and perhaps to make a point about his losing out on the role of Milkha Singh in a forthcoming biopic on the Flying Sikh. The premise on the press release seems formulaic enough—a young Sikh-Canadian man (Vinay Virmani) dreams of hockey stardom but first he has to assemble a team to beat the local bullies, while romancing the coach’s daughter—but with a comic track featuring stand-up Russel Peters (who has managed to garner up quite a following in the subcontinent by way of viral videos), and loads of cross-cultural romancing, there could be some feel-good fun to be had on this ride.

Pankaj Kapur is one of our more accomplished character actors, so there is definitely a kind of sensibility expected of his cinema, and while Mausam seems to have a lofty premise, there is a danger of it being swamped by the Bollywood tropes that it whole-heartedly employs as evinced by its theatrical trailer that seems more Subhash Ghai than anything (including a disconcerting visual of Sonam Kapoor pirouetting in a ballet school). Of course, there could be a sweep to the emotion, a majesty to the visuals, and just the right pitch to the melodrama. Kapur may very well have a winner on his hands, which could work wonders for the careers of his stars. Shahid Kapur hasn’t had a hit in quite a while, and Kapoor has always been known as an acting lightweight. Here, she has a chance to marry her impeccable fashion sense with her craft as an actor.

This could very well be a banner year for Anurag Kashyap as a producer. Last year’s unqualified critical success Udaan has been followed by a host of edgy films like his first worldwide release The Girl in Yellow Boots, and the crime caper Shaitan, and now, Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael which will premiere in Toronto. Naseeruddin Shah plays a ex-cop who is in a race against time to prevent the murder of his 12-year-old son. Kashyap staple Mahie Gill co-stars in this psychological thriller based in Kolkata. In an interview with Screen, Dasgupta said he wanted the backdrop of his story of a disintegrating man to be a city in a state of visual decay, while still holding on to its charm and historical legacy. Kolkata fit the bill, and so does Shah who finally gets a meaningful part after a series of unimpressive cameos.

While being a part of the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes festival can seem like recommendation enough, Mushrooms (Chatrak), a Bengali film from Sri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara, hasn’t quite received a ringing endorsement from the international press, with Variety calling Jayasundara’s approach “pretty-pictures-meets-inscrutable-narrative”, and The Hollywood Reporter describing the film as “afflicted with melancholia”. Paoli Dam is the film’s dusky leading lady and stood out at the Cannes red carpet even though Indian shutterbugs seemed more enamoured of the usual pretenders like Minissha Lamba and Aishwarya Rai.

Freida Pinto is the pet peeve of the Indian press because she is widely considered to have hit the big time with only luck and some exotic appeal—not the kind of charges one would level against India’s beloved Katrina Kaif who seems to have come up in much the same way. Pinto gets another chance to woo her detractors with her new film Trishna, director Michael Winterbottom’s take on yet another Thomas Hardy novel—Tess of the d’Urbervilles (he’s adapted three in all). The film’s promo, which features a lilting ballad by Amit Trivedi, betrays nothing of the class conflict (and convoluted love story) that is central to the narrative, with a dreamy Riz Ahmed standing in for the novel’s most antiheroic character, and serenading Pinto’s Rajasthani damsel in distress like this were Romeo & Julietin the sand.

The diasporic offerings at the festival include the short films Afternoon Tea, which creates an encounter rife with possibilities between an old Sikh man and a young Canadian boy, and Doubles with Light Pepper that deals with a poignant immigrant story set in Trinidad. Mandeep delves into the life of 23-year-old man with behavioural disorders that are often rather misunderstood. Finally, from director Avie Luthra comes Lucky, set in South Africa, in which an Zulu orphan is taken in by a racist Indian woman, who undergoes a cathartic change of heart as the duo set out in search of the boy’s father (a premise that recalls the wonderful Brazilian film Central Station starring Fernanda Montenegro). All in all, a mixed bag of offerings that could almost give off the impression that Indian cinema is alive and well, and thriving.

Republished from The writer of this piece, Vikram Phukan, runs the theatre appreciation website Stage Impressions. Read the original version of this post on Film Impressions.