As the credits stopped rolling on Qissa, a Punjabi Partition drama, at the opera house-styled auditorium in downtown Toronto, a member of the audience got up from the front row. “How did you make your young leading ladies speak such good Punjabi?” enquired the salwar-kameez-clad woman of the film’s director Anup Singh, present for an interaction with the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival. The fact that the first question was on language spoke a lot about the subject of identity and the ghost of Partition the Geneva-based filmmaker, a Sikh like the tens of thousands of immigrants from Punjab in Toronto, explores in his film.
Qissa tells the story of Umber Singh, who turns on his own family with despairing and remorseless violence, after bitter resentment at the loss of his home during Partition tears him apart. “Umber is my grandfather and this film is an enemy’s homage to him,” says Singh, referring to himself as the “enemy”.
Unlike Umber (played by Irrfan Khan), who leaves the Pakistani side of Punjab for the Indian territory, Singh’s grandfather left for Tanzania to join his uncle there. “But he continued to seek vengeance against history,” says Singh, who was born in Dar-es-Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. “I grew up on his tears of Partition, which made me realise that while we should respect the pain of a victim, the victim doesn’t have the right to inflict that pain on others.”
Up close and personal
Qissa, which had its world premiere at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival that concludes today, represents a bold selection of new films from India. “The new Indian cinema is very delicate in the way it is portraying different stories from the country,” says Toronto-based Chilean critic Jorge Ignacio Castillo. “The delicacy that is lost in western cinema is still present in Indian films,” adds Castillo, who has been following new trends in Indian cinema for the past two years.
“The selection of Indian films this year shows the breadth and depth of Indian cinema,” says Piers Handling, director and CEO of the Toronto festival.
While Qissa is Singh’s second feature film after Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River), a tribute to Ritwik Ghatak that won him the prestigious Aravindan Puraskaram in 2002, the two other Indian feature films on the Toronto list are from first-time directors—Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, a love story set in the backdrop of Mumbai’s dabbawallahs, and Shilpa Ranade’s The World of Goopi and Bagha, an animated feature film based on characters immortalised by the 1969 Satyajit Ray classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Shambhavi Kaul, the daughter of legendary filmmaker Mani Kaul, completes the list of world premieres from India with her short film Mount Song, part of the Wavelengths section of the festival. Also part of the Indian selection is Maneesh Sharma’s A Random Desi Romance in the gala section.
While new independent filmmakers in India embrace fresh ideas and narrative styles, like Anand Gandhi’s philosophical journey, The Ship of Theseus, which world-premiered in Toronto last year, their movies are also personal and more intimate. If Qissa is Singh’s resentment of his grandfather’s violent ways, Faith Connections, a feature-length documentary, which is part of the Toronto world premieres from India, is its director’s reverence for his father.
“My father asked me to fetch him a bottle of Ganga water,” says Pan Nalin, who shot the film during the Kumbh Mela this year. “I went there and got him some stories too,” he jokes about the film, which is the story of seven characters linked only by their power of devotion. Nalin, whose last documentary, Samsara, too, was about faith and devotion, encountered his characters, such as a yogi bringing up a two-year-old child found abandoned as a newborn, while negotiating his way through a sea of people at the Kumbh Mela. “Everybody must have seen something at the Kumbh Mela,” says Nalin. “My film is about what I saw.”
Ranade, who teaches at the industrial design centre of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, saw an animated film in a book she was illustrating for Scholastic. “I was illustrating Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the first in a series of three books in Hindi by Gulzar, titled Potli Baba Ki, and instantly knew it would make an animated film,” says Ranade, who spoke with Ray’s son Sandip Ray about her plan to make an animated movie based on the original story by Ray’s grandfather Upendra Kishor Ray Chaudhuri.
“He said it’s fine and we started to make the film,” says Ranade, who found a producer in the Children’s Film Society, India. Using theatre activists for music, the strong point of the film, she made the low-budget movie about Goopy, the singer, and Bagha, the drummer, in two-and-a-half years. After the Toronto festival, the 78-minute film, titled Goopi Gawaiyaa, Bagha Bajaiyaa in Hindi, will head for the Busan film festival in South Korea early next month. The favourable response from the Toronto festival audience to the film, part of the festival’s section for children, is expected to influence its producer to go for an English dubbing to cater to a global audience.
With cinema increasingly becoming a mass medium to celebrate cultures, Toronto, which has a high population of Asian immigrants, comes off as the ideal exhibition venue for Indian films. Last year, the Toronto festival chose Mumbai for its third ‘City to City’ programme after Istanbul and Buenos Aires, screening as many as 10 films made by the city’s directors. However, at the packed screening venues of Indian films, Indian immigrants were matched by a cross-section of local, as well as international viewers. In this year’s edition of the festival, Richie Mehta, an Indian-origin filmmaker born in Toronto, was chosen for the festival’s contemporary world cinema section that has films from England, Kenya, the US and France. Mehta’s second feature film, Siddharth, which had its world premiere at the recently-concluded Venice festival, received rave reviews for its handling of the kidnapping of a boy from Delhi’s streets during its North American premiere in Toronto.
“Though films made in India are able to target the diaspora audiences today, India hasn’t created the infrastructure for carrying local films globally,” says Sanjeev Lamba, CEO of Reliance Big Pictures. This seems to be changing, with Indian filmmakers opting for co-productions to boost their chances of finding a market abroad.
Faith Connections, an Indo-French co-production that had already been sold in the French and Swiss markets, found a buyer in Germany at the Toronto festival. Even in the Indian market, which doesn’t warm up to documentaries, the producers of Faith Connections say they are confident of finding a distributor soon.
Reliance Entertainment, which controls the international entertainment business compared to Reliance Big Pictures’ business in the domestic sector, is also changing the dynamics of a global market for the Indian film industry. The company partnered with DreamWorks Pictures to present The Fifth Estate, American director Bill Condon’s new film on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the opening film of the Toronto festival this year.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer