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Hansal Mehta's 'Shahid' is the true story of a lawyer who defended Muslim youth facing terror charges

Mumbai is the leading star in the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival's City to City section. But this is not the Mumbai of Bollywood song and dance;the films chosen to represent the megapolis are realistic and dark. They feature its gangs, slums, riots and even its porn industry.

The 10-film Mumbai package, which began on Thursday, highlights independent filmmakers. According to Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey, the series, now in its fourth year, is an exploration of the urban experience, showing the best emerging cinematic talent in a particular locale.

"Mumbai's cinema today is entirely different from what it was even a few years ago. The rise of independent cinema has shifted the terrain, probing previously taboo subjects and adopting styles that were earlier unpalatable to the Indian audience, " says Bailey, who travelled to Mumbai early this year to announce the selection of the city. The package is in contrast to the celebration of Bollywood song and dance heritage by the Cannes Film Festival last year in a special screening of Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and produced by Shekhar Kapoor.

Tel Aviv, Istanbul and Buenos Aires have been the focus cities in previous years. The idea behind the selection this year was to move the spotlight away from Bollywood moguls to little known independent film makers. "The new filmmakers represent the evolution of their city in an interesting way, " says Bailey. For the Toronto audience, that means learning about a city that could hold, in a single day, a Stones concert as well as a Shiv Sena rally.

A photographer, a monk and a stock broker grapple with life's paradoxes in Anand Gandhi's first feature film Ship of Theseus. "Every megapolis is like and unlike every other. They have the same kind of modern histories and the same kind of recurring histories, " says Gandhi, whose main interests are philosophy, evolutionary psychology and magic. "The city breathes in my work and is inseparable from it. Everybody carries a story and every story changes yours. Because of the sheer number of trajectories, it is impossible to trace back the line of causality. The butterfly effect in a city like Mumbai has its very own karmic complexity. "

Hansal Mehta's Shahid is the true story of a Mumbai lawyer, who defended Muslim youths facing terror charges after spending years in jail himself on the same charges. The new film by the Woodstock Villa director profiles the life of Shahid Azmi, who was shot dead two years ago in his office by five men masquerading as clients.

It is the tale of a city through the eyes of children in Mumbai Cha Raja (Mumbai's King) by debutant director Manjeet Singh. A snippet of childhood memory provides the point of departure for Singh's film. "When I was a school student, an aunt's little daughter was missing and we searched for her everywhere. When a neighbour finally found her, the child said, 'My mother is missing. ' This incident made me imagine a child's interpretation of his or her own world, " says Singh, a trained mechanical engineer, who quit a well-paying job in the US six years ago to return to Mumbai to launch a film career.

Life in Mumbai, he says, taught him that children living in slums "programmed themselves to source out joy and simplify their problems no matter how grim and complex their living conditions are". In Mumbai Cha Raja, Singh admits to creating an image of the city where "the neighbourhoods are very different, but the spirit is the same".

Yet another first-time director Mohit Takalkar's The Bright Day is about the existential dilemma of a young man chasing his dreams. "In India I see around me so many young men, who lead a normal life, yet don't feel anchored. They are restless. There is an angst in them, " explains Takalkar, who wrote the script and edited the film. "My character, Shiv, enjoys close relationships with people around him but still finds something lacking. He is searching for something but isn't sure exactly what he seeks. "

It has been a good year for India's independent filmmakers so far. First, in May, the Cannes festival chose a film about the porn industry which worked outside the Bollywood framework through the '80s and '90s. Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely was the only Indian movie in the Cannes official selection besides Uday Shankar's 1948 dance drama Kalpana.

The parallel Cannes events, The Directors' Fortnight and the Critics' Week, screened Anurag Kashyap's The Gangs of Wasseypur, both Part 1 and 2, and Peddlers by Vasan Bala, and even organised a session to discuss cinema outside Bollywood. This last event will be repeated in Toronto in an India-centric programme called 'Bollywood and the Independents'. Among the panelists is Salaam Bombay director Mira Nair, who is bringing her new film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid's novel, to the festival.

"Past editions of City to City explored how filmmakers represented their urban landscape. This year we have shifted the scope of the programme to showcase filmmakers living and working in Mumbai, regardless of where their films are set, " he says.

In fact, Mumbai is a recurring theme at the Toronto festival this year.

There is a Mumbai link to a gala presentation : an adaptation of Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie's Booker of Bookers-winning Midnight's Children, a novel set in the city, by Canada-based Geeta Mehta.


The Bright Day by Mohit Takalkar (world premiere)

Mumbai Cha Raj (Mumbai's King) by Manjeet Singh (world premiere)

Shahid by Hansal Mehta (world premiere)

Ship of Theseus by Anand Gandhi (world premiere)

Gangs of Wasseypur, Part 1 by Anurag Kashyap

Gangs of Wasseypur, Part 2 by Anurag Kashyap

Ishaqzaade by Habib Faisal

Miss Lovely by Ashim Ahluwalia

Peddlers by Vasan Bala

Shanghai by Dibakar Banerjee

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