Reel Life: Discovering a world beyond Bollywood in 2021

Namrata Joshi looks back on the year of the underdogs, indies, debutants and a world beyond Bollywood

Representative image
Representative image

Namrata Joshi

Don’t ask me why but I somehow couldn’t put my byline to one of the earliest, and finest, films I saw in 2021, Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The immediate reason why it drew me in was personal. The authenticity and detail with which Singh recreates life in a small Uttarakhand village—right down to local rituals like the ‘jaagar’ in which gods, local deities and ancestral spirits are invoked through music for helping with cures and remedies—a world where my own roots lie. A world where Internet andsocial media might have come to proliferate but age-old superstitions and customs continue to occupy an integral space.

All the while, talk of roads and tunnels and development plays on, on the radio, as an ironic counterpoint to the lack of basic infrastructure and facilities and inherent decay and degradation in the mountains.

Singh rounded off the year with another outstanding creation, the TV series Tabbar on SonyLiv, a bristling thriller far removed from the quietude and human drama of Fire in the Mountains, one which takes us into an entirely different zone of rough Punjab. However, Singh’s grip on characters, relationships and emotions stays just as acute.

Much like him,debutant PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal (Pebbles) came from nowhere to win the prestigious Tiger award at its premiere screening at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam and went on to represent India at the Oscars. With starkness and simplicity Vinothraj captures life at its bleakest in arid Arittapatti, near Madurai.

At the core of it is the changing dynamic of the relationship between Ganapathy and his son Velu as they go on a long walk to fetch the wife/mother who has left home after a quarrel.

Not only is the film based on an incident that happened with his own sister, Vinothraj himself comes from a modest background in Arittapatti that he brings alive on screen. A school dropout, he worked as a labourer in a textile factory for over ten years, sold DVDs by the roadside in Chennai which is when he also got to feast on world cinema—Majid Majidi, Stanley Kubrick in particular. He later worked as assistant director in two films by A. Sagunam before beginning to make his own shorts and eventually his first feature.

The year 2021 also belonged to the Kannada stars Raj B. Shetty and Rishab Shetty. Actor-director-writer Raj’s Garuda GamanaVrishaba Vahana was the most entertaining mainstream film I saw this year. Familiar gangster saga about love, loyalty, betrayal, hurt, revenge and retribution it had me rooting for some of the most humane rowdies on screen brought alive by bristling performances—Raj and popular actor-filmmaker Rishab Shetty in particular. The unconventional bro-code and homoeroticism, beautifully realised moments and set-pieces, the tiger dance, cricket matches and above all Mangalore—Mangladevi and Kadri in particular—all of it somehow compensated for the in-your-face lack of women on screen.

Raj was as magnificently kinetic as a vigilante in one of my most cherished film viewings this year, Natesh Hegde’s debut feature Pedro.A powerful slice of life of rural Karnataka, most so the pervasive feudalism and religious fanaticism and the violence heaped upon the underprivileged, it’s a powerful indictment of the times. Assuredly craftedin its evocation of place and time, Pedro packs in a strong human statement with quietude and subtlety. The film has been produced by Rishab.

2021 has been my introduction to the Shettys—Rakshit (of the 2016 Kirik Party fame), alongwith Raj and Rishab. Will they take Kannada cinema—popular as well as independent—to the rest of India and the world in the years to come? I am willing to gamble on that.

Meanwhile, carrying on from where Meel Patthar (Milestone) and The Disciple left us last year, 2021 has been the year of compelling independent films across various languages, most of them debuts, beautifully rooted in their specific milieu and time. Like Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies that looks at the divides of caste, class and religion. Set in the Lucknow of the 60s, it is as much a coming-of-age saga of a little girl as it is a “personal journey into the heart of India”. Prasun Chatterjee’s first Bengali feature Dostojee is about how these divides test the friendship of two 8-year-olds in rural Bengal in the 90s, in the wake o the Babri Masjid demolition.

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s third feature Once Upon A Time In Calcutta that opened in Venice is a splendorous ode to Kolkata, in decline yet perpetual. Nikhil Mahajan’s latest Godavari is a visually and aurally blooming look at an individual’s crisis of faith.

The fandom for Malayalam cinema has been growing over the last few years. In 2021 it got more popularly noticed for dealing with out of the box ideas, interesting stories and compelling, engaging narratives with charismatic actors—all hail Fahadh Faasil— and technical finesse to boot. The Great Indian Kitchen, Nayattu, Joji, Biriyani, Aarkkariyam, Malik, Minnal Murali, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam...One Malayalam film made one go hunting for another.

Tamil cinema also crossed some invisible boundaries this year. Pebbles aside, there were Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai, Jai Bhim, Maadathy reaching out to the world through the streaming platforms and having the uninitiated audience wake up to the urgency and combativeness with which Tamil films have been bringing to fore issues like the plight of the marginalised, caste discrimination, exploitation of tribals and custodial violence by cops.

More than ever before, the streaming platforms turned the world our oyster during the pandemic with global content just a press of the remote away. The warm and affirming Korean or K-Dramas continued to amass fans as did shows like Mare of Easttown, Only Murders in the Building, White Lotus to name just three of a few that a hitherto OTT platform-resistant person like yours truly managed to catch up with.

Meanwhile, Bollywood at its most successful was all about the Sooryavanshis and Satyamev Jayates, filmi toolkits of the State, coasting along on jingoism, Muslim bashing or giving lessons on good Muslimbad Muslim binary with a smug Hindu upper hand.

The ones that stood out for me were Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham—a powerful cinematic testament to the pertinence of protest in the guise of biopic of a patriot. Amit Masurkar’s Sherni pushed the envelope by looking at an atypical theme like ecological conflicts and their repercussions and the clash between idealism and convictions as against co-option and corruption in State setups. In her directorial debut, Seema Pahwa captured the humdrum with humour and humanity in Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, a film about shared grief and the intimacies and affections as well as the hidden grudges, unspoken resentment, unresolved insecurities and unexpressed anger that it brings out.

While anthologies proved to be the bane of the streaming world, some individual segments stood out. The caste, colour and gender subversion—all at a go—in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Puchchi segment in Ajeeb Daastaans came riding on a brilliant performance from Konkona Sen Sharma. Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao were perfectly in tune in Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, Abhishek Chaubey’s delightful take on “Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram” (Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment) in the Ray anthology. A charming, rooted whimsy of a short film about a lost culture and also the vanishing art of storytelling.

Gullak 2's engaging, empathetic and heart-warming snapshots of the life of the Mishra family in Bhopal were just what the doctor would have ordered to tide over Covid—soothing, comforting and healing.

Power and the cinema: Bollywood, BJP & bad blood

The government, however, continued to be far from soothing when it comes to its equation with Bollywood. Earlier in the year the Income Tax Department conducted raids at 30 properties of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, actor Taapsee Pannu, Phantom Films and Kwan Talent Agency in Mumbai and Pune on allegations of tax evasion. Kashyap and Pannu are known to be vocal critics of the government on several issues, including CAA/NRC as well as the farm laws.

Later in the year Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aaryan was arrested by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in connection with a drug bust case aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai. Neither of these cases have led to any conclusive results. So, there were accusations of them being selectively targeted.

Beyond individuals have been the institutions. The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) that used to hear appeals by filmmakers/producers aggrieved by the decision of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was dissolved earlier this year.

With this statutory body dissolved, the filmmakers are left with no option but to approach the High Court for the redressal of their grievances which would actually make way for more bottlenecks with the certification process getting messier, costlier and prolonged given that litigation in India is expensive and the courts are already stretched to their limits with the backlog of cases.

If this wasn’t enough, in June the Union Government began the process of amending the Cinematograph Act, 1952, arrogating more power to itself in an effort to control film making and what the nation gets to view. The key, and potentially draconian proposal, was granting revisionary powers to the central government on film certification, a provision in the Act that had been struck down by the courts two decades back.

A small group of young filmmakers, academics and lawyers drafted a response to the Ministry of I&B highlighting these concerns, in addition to commenting on various other sections of the proposed bill. The document was subsequently endorsed by close to 6,500 signatories across the Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu and Assamese film industries, amongst others, and was submitted to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Since then, things have been on a hold.

Meanwhile, at the end of the year a group of Indian filmmakers, academics, students and members of the civil society again came together to write to the Ministry of I&B on its proposed restructuring/merger of Children's Film Society of India (CFSI), Films Division (FD), National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) with National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and the wide speculation about its agenda to privatise the national archives and government properties, thereby destroying the rich national film heritage of the country.

All these have been unilateral decisions taken by the government without taking any of the stakeholders into the consultation. Constraints on filmmakers, sanitisation of content and self-censorship and infantilization of the audience, these seem to be the rules of the dispensation when it comes to cinema and entertainment.

This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.

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