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Journeys back into Punjab of the ’80s and through present-day Benares sum up Indian cinema’s story at the 68th Cannes Film Festival

By: | Updated: May 24, 2015 4:55 AM
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Director Gurvinder Singh (left) with actor Vikky Suvinder during a photo call for their film Chauthi Koot at the festival.

IT TOOK two short stories for Gurvinder Singh to finally make the one film he always knew he would make some day. Growing up in an orthodox Sikh family in Delhi during the Sikh militancy, he often wondered why the people of his faith were demanding a separate land. After graduating in direction from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India in 2001, he travelled through Punjab for four years searching for the right narrative.

More than a decade later, he found his film on the turbulent times of Punjab and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Canadian-Indian author Waryam Singh’s collected short stories, Chauthi Koot. “There were two stories in this
collection that convinced me that I could talk about that period (in the 1980s) and put it on the screen,” says Singh, who has directed the Punjabi film Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction), which was screened at the 68th Cannes Film Festival.

Chauthi Koot and Richa Chadda-starrer Masaan will represent India at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival this year. Both films have been chosen for the Un Certain Regard section of the competition.

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Shot near Amritsar and Firozpur in Punjab during the last monsoon and winter, Chauthi Koot combines the short stories The Fourth Direction and I am Fine Now to portray the fear gripping society in the 1980s. While one story talks of a farmer’s family caught between militants and security forces, the other is about a train journey of two Hindus and their two fellow Sikh passengers. “One is about fear inside a personal space and the other is about fear inside a public space,” says Singh, who desists from using violence on the screen. Instead, the director recreated the fear and anxiety through the farmer’s dog, which he is ordered by the militants to kill to prevent its barking giving them away. “The fourth direction is a forbidden direction,” says Singh. “It is a direction you are forced to take against your wishes,” he adds. Actors from Lahore’s flourishing theatre groups play the main characters in Chauthi Koot, Singh’s second feature film after the award-winning Anhey Gorey da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse), which was adapted from a novel by Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh.

Chauthi Koot is joined by Hindi film Masaan at the Cannes festival’s Un Certain Regard section this year. Masaan, the debut film of Mumbai-based Neeraj Ghaywan, is set in contemporary Benares, where a confident new generation confronts the limits of tradition. “India has arrived on the global map, but at the same time, society is restricted by its traditions,” says Ghaywan. “The youth who are trapped between traditional society and a modern India are ready to break free,” he adds. Masaan weaves two stories: that of an engineering student, who is born in a backward community employed in burning dead bodies on the ghats of Benares, and a computer-skilled girl, who is looking for a future outside rituals and prayers. “A new generation of filmmakers is emerging from India, which is ready to tell stories dealing with socio-economic and political issues, and contradictions in society,” says Cannes festival’s general delegate Thierry Fremaux.

The official selection at Cannes this year is one up from the number of Indian films in 2014 when another Delhi filmmaker, Kanu Behl, presented his debut film Titli in the Un Certain Regard category. There were two films in the official selection in 2013: Bombay Talkies and Monsoon Shootout. A short film by a Benares-born Indian-American is, however, part of the Critic’s Week parallel section of the festival this year. Love Comes Later by New York-based Sonejuhi Sinha is competing with nine others for the Sony CineAlta Award. The 10-minute film, which stars Mississippi Masala actor Sarita Choudhury and Chhattisgarh-born Indian-American Vega Tamotia, talks about the experiences of undocumented women immigrants in the US. “It is the story of people whose dreams are bigger than the circumstances that surround them,” says Sinha, a first-generation immigrant, who worked as a volunteer at the New York Asian Women’s Centre for rehabilitated victims of sexual and domestic violence. “It is an issue that we should continue to talk about,” says Tamotia, who plays Riz, an undocumented immigrant worker from India, in the film. Sinha, the only Indian-origin director in the parallel Cannes section comprising Critic’s Week and Director’s Fortnight, says she will start shooting a feature film based on Love Comes Later set in New Jersey soon.

Another Indian-origin filmmaker, London-based Asif Kapadia, was a huge draw in the official selection of the Cannes festival with his film Amy, a biopic on English jazz singer Amy Winehouse, who met with a tragic end as a 27-year-old four years ago. Kapadia, the director of Senna (based on the life of Brazilian Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna, who was killed in a crash), puts together archival footages to show how early fame and pressure of a high-profile career took away the life of a “true jazz singer”, as jazz legend Tony Bennet describes Winehouse in the movie. Amy, part of the out-of-competition section at Cannes, splashes footages of several recording sessions and concerts of Winehouse, including the moment when she beat Beyonce, Jay Z, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake to win the Record of the Year Grammy Award in 2008 for Rehab.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

Tags: Cannes 2015
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