INDUSTRY: India’s Independent Movement

Indian Independents: The New Wave of filmmakers @ TIFF 2012

As SOUL OF SAND hits theaters in India, and MISS LOVELY (and a host of other indies) sweep through TIFF, Indian film goes back to its roots and beyond Bollywood…

More than sixty years ago, just as seeds of discontent bloomed into Indian Independence, so also began India’s Golden Age of Cinema.  At the head:  neorealists Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, a.k.a. the Indian “new wave,” whose work laid foundation for independent film movements worldwide…

Nowadays, not many people aside from scholars and cinephiles remember this seminal moment in cinema history (or that it is credited with the creation of experimental techniques, such as bounce lighting).  Because despite such an auspicious birth, the advent of Bollywood, in all its splendor, stole and hid that fire from the world at-large.  But that hardly means roots of the Golden Age are dead…

Earlier this month, the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in homage to the auteur, cinephile and roots of India’s “other” independence movement, drew focus on Indian independents and the iconic psyche of Mumbai (via films such as MISS LOVELY by GFI grantee Ashim Ahluwalia), as part of its City to City program.  The ostensible purpose: to signal the advent of a “new Indian cinema” and its surging influence, both as a Bollywood alternative and a global influence.

“It’s really just dynamic right now,” says Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of TIFF.  “There’s so much great work going on. I feel like international festivals like ours should be paying — all of us should be paying more attention to what’s happening in Asia.” (excerpt courtesy NPR).

‘Right now’ is of course relative as Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.  Independent films have been an understated mainstay of the industry since the 50s, and programmers like Bailey have had a finger on the independent pulse for years.  In fact, in 2010, he christened the opening of TIFFs newly minted Lightbox Theatre with the premiere of Sidharth Srinivasan’s “arthouse-meets-grindhouse” independent, SOUL OF SAND—a film is also a shining example GFI’s penchant for Indian cinema.

The Golden Age: Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak

Much like TIFF, the Global Film Initiative has had its on eye on Indian independents for years.  In 2003, the Initiative launched its Global Lens series with SHADOW KILL by renowned Malayalam director Adoor Gopalkrishnan, and has since funded filmmakers like Ahluwalia, in addition to emerging directors Vipin Vijay and Leena Manimekalai.  In 2008, it picked up the controversial LET THE WIND BLOW by Partho Sen Gupta, and followed with Rajesh Shera’s OCEAN OF AN OLD MAN in 2010, and a release SOUL OF SAND in 2011.

However, for all the recognition by those outside India, the most important question is of course the reception in India.  According to Ashim Ahluwalia, whose film, by his own admission is “dark, gritty and relentlessly experimental,” the response to MISS LOVELY has been “surprisingly positive.”  Similarly, Srinivasan notes that industry eyes are shifting—as evidenced by the recent news that SOUL OF SAND will have theatrical distribution in India. But does that mean that independents can compete with Bollywood to create a sustainable (and second) New Wave?

“Right now it’s not really a cohesive movement,” says Ahluwalia. “There is no clear manifesto or direction and all the filmmakers seem to be doing their own thing – essentially only bound by the fact that they don’t want to make “Bollywood” films. I think filmmakers in India are stifled by the film industry and its tired formula, so I do think this movement is here to stay.”

It remains to be seen.  But all signs point to a second coming of a “new” New Wave, including a move by filmmakers to embrace the “experimental,” much like their predecessors, Ray and Ghatak.  And in an era of globalization, as everything in India goes barreling toward the new and non-traditional, the paradox of being more like the past than the present to map the future may in fact not be a bad idea.

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