Films by and about women at last finding an audience in India
Young women producers, directors and actresses are 'the vanguard of rebellion against the conservative and repressive powers that be' in Bollywood
India's cinema and society is changing, and women are at the forefront. A striking aspect of this year's London Indian Film Festival, which concludes today, has been the strength of its female contribution, with women producers, directors and lead characters dominating the schedule.
The most explicit example of this is Nirbashito (Banished), a Bengali film clearly inspired by the life of Taslima Nasrin, the writer who was hounded from her native Bangladesh for her outspoken views on women's rights, secularism, and religious freedom. After living in exile in the US and Europe, she found temporary refuge in Calcutta, but was then driven from that city and forced to live in Delhi.
Islamic extremists subsequently drove her from India entirely, and she now lives back in the US. Nirbashito's central character remains unnamed, but bears a close physical and political resemblance to Nasrin, and explores the isolation and dislocation of a woman writer in exile. Churni Ganguly, the film's writer and director, regards the movie as a labour of love about one of the subcontinent's most important authors. "It is a voice that needs to be heard," she says. "Women are not really emancipated or allowed to grow beyond expected limits. Not many people thought I would get it made. But I stuck to my script and my story. If you believe in what you're doing, it's possible."
Nirbashito is an honest and melancholic film. While it shows the strength and determination of its protagonist, faced with death threats and loneliness, it doesn't sentimentalise the issues. There is no illusion that the independent, free-thinking woman is certain to win in this struggle of ideas. Indeed, given the hugeness of the challenge, there is the strong suspicion that it might be all in vain. "It's a fight between the pen and the sword," says the exiled writer, "and the sword always wins."
Another explicitly political film is The Last Adieu, by the respected actor and director Shabnam Sukhdev, about her father, Sukhdev Singh Sandhu (popularly known as Sukhdev), one of the pioneers of Indian documentary filmmaking.
He died in 1979 at the age of 46, having in his short career cast a clear and steely gaze over the realities of India - its pain, poverty and injustices - in films that brought him acclaim at home and internationally. But to his young daughter, the experience was very different.
"He was a father in absentia, who was never there for me," she says. "This film is a quest by a daughter in search of her father through his work. By doing that, I'm also tracing the documentary movement in India in the 1960s and '70s. And my father was an important figure in that. I'm reintroducing Sukhdev, renewing Sukhdev for a new generation."
Sukhdev was a charismatic genius, with the lavish black curls and sideburns of a Bollywood heartthrob, who, says Shabnam, was "very troubled by the way our country was". Born to a family of Sikh peasants in northern India, he would go on to make some of the defining films of his age, at great cost to himself and his neglected family, including the harrowing Nine Months to Freedom, which detailed the horrors of the vast Pakistani extermination of Bangladeshi Hindus in 1971, and eventually forced India's entry into the Bangladesh liberation war.
Asked by a journalist, "What did you get out of making that film?" Sukhdev replied: "I got a heart attack." Recovering from his illness, he was advised by a doctor to watch comedy films. His daughter touchingly reflects on how he spent his days watching Buster Keaton and Chaplin on a home projector screen.
Though he was a supporter of Indira Gandhi, Sukhdev's 1977 film about the so-called Emergency - when the prime minister temporarily suspended the Constitution and imposed dictatorial rule - saw him accused of being a propagandist by her opponents. When she subsequently lost the general election, Sukhdev found himself marginalised by the new government, who never commissioned a work from him. Alienated from the industry, he died, according to his daughter, "very lonely, very sad and depressed". But Shabnam is now an inheritor and contributor to the tradition her father pioneered. With the advent of digital technology and the limitless stories India has to offer, "a hell of a lot of documentary-makers here are women", she says.
Another family-inspired film is Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love). Without any dialogue, it examines the dynamic between a young middle-class Bengali couple. A meditative and poetic film, it explores how men and women relate in India, still very different to the West. "When I was growing up in Calcutta," says director Aditya Vikram Sengupta, "[with] all the elders around me, I never saw any physical display of love and affection between them. Not even saying, 'I love you'."
This restraint is expressed throughout the film. As with classic British work such as Brief Encounter, you sense that the slightest gestures the characters make is loaded with enormous meaning.
"The love is very pragmatic and very practical," Aditya says. "That is how it is for a huge section of society. They are not expressive; everything is said in the little things they do. My mother, for example, took a lot of care in her cooking for my father. And when she packed his tiffin it would be done with a lot of attention and care. And my father would call her throughout the day, or send her a card. And he would go to the market and buy the food for dinner on his way home from work. But I never saw them hug and kiss each other."
The film is an intimate portrayal of an Indian marriage, which needs be watched closely for its many subtleties. One only knows the couple are married because the female lead wears the red bangle that denotes her marital status. It continues a rich tradition of Bengali films that explore love and sexual politics with sensitivity and insight. It is "very soft and gentle", says Aditya. "Most of it is about relationships and tenderness."
Even M Cream, about Delhi students on a quest for the best hashish in India, shows a marked shift in the portrayal of women and gender relations. The lead is a politically motivated and informed student leader who, according to director Agneya Singh, "typifies the scores of radical young women one can find on college campuses across the length and breadth of India". These young women are "the vanguard of rebellion against the conservative and repressive powers that be. A far cry from the demure Bollywood heroines of yesteryear."