Rima Das has never received so many congratulatory messages as she did in the past two weeks. The Assamese filmmaker has been praised over phone, in print and on Twitter by family and friends, peers and seniors ever since news of her new film’s selection to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) broke out. “I am humbled by the admiration of my people,” says Das, the first Assamese director to screen a film at the Toronto festival, which is on till September 17. Village Rockstars, the feature film directed by Das, had its world premiere on September 8 in TIFF’s Discovery programme that assembles rare cinematic talent from across the world.
At TIFF this year, Das is joined by at least four other Indian or Indian-origin women filmmakers, vastly outclassing their male counterparts. Mumbai-based Paakhi A Tyrewala, who was born in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, is in Toronto with her first feature film, Pahuna: The Little Visitors. America-born Bornila Chatterjee, who divides her time between Brooklyn and Kolkata, is part of the Special Presentations section of the festival with her feature film The Hungry. Canadian-Indian Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, Long Time Running, is a Gala presentation, while Kenya-born Anjali Nayar’s Silas is part of the TIFF Docs section. In sharp contrast, there are only two male directors from India—Anurag Kashyap (The Brawler) and Hansal Mehta (Omerta).
Saying with sensibilities
While the number of women filmmakers and women-directed films are only a handful in the country, it has been a different story altogether at the Toronto festival. In successive years, Indian women directors have led the country at TIFF, telling stories that come from the heart of society. Last year, Konkona Sen Sharma won accolades for her debut film A Death in the Gunj, while rookie Khushboo Ranka had two films (An Insignificant Man, which was on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, and Right to Pray, a virtual reality film). Last year also had Deepa Mehta’s new film, Anatomy of Violence, on the 2012 Delhi gangrape, and Meera Nair’s Lion, besides The Cinema Travellers by Shirley Abraham.
In 2015, Meghna Gulzar came with Talwar, based on the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case, while Leena Yadav told a woman-centric story in Parched, set in Rajasthan. There was also Shambavi Kaul with her video art film Fallen Objects, Megha Ramaswamy with Bunny, and Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel with their An Old Dog’s Diary. The year before saw Shonali Bose’s critically-acclaimed Margarita With a Straw and Megha Ramaswamy’s Newborns on acid attack survivors.
“The Toronto festival has been a frontier for Indian women filmmakers,” says Ranka. “It’s fantastic and a great showcase of the quality of work produced by Indian women directors. TIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in the world and it gives a chance to Indian women filmmakers to talk from a position of credibility,” says the Mumbai-based director. It’s not just the statistics, but the quality of content in women-directed films from India has stood out in the past many years. This year is no different.
Village Rockstars by Das is about a 10-year-old village girl’s dream to form a music band. “Rima Das’ second feature paints an inspiring portrait of a young girl finding her place in a world made for boys and men,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey. The film, the second feature by Das after Man with the Binoculars (2016), was selected for the Cannes festival’s film market this year as part of Asian projects looking for production support and funds. “Recognition such as this will be a reminder to me to benchmark my future work,” says Das. “The integrity and power of truth in everything you do, have done or are going to do matters at this level of selection and competition. It’s hard work I tell you, but so very satisfying”
Window to society
Bornila Chatterjee’s The Hungry, starring Tisca Chopra, is a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy set in the backdrop of a big wedding in Delhi. There is corruption, killing and greed in the film based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Paakhi A Tyrewala’s Pahuna: The Little Visitors tells the story of three Nepalese children, who are struggling to survive after they are separated from their parents in Sikkim. “Like a contemporary Indian version of Hansel and Gretel, The Little Visitors perches between realism and fable, as it unfolds a story of children performing near-miracles in order to survive,” says Bailey. Produced by actor Priyanka Chopra and mother Madhu Chopra, the film was screened in a special event section on the opening day on September 7, a day after Priyanka Chopra led an annual fundraiser event to support TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign to promote female voices in the film industry.
“A longtime staple of international screens, Priyanka Chopra is not only celebrated for playing strong and nuanced female characters that have their own agency, she is also committed to creating equal opportunities for women, so they can reach their full potential,” says Maxine Bailey, vice-president, advancement, TIFF. This year, one-third of the festival’s 339 films have been directed by women. Half of the films in the competition section of the festival have also been made by female directors. The number is nearly half for short films at the festival this year.
Long Time Running by Indian-origin Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal is about the emotional final tour of Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, after its singer Gord Downie is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Silas by Anjali Nayar tells the story of Liberian activist Silas Siakor, a tireless crusader against illegal logging and a symbol of resistance for a new generation. Actor Kalki Koechlin stars in Pakistani director Sabiha Kumar’s documentary Azmaish: A Journey Through the Subcontinent. Part of TIFF Docs, the film follows Kumar in Pakistan and Koechlin in India, as they try to discover common ground in two complex societies.
Hansal Mehta, who came to Toronto with Shahid in 2012, returns with the story of terrorist Omar Sheikh, who murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, in his new film Omerta. Rajkummar Rao, who won the National Award for Best Actor for his powerful portrayal of assassinated Mumbai lawyer-activist Shahid Azmi in Shahid, plays the British-born Sheikh in Omerta. Anurag Kashyap’s The Brawler (Mukkabaaz) explores corruption in sports through the story of a boxer.
The 42nd edition of the Toronto festival, which opened with the screening of Borg/McEnroe, about one of the greatest rivalries in tennis, will also see the directorial debut of Best Actress Oscar winner Brie Larson in Unicon Store. Another first directorial venture will be American actor Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a young girl’s attempt to live through her college and Catholic life. Inglourious Basterds star Melanie Laurent, too, steps behind the camera for her third feature, Plonger. Pop star Lady Gaga will perform in Toronto after presenting Gaga: Five Foot Two, a documentary on her life. Other films in the TIFF line-up include American actor Denzel Washington’s legal thriller Roman Israel, Esq. and Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer