29th International Film Festival of India
A first-timer in India last month, I found it incredibly hard to stay obediant to my gracious New Delhi host, the 29th International Film Festival of India. As a festival guest, I was scheduled to watch heaps of movies, especially the brand new Indian ones unveiled in the Indian Panorama. But how could sitting in a theater compete with skipping out into the real-world New Delhi? Where else does a routine taxi ride to a Fest take you past lumbering elephants, squealing monkeys, street children, shantytowns, missing-limb beggars, Islamic mosques, Sikh temples, and several million unemployed people squatting by the road?
Fine, fine, but what about new Indian cinema?
From what I did see, it's musty for western outsiders.
In overwrought TV-movie fashion, filmmakers keep retelling, as if shockingly new, Ibsen's pre-20th century A Doll's House. The Indian narrative centers often on a naive, higher-caste married woman tucked safely at home, away from the unwashed. When a melodramatric crisis erupts, she discovers that her so-protective family are a bunch of sexist, patriarchal, cowardly weasels. Her husband is a skunk.
Three random 1997 Indian films I saw at the Fest:
Plot one: a rich, bored young lady decides to take a day job, but she must hide her unemployent from her jealous, fatuous spouse. Plot two: when an adult son is killed by the police for revolutionary activity, his doting mother is repulsed that her bourgeois husband grovels before the authorities, afraid of family scandal. Plot three: a married woman is hassled on the street by three thugs, who threaten rape, until another woman, a journalist, comes to her rescue. When the women go to the police to press charges, their shamed husbands and families back off. Soon, things are so twisted that it appears that the victimized woman lured her own attackers!
I talked to the director of the last film, Crossfire!, the flamboyant Calcuttan, Rituparru Ghosh. He was steaming about the stiffnecked press conference of Indian film critics after his screening. "Someone asked me the silly question, 'Why do you make movies about women?' I answered, 'Why climb a mountain? Because it's there. Women are there.'"
Ghosh has taken over editing a popular film magazine, Ananda Lok, of which, he admits, "It's not very celebral, not very intellectual. I begin each issue with five pages of Bombay film gossip," But that doesn't mean he's complacent about the low-quality writing about Indian film. "I don't think many critics are very cinema-savvy. They know the plot details, but they are unaware of the film techniques. Most reviews are filled up with telling the film's story, then the reviewers talk about performances. They think they know that. But mostly they criticize a movie like it's a book.
"Also, most critics are frustrated filmmakers," Ghosh opined. He asked, "And you?"
"Very frustrated," I replied.
Not all new Indian films were exactly the same. I enjoyed a recasting of Othello as a rural-set, ritual-soaked film, Kaliyattam, which, in its best moments, showed the influences of Welles and Kurosawa. This movie's Iago had never acted before. But he had been trained fittingly by a career as an Indian producer!
The film with the biggest hype, and surely the largest budget, was Pamela Rooks's Train to Pakistan, based on a very famous novel about the 1947 partition of India. It was the moment of Indian independence where literally millions of persons died, mostly in Hindu-Islam religious battles along the new border with Pakistan.
At the movie premiere, the stooped author of the book, Kushwant Singh, came forth to the podium and delivered a sanctimonious jeremiad. "We are savages," he lectured the suffocatingly-packed crowd. "The basic emotion of humanity is hate. The 1947 partition of India-Pakistan was the greatest tragedy in the history of humanity! I don't want you to enjoy the movie. I hope you have a troubled sleep. But, remember, it all happened. It can happen again. IT MUST NOT HAPPEN AGAIN!!"
Wow! Would Train to Pakistan be Amistad meets The Killing Fields meets Schindler's List?
Nope. It turned out, amusingly, to be a crudely violent, swashbuckler melodrama. Taking advantage of recent cracks in Indian censorship, Train to Pakistan started with a steamy smooching scene involving a turned-on concubine. Funnier was the dialogue-in-subtitle from a bevy of turban-wearing blackguards.
"Open the door, motherfuckers!" they yelled. And this was 1947!
How have Indian movies changed in the 1990s? Some kissing, some cursing. In another film I saw, a Today's Businesswoman swore into the telephone, "Go to hell! Fuck you! Shit!" Hanging up, she shrugged to a colleague, "That's Advertising."
Approximately 800 films are produced a year, in many Indian languages, but they're almost all awful. If Hollywood is lame these days, what about India's so-named analagous commercial cinema, Bollywood? The hundreds and hundreds of mixed-genre programmers produced in Bombay, India's west coast film capital, sound more kitschy entertaining to westerners than they are actually making yourself watch them.