India remains one of the most prolific sources of popular film, its studios profitable and its movies well attended. However, Indian film has begun to move beyond the Bollywood musicals that remain its best-known output, and into more mainstream comedies, historical pieces, and dramas which explore serious subjects, while retaining their distinctively Indian flavour and approach.
Recent productions have gained international interest, won awards at film festivals, and received Oscar nominations, along with critical success. Some of the more noteworthy and popular recent productions…
Newton (2017) is a political comedy/drama, which delves into specifics of Indian politics to a degree unusual in Indian film so far; a winner of multiple film festival awards around the world; and India’s entry for last year’s Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category. The main body of the story is set in a remote, jungle-filled region of central India, an area which serves as a base for revolutionaries who have fought to overthrow the government for more than thirty years – details which are provided through onscreen text during the opening credits. The film opens on a campaign speech from a candidate for office; while driving home from the rally, the candidate is shot by rebels. The back-story is in place, and we move on to the central character: Newton (Rajkummar Rao), whom we first meet attending a workshop for polling booth attendants, one which includes instructions on dealing with attacks by revolutionaries.
Newton is a youthful idealist, who changed his name from Nutan because of his admiration for the philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton – particularly his belief in the basic equality of all people. A strong believer in the importance of free elections, Newton volunteers to take on a poll station in an area heavily occupied by rebels, one which contains only 76 registered voters. The character of Newton combines heroism with comic foolishness; he is an unassuming young man, not outwardly brave or intrepid, but whose principles guide him, sometimes in ways which are admirable, just as often into embarrassment, confusion, or danger.
An ongoing conflict develops between Newton, who is determined to follow protocol and expedite voting at all costs; his military guards, who see the entire exercise as pointless; and the local voters, ethnic minorities despised by the militia and candidates alike, who are afraid to approach the poll for fear of rebel activity, and who have been left completely uninformed about the election issues. Newton himself becomes something of a Quixotic hero, struggling against all odds to offer the benefits of democracy in a place where it exists only in theory. The satirical approach becomes at once farcical and very dark as, in the face of bigotry, threats, and indifference, Newton tries to sustain his belief in the democratic process, and complete his duty by any means available to him.
Actress Namrata Singh Gujral wrote and directed this enjoyable east-meets-west romantic comedy, which both celebrates Indian wedding customs, and examines their broader significance. The enthusiastically backed and promoted film, featuring Hollywood/Bollywood film star Nargis Fakhri as well as surprise small roles by Bo Derek and Candy Clark, opened in 15 countries, beginning with its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
The story follows Indian-American magazine writer Shania Dhaliwal (Nargis Fakhri) as she is sent by her publisher to do a human interest story on Indian weddings. The trip becomes a journey through Shania’s personal history as well: Shania’s mother asks her to deliver a package to her long-absent father, who lives in a small town in the Punjab region; and being in India revives Shania’s memories of her father.
Shania is assigned a personal guard, Officer Singh (Raj Kummar Rao) to escort her and ‘keep her in line’ during her investigation, and their ongoing conflict provides the usual comic relief. The story follows Shania as she attends five weddings, ranging from luxurious to simple, covering the five main ceremonies associated with Hindu weddings. She grows to admire the wedding customs and the sense of community. However, she also takes note of less than ideal situations, such as a marriage which has been arranged with the bride’s full consent – a subject which is dealt with thoughtfully and finally shown to be resolved in a manner that satisfies both the bride’s autonomy and local tradition. Her guide and overseer objects to Shania’s insistence on covering these events without glossing over problems. Their conflict becomes truly heated when Shania observes the arrival at several weddings of a group of ‘hijira’ – a caste of men who dress and identify as women – who by custom offer a blessing to the prospective bride and dance at community weddings.
As Shania discovers, the hijira have a long history, but their existence is largely covered up in modern times. Officer Singh makes every effort to divert Shania from learning more about them, making her all the more determined to include them in her article. When she contacts and interviews a hijira who had been assaulted, the police chief warns her away from the subject, making Shania all the more curious. Director Gujral made a point of casting actual trans actors as the hijira, both for the sake of authenticity, and to offer support to an often overlooked segment of Indian society.
The film follows three sub-plots: Shania’s search for her father, and thereby, for her own roots; the personal dramas of the five family weddings, including the demimonde of the hijira; and the gradually developing relationship between Shania and Officer Singh. As in any good Bollywood film, happy endings are provided for nearly everyone, conflicts are resolved, and we are given the happy and musical, conclusion of the central character’s budding romance.
Released as ‘Manmarziyaan,’ this romantic melodrama by well-established producer/director Anurag Kashyap had a very successful opening at the Toronto Film Festival. It follows the familiar pattern of the Bollywood angst-ridden love story, but with a distinctly modern take. Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) is a young woman who is strong and independent, yet still a loving and dutiful daughter to her aging parents. When her love affair with a young man is discovered, her conservative father insists she must marry immediately – but her musician boyfriend Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) is not ready for marriage. Rumi reluctantly agrees to a marriage arranged by her parents, with mature and suitable groom Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), but Rumi continues to struggle with the conflict between love for her unreliable ex-boyfriend and the growing affection for her surprisingly patient new husband, who may, ironically, be exactly the modern and open-minded man she needs.
The film is a musical, but not quite in the manner of most Bollywood romances; the musical numbers are added to express characters’ feelings at key points in the story, and the variety of musical genres is unusual. Conventional Indian music, rap, pop, and fusions of the various styles are employed effectively.
One of Bollywood’s most popular directors, Sanjay Bhansali (Saawiya, Black), also wrote the screenplay for this very impressive, ambitious, dramatic, and visually gorgeous film based on a 16th century epic poem. The original epic is drawn from the life of Rana Rawal Ratan Singh, 14th century ruler of the former state of Mewar; his queen, Padmavati; and Mewar’s war against the brutal ruler of a neighbouring kingdom. It is a semi-mythical love story of devotion and sacrifice, in which the king and queen selflessly support one another and their people through the siege by an enemy kingdom and a hopeless battle against them, ending with a dramatic and disturbing but beautifully rendered scene of self-immolation – which resulted in an unusual disclaimer during the film’s opening credits, assuring viewers that the film is not meant to promote ritual suicide. It is a magnificent film, entertaining even to those unfamiliar with Indian films.
This 2018 comedy/drama tells the enjoyable, often touching story of a dedicated new teacher, Naina (Bollywood royalty Rani Mukerji), refused by most schools because of a noticeable disability – she has Tourette’s Syndrome. The title, Hichki, means ‘hiccup,’ a joking reference to the lead character’s involuntary sounds and movements. After being turned down by one school after another because of her condition, she is hired by an elite school to take on the unwanted “Class F,” a group of poor city children the school is required by law to admit. Undaunted by the unruly and hard to teach Class F, Naina is determined to raise the prospects and the reputation of the ‘disadvantaged’ class, and prove herself in the process. The film successfully walks a fine line between mocking Naina’s condition, and allowing her (and the audience) to accept the funny side of it, and join in the jokes. A little sentimental, but very cute, Hichki might be called an updated, Indian version of To Sir, With Love.
The Man Who Feels No Pain
Director Vasan Bala wrote the script for a number of films, including the very charming 2013 comedy/drama The Lunchbox, before directing his first feature, The Man Who Feels No Pain (original title ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota’). The film had its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, where it took the People’s Choice Award in its category.
Bala was inspired by the martial arts films he enjoyed as a boy growing up in Mumbai. He calls The Man Who Feels No Pain “an ode to all those [action movies]” which he refers to as “great films that were considered trash.” The film, which includes an interesting and conflicted relationship among the protagonist, his father, and his grandfather, Bala also sees as a tribute to his own father and grandfather and their influence on his life.
Central character Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani) is a somewhat tragic figure, a boy born with a medical condition that makes him unable to feel pain. Friendless and bullied at school, he takes refuge in movies from the local VHS library, particularly martial arts films. Surya comes to identify with the mythical heroes of his films, and to see his condition as a calling rather than a curse, and begins to prepare for a life as a crimefighter. When he begins to take on vigilante activity in the style of his beloved martial arts characters, his family’s life changes drastically. Described as ‘gonzo cinema,’ the film is loaded with pop-culture references and kung-fu film campiness.
Expatriate and outsider work
“Bolly/Holly, Holly/Bolly; different wood, same tree.”
India-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta is best known for the three films in her wonderful Elemental Trilogy: Water, Earth, and Fire, which are Canadian productions but set in India and filmed mainly in Hindi; along with mainstream English language features (The Republic of Love) and films that focus on Indian immigrants to the west (Heaven on Earth, Beeba Boys).
Her ironic contribution to Bollywood is the 2002 satirical romantic comedy Bollywood/Hollywood, an English-language film set in Toronto, featuring an Indian immigrant family. It hilariously but affectionately spoofs Bollywood conventions, while at the same time producing a first-rate Bollywood romantic comedy, complete with family drama, mismatched lovers, weddings, mistaken identity, and the requisite elaborate song and dance numbers, cleverly revamped to accommodate the new world setting.
Dan Baron is an American director who had never even seen an Indian film before making his 2017 pseudo-Bollywood release, Basmati Blues, a musical romantic comedy about corporate imperialism. The film received some terrible reviews, and in all honesty, they’re not completely undeserved, but its badness does not extend to disrespect of India or Indian culture. Baron chose the Bollywood format because it seemed to fit in with his vision for the film, as a genre which freely mixes comedy, music, and melodrama. It is filmed on location in Kerala, India.
Brie Larson plays an American scientist sent to India to promote a new variety of GMO rice. She naively believes she is benefitting Indian farmers, but comes to realize that her company (clearly meant to be Monsanto under another name) is ruthlessly exploiting them, and must choose sides. The story includes the requisite love interest and romantic happy ending.
Again, this is a movie with serious flaws, but perhaps worth seeing if only for the sake of Donald Sutherland, as the villainous CEO, in the one musical performance of his career. He sings (and dances to) the bitingly satirical The Greater Good, a song loosely based on the essay ‘The Greater Common Good’ by activist Arundhati Roy.