Dubai Film Festival Line-Up Reflects New Trends in Indian Filmmaking

From mainstream Bollywood films like Befikre and a Manipuri movie, to a virtual reality short, Indian films at this year’s festival covered a wide cinematic range.

A still from 'Mukti Bhawan'. Credit: Dubai International Film Festival

A still from Mukti Bhawan. Credit: Dubai International Film Festival

As the nature of filmmaking in India changes, the Indian films selected at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) reflect this trend. Earlier, there was a section called ‘Celebration of Indian Cinema’, which was a kind of cosy home for Indian cinema and included films from all over the country, but programmers especially looked out for Malayalam and Tamil films, given the profile of the Indian audience in Dubai. However, that section was done away with and all the five Indian films selected at DIFF this year, mostly in the ‘Cinema of the World’ category, reflect the new trends in Indian filmmaking. Besides, Rekha has also won the DIFF Lifetime Achievement Award – as did Samuel L. Jackson.

DIFF hosted the world premiere of Bollywood film Befikre, with Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor doing the shimmy in Dubai, even before its India release. The other Indian films are Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake), documentary film The Cinema Travellers and virtual reality (VR) documentary When All Land is Lost, Will We Eat Coal?

Mukti Bhawan is about Dayanand Kumar (Lalit Behl) who, following a vision, wants to move to Varanasi to die and get salvation. His determination leaves son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), daughter-in-law (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter (Palomi Ghosh) in consternation. Reluctantly, Rajiv accompanies his father to the grubby lodging called Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi, where rooms are let out for only 15 days at a time, so you must ‘do your thing’ within a fortnight, “or it’s your problem”. The rest of the film is about how father and son reconcile at the end. Despite waiting for death, Daya’s life is enlivened by another resident Vimla (the delightful Navnindra Behl; Lalit and Navnindra are veteran actors and parents of filmmaker Kanu Behl, who made Titli). The cinematography is evocative, but it is the wry wit of the dialogues by Asad Hussain that elevate the film. Director Shubhashish Bhutiani studied filmmaking in New York and his short film Kush won the Orizzonti Prize for best short film at the Venice Film Festival. Mukti Bhawan, nurtured as a project at the Biennale College Cinema of the Venice Film Festival, also won the UNESCO Prize at Venice.

Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers was shown in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. The film is a tribute to the lumbering tambu cinema (touring talkies), with trucks that roam the Indian countryside with tents and prints, putting up screening tents overnight, that have been dispensing joy to villagers since over 70 years. Shot over five years, the film introduces us to touring talkies managers, a resourceful projector repairman and sundry audiences – yet always celebrating the Indian penchant for jugaad, that keeps the business alive, even as television and digital projection loom over the filmscape.

Imphal-based Haobam Paban Kumar’s Loktak Lairembee, made in the Manipuri language, is a quiet film from the North East, with strong undercurrents. It was at the Busan film festival, and won Best Indian Film at the Mumbai Film Festival. It features the residents of Loktak Lake in Manipur, who live in shanties on large floating biomass islands strung together called phum shang. In 2011, the government accused them of polluting the lake and burnt several huts. Paban Kumar, who wanted to make a fiction feature around this theme, was unable to raise the money then, but felt compelled to shoot the documentary Phum Shang (Floating Life) instead. Phum Shang – produced by the government’s Films Division, was shown at film festivals in Leipzig and Kerala and won best documentary at both the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Animation and Short Films and Kolkata International Film Festival. Loktak Lairembee, the fiction based on the same key facts, is a docudrama that draws considerably from Phum Shang. A man living on a phum shang finds a gun in the reeds and soon feels combative. But nightly visions of a woman at his door act as his conscience keeper. Cinematographer Shehnad Jalal stays still and close to the water, and the sound design is meticulous. Actual fishermen leading the cast add to its documentary feel. A graduate of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI, Kolkata), three of Kumar’s films – AFSPA, 1958 (on the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act), Mr. India and Floating Life – have won National Film Awards.

But the real googly of the lot is When All Land Is Lost, Will We Eat Coal?, the seven-minute VR documentary made by Faiza Ahmad Khan, who earlier made Supermen of Malegaon. Produced by Khushboo Ranka of the Memesys Culture Lab, co-founded by filmmaker Anand Gandhi, the film was shown in DIFFerent Reality, a new section for VR films. The film is about how coal mining in Chhatisgarh is polluting the water and endangering the lives of the locals. The film, individually viewed with a headset that offers a 360 degree view, allows one to be in the middle of the clouds of flyash, as drone cameras lurch over the vast craters gnawed by earthmovers. It is fascinating to observe how a woman director is representing the technically-challenging Indian VR film here. And how fancy hi-tech gadgetry is addressing not futuristic science fiction, but old fashioned human rights abuse. Back to the future.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on [email protected]