The 12th edition of Film Southasia (FSA) was held in Kathmandu from 14 – 17 November 2019. In her opening remarks at the inauguration, the festival director Mitu Varma said that it took over a year to select the films from 2500 entries. The festival had opened its doors this year to digital entries, which had multiplied the number of films. Kanak Mani Dixit, currently the chairperson of the FSA, pointed out in his inaugural address that the festival was being held at a time of democratic distress in Southasia. The title of the festival, ‘Where the Mind is Free’, Dixit said, was inspired by Tagore’s poem ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’. This point was amply demonstrated in the festival’s inaugural film Indus Blues (2018) from Pakistan, directed by Jawad Sharif (2018) – a documentary on the dying art of making musical instruments and the associated musical traditions that were becoming extinct. As the film illustrated, the combination of globalisation and ideological fundamentalism in Southasia had resulted in a shrinking space for music and art. In particular, the cultural formations linked to musical instruments were getting lost. Some of the musicians documented in the film were the last surviving members of their tradition.
All in the family
Family was a central theme in many of the documentaries shown at the festival. Abu (2017) by Arshad Khan dealt with the difficult relationship of a gay son with his father through changing political times and spaces, as the family migrates from Pakistan to Canada. The film was interesting in its use of home videos, Hindi film songs, photos and albums that charted the protagonist’s life from childhood to adulthood. The mother, who loves her son dearly, and dances with abandon in Pakistan to Chalte, Chalte from Pakeezah in a home video, becomes quite conservative in Canada and is critical of her son and his life choices.
The focus of the film remains the father-photographer, who took his first photo in 1966, and his stunning images, shot as he says, “with a cool eye and warm heart” and with the belief that seeing is darshan.
Anant Raina’s Badshah Lear (2019) focused on the emotional return of actor and theatre director M K Raina to his home Kashmir after many years. The film also looks at his attempt to revive the local theatrical form of bhand to stage an adaptation of King Lear. The text of Shakespeare’s famous play is unknown to the folk artists and its adaptation to a form that relies on improvisation has its moments of humour and pathos. Like Indus Blues, this film depicts the threats to the arts by fundamentalist forces. Merely practicing an art form becomes an act of great bravery and resistance. Interestingly, Kashmir was featured in several other films at the festival, including Naseer Khanday’s Iron Khan (2017), Mehvish Rather’s Backyard Chefs (2019), and Simone Mestroni’s After Prayers (2018) that won the Tareque Masud Award for Best Debut Director.
Meanwhile, Avani Rai’s Raghu Rai, an Unframed Portrait (2017) engages with the historical through the personal in a different way, with the filmmaker following her photojournalist father and his work, as the student that the father tries to teach. But the historical is not caught through the changing systems of values that are getting ever hardened, as in Abu, leaving their imprints on the protagonists. It is caught through photographs of milestone events and individuals – whether it is the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Kashmir conflict, or Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama – subjects that have been photographed by Raghu Rai. The focus of the film remains the father-photographer, who took his first photo in 1966, and his stunning images, shot as he says, “with a cool eye and warm heart” and with the belief that seeing is darshan. The photographs chosen for the film reflect Raghu Rai’s credo that the photograph is a moment of heartbeat that the photographer gives away to the image in the moment that the shot is taken.
Some of the films at the festival also captured the many political and social-justice movements that have shaken Southasia in recent years. Mothers who have not given up the struggle for the justice for their sons was the subject of two moving films in the festival, Ammi (2018) by Sunil Kumar and We Have Not Come Here to Die (2018) by Deepa Dhanraj. Both films traced the trajectories of two important issues students in India have been agitating about: Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance from JNU, a premier institution of learning in India, and the suicide of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad. These films document movements as they are being born and as they evolve. The students’ commitment, and the mothers’ tenacity despite their grief, are documented in moving detail. Along similar lines, Lynch Nation (2018)by Shaheen Ahmad, Ashfaque EJ and Furqan Faridi examined the cases of lynching of Muslims and Dalits by Hindu extremists, which has significantly increased in India over the last few years.
In Aboozar Amini’s Kabul, City in the Wind (2018), the eponymous city emerges as a character in its own right.
Amit Mahanti’s Scratches on Stone (2018) delves into the history of conflict between the Nagas and the Indian state by documenting the constructions of memory. Scratches on stones are totems made by spears by early Longkhum tribes, which carry a memory of resistance. Zubeni Lotha, a contemporary photographer and artist, documents the remnants of this history noting that “A lot of things I thought was nice were actually not nice.” Her work stands in contrast to the orientalising stereotypes of Nagas as headhunters, and in particular, the photographs of Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. The film won the runner-up award at the festival.
From Myanmar, Opium War (2019) by John La Raw looks at how the Kachin militants – who have a long history of fighting for autonomy – have set up armies to destroy the region’s opium farms. Poverty in the area has driven many to turn to opium whose cultivation is many times more profitable than other crops, including rice. Myanmar is the second largest opium producer in the world after Afghanistan. Many youths in the country have lost their lives to opium addiction. Some Kachins are also deeply religious Christians and see opium as the ‘devil’. The film documents the church and the people mobilising to stop the growth, sale and use of opium, which treads the razor-thin threshold of activism and vigilante action.
Interestingly, the recording of the chants performed by the monks at that monastery won the Grammy Awards in 2004.
Meanwhile, in Aboozar Amini’s Kabul, City in the Wind (2018), the eponymous city emerges as a character in its own right. The film documents the lives of two sets of people: one a bus driver, who owns a rickety bus; and the other, two children and their mother. The father of the latter has left the family and the elder son, who seems to have just entered his teens, takes the responsibility of looking after the family. The child-adult and the adult-child (the bus driver) cope with and negotiate a life which is always being lived in-between bomb blasts. One of the most moving sequences in the film is of the younger brother Benjamin’s whispered interior monologue about a bomb blast, which killed nearly 70 people. The horrific event has been internalised by a child, showing the way violence leaves its imprint on many generations. This normalisation of violence, where people in the city talk with references to bomb blasts as if they were part of normal life is something this documentary captures in an equally unsensational way. The film won the UNICEF Award for the Best Documentary on Children.
If Indus Blues is about musical forms and instruments going extinct, Subasri Krishnan’s Dance of the Butterfly (2019) is about the rediscovery and resurrection of music and dance forms after a period of violent conflict in Bodoland. Music had begun to be perceived as noise by many in the region, but committed efforts have brought back forgotten traditions. The film shows that outside one of the cultural centres that teach music, a board reads “Zone of Peace. No Guns Allowed Beyond this Point” At the same time, the film documents how older traditions are being adapted to modern Bodo music and dance, as well as regional influences, including with a popular Malayalam song in one instance.
In The Monks Who Won the Grammy (2018), filmmaker Aparna Sanyal traces the long history of the Vajrayana School of Buddhism in Himachal Pradesh and looks at a monastery where the religion is practiced. Interestingly, the recording of the chants performed by the monks at that monastery won the Grammy Awards in 2004. But as the head priest puts it, it neither affected nor influenced the monks who remained undisturbed in their educational and spiritual pursuits. “We are all sleeping Buddhas, waiting to wake” say the monks, who believe that sound is more powerful than light.
Some of the films at the festival also presented biographical surveys of some prominent Southasian artists. Umang Sabharwal’s Starring Sharmila Tagore (2018) focuses on the actor’s cinematic journey, from a young bride in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar to roles in Bengali popular cinema as a college student, and her shift to Hindi cinema. The film documents how Tagore broke rules and stereotypes by straddling different worlds as a popular film actor, wife of cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, and a mother. Sound Man Mangesh Desai (2017) by Subash Sahoo followed sound-design artist Desai’s journey from V Shantaram’s studio to becoming one of the most revered and feared sound men in Indian film industry’s, who worked with filmmakers from as wide a spectrum as Ray, Shyam Benegal, Ramesh Sippy, Kamal Amrohi, Vinod Chopra and Subhash Ghai, veterans from the ad world as well as fresh graduates from the film institute.
The flip side of a great and varied selection of films such as this is that you keep wishing you could be at two screenings at once.
Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Janani’s Juliet (2019), meanwhile, explores the theatre group Indianostrum’s attempt to reimagine Romeo and Juliet as a love story set in caste ridden India. Inspired by the real story of an upper-caste girl Kaushalya who married Shankar, who was killed by her parents for being a Dalit, the three actors who play Juliet interact with Kaushalya to understand caste, gender, love, hate and violence. In a key sequence in the film, a relative of Shankar’s descends into a sewer that he has had to clean and comes out covered in muck.
The festival’s winning documentary, Shaheen Dill-Riaz’s Bamboo Stories (2019), was a classic observational documentary on bamboo cutters and transporters in the forests of Sylhet. The film is about a community living in the jungle, that creates bamboo ‘rafts’ and floats them down the river to Dhaka, since this is a cost-effective mode of transportation. The film documents the community fighting leeches, wild elephants, centipedes and insects, and negotiating the treacherous paths of the forest. They cannot lose a single stem of bamboo because it will anger the wholesaler. They are accompanied by a contractor during the journey, who lives with them on the raft for weeks, dodging pirates and corrupt policemen. The community’s everyday bravery, their personal tragedies (one of them has lost his wife in a kitchen fire), and their indomitable spirit are all documented by the filmmaker with very fine, unobtrusive and subtle attention to detail. The film captures all this in the dignity of their untiring labour and in their great creativity.
Film Southasia 2019 also provided space for student films, which were screened at the festival’s beginning. These films exhibited sensitivity to political issues, along with a command over film techniques. Among them were the co-winners of the Best Student Documentary Award Memoirs of Saira and Salim (2018) by Eshwarya Grover and The Winter Tap (2018) by Ashish Limbu and Debin Rai. The topography of a dwelling, of a house in Gulberg Society, is captured in Memoirs of Saira and Salim. The voice-over of people who had lived there, recounting the horrors of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, runs parallel to the images of their abandoned house, now run over with the vestiges of time, cobwebs and dust. The Winter Tap is a heartwarming 12-minute film that shows with brevity the ingenious way a man in the mountains arranges for water in his house in winter so that household chores can be completed, and the ducks have a mini-pond to swim in.
The 64 films that were screened in the four-day festival covered a wide variety of themes that included problems in the education system; the plight of minorities; the killing of progressive activists; and the love for animals. These were films that pushed the boundaries of the documentary form; films of tenacity and hope; and more. The flip side of a great and varied selection of films such as this is that you keep wishing you could be at two screenings at once. The jury, consisting of Kunda Dixit, journalist and author from Nepal and editor of Nepali Times; Sumathi Sivamohan, a professor of literature, filmmaker, performer and theatre artist from Sri Lanka; and Ayesha Abraham, an installation artist and filmmaker from India must have had a tough time determiing the winners. The upside, of course, is that there is ample proof that documentaries all over Southasia are actively addressing issues and problems related to ‘democratic distress’ – a theme that consistently emerged the two panel discussions that took place during the festival. Film Southasia continues to provide a vibrant forum for the discussion of problems that cut across national borders.
~ This report is published in conjunction with Film Southasia.