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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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More sex please, we're Bong
One of the biggest ironies of our times is that, thanks to 'Kolaveri di', Dhanush is much better known for an improvised song than he is for being a Tamil star with a body of about 17 films. In fact, he won the National Award for Best Actor for Aadukalam, a film on the cockfighting business, last year. But few have seen the film outside Tamil Nadu.
Yet, the good news is that a volcano of independent cinema talent is exploding in several regional languages. In fact, Kolkata has a livewire, independent cinema movement that is far more daring than anywhere else in India, including Mumbai. Consider the recent films, Sanjoy Nag's Memories in March, Q's (Kaushik Mukherjee's ) Gandu and Kaushik Ganguly's Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story) for instance, which deal with sexuality not only in a far more outspoken way, but also with sophistication. But there are also other off-beat Bengali films, including Kaushik Ganguly's Laptop, Srijit Mukherji's Baishey Srabon and Aparna Sen's Iti Mrinalini.
One of my favourite recent Indian movies is Memories in March, helmed by Kolkata director Sanjoy Nag, in English. It could have been India's gay coming-out film but sadly, not many have seen the film outside Kolkata. It is sensitive, and without one steamy scene, because the gay protagonist is dead when the film opens. Deepti Naval plays a woman who rushes to Kolkata when her son dies in an accident, only to discover he was in a gay relationship with his boss (Rituparno Ghosh). Rituparno Ghosh's finely nuanced screenplaywith the protagonist's mother and lover quarreling over his memories, before reconciling - confirms that he is among India's finest screenwriters today. Nobody does bitchy, ironic and vitriolic like Ghosh. Deepti Naval is moving, and
Ghosh himself is poignant, if inconsistent. The cinematography is constrained by being shot mainly in interiors, but the haunting music makes up. Kudos to producers Shree Venkatesh Films of Kolkata for backing a series of risktaking films, including this one. The film was at the Pusan and Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival in New York, released theatrically here, and the DVD is out.
The most provocative film of the lot is Q's Gandu, a Bengali rap film about Gandu, a hooker's son, and Ricksha, a rickshaw driver, who bond over rap, smack and porn. It was at the Berlin Film Festival, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, and Grand Jury Award for Best Director at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York. It has brilliant visual panache, is shot mainly in black and white, and is sexually very explicit. When someone walked out of the film's US screening, Q shrugged and said, "It is an extreme film. I would have felt disappointed and disregarded if it didn't offend people. " A Mumbai theatrical screening of the film was scuttled. Q is now completing his next film Tasher Desh (Land of Cards), a post-modern, psychedelic take on the Rabindranath Tagore's dance-drama, with 10 international artists interpreting Tagore's 18 songs, including an electro jazz score.
Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story) by Kaushik Ganguly is a complex film on gay relationships in contemporary and period Bengal. It was also at the Berlin film festival and released in Kolkata theatres last year. It uses a film-within-a-film format to tell its quadrangular love story. Rituparno Ghosh plays a homosexual film director having an affair with his bisexual cinematographer (Indraneil Sengupta), who is already married. Jishu Sengupta plays a photographer with a crush on Ghosh, and Raima
Sen is part of the film crew. They are making a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri, a traditional jatra cross-dressing actor who played women's roles, who acts as himself. But the film also has all the leads play other gay characters in period flashback. While the film is directed with assurance, it crams too much into one film. Director Ganguly told the press "Just Another Love Story was written prior to Section 377 (which criminalises homosexuality) being read down in 2009. The conservative Bengali is perhaps much more open to change and much more tolerant than he is thought to be. "
Ganguly's Laptop continues his exploration of sexuality, but more obliquely, in this superbly told tale of how a stolen laptop changes hands between various people, including an unforgettable, delicately observed relationship between a blind writer (Kaushik Ganguly himself) and his typist (National Award winner Ananya Chatterjee). There is a brilliant scene where Ananya is in her undergarments, ironing her clothes that got wet in the rain. "When the writer comes in, she is startled, and then relaxes, because he is blind, " Ganguly observes. "Later, he dictates his novel, in which he describes a woman's breasts, and Ananya suddenly feels shy as she realises he can see: he has a vision beyond vision. " The film, which also features Rahul Bose, was at the Dubai Film Festival.
Srijit Mukherji's Baishey Srabon (7th August) is in a different vein. While it is a mainstream thriller with Bengali star Prosenjit Chatterjee, it has an intellectual serial killer who leaves scraps of poetry by each corpse, detailing the progression of modern Bengali poetry! Very Bengali - but with somewhat mixed results. It was at the Dubai Film Festival. Aparna Sen's Iti Mrinalini (Yours Mrinalini) had Sen play an ageing actress on the verge of suicide. It is not among Sen's finest films, though Konkona Sen-Sharma shines. All in all, the rest of India could borrow some Bong brio!
The writer is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai festivals
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