Now in its third year, the London Indian Film Festival was established with the aim of showing British viewers that there is so much more to the continent's cinema than the Bollywood spectaculars we most readily associate with it. The new features and shorts being presented at this year's event are violent, transgressive, amusing, challenging and socially aware, and they will provide an opportunity to see films that may otherwise never be shown here. I've already seen four of the features being screened at the festival, and my thoughts on them are below.
Even though it begins with the odd warning Consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes are injurious to health, Shekhar Das' new film Necklace is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of overindulgence. Instead, it's an engaging and frenetic farce about a group of characters from across the spectrum of India's class divide. The plot is sparked by a robbery, as professional thief Keshtopada (Rudranil Ghosh) makes a disastrous attempt to break into the apartment of wealthy couple Biswanath (Rittwik Chakraborty) and Shikha (Rituparna Sengupta), which results in him falling from their 2nd floor balcony. As the thief is driven off to hospital, Shikha takes his hysterical wife Kanakchampa (Locket Chatterjee) into her home, in the hope of dissuading her from pressing charges or claiming compensation from the couple. It quickly becomes clear that Keshtopada and Kanakchampa are milking the situation for all it's worth, with the husband playing up the extent of his injuries while the wife starts getting used to the luxurious environment she finds herself in.
Working as both a spry comedy and a commentary on Indian social inequality, Necklace bounds along at an appealing pace, with Das only occasionally overplaying the gags in his pursuit of laughs. For the most part, Das and his cast strike the right note, and the performances from Locket Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta are particularly impressive, as the two women from starkly contrasting backgrounds, who gradually overcome their mutual distrust and form a bond in the film's most satisfying narrative turn. Necklace is an unusual comedy which is largely successful, but it does have a number of oddly discordant notes, with the rather offhand treatment of Chandrayee Ghosh's prostitute character being a misstep for the picture. I guess Das is attempting to show that comedy and tragedy, like extreme wealth and poverty, so often exist side-by-side, but this character would probably have been better served by being the focus of another film entirely.
The bloody world of London-based Tamil gangs is the focus of Tooting Broadway, Devanand Shanmugam's confident directorial debut. The screenplay (from another first-timer, Tikiri Hulugalle) ambitiously attempts to tell a story that encompasses a number of years and involves numerous tangentially connected characters, and he opens with a bang, as a brutal attack on a prostitute kick-starts the narrative. Tooting Broadway's opening half is sharp and compelling, as it briskly introduces the major players in the drama. Karuna (San Shella) is the former gang leader trying to make it as a legitimate businessman while his former cohort Arun (Nav Sidhu) has returned to the area after an absence of four years, in order to pull his younger brother out of the criminal life he has been drawn into.
A sense of growing political unrest forms the backdrop to this drama, with a planned Tamil protest outside the Houses of Parliament dominating the thoughts of a few participants. Tooting Broadway poses questions of national identity and loyalty, but it doesn't always successfully mesh these ideas with the focus of gang violence that the film is primarily focused upon. Shanmugam's visual sense is impressive (if a little ostentatious at times, as in an overlong chase sequence) and he uses his locations well, while editor Ben Nugent shuffles back-and-forth between the film's multiple time periods in a slick fashion. In front of the camera, the cast acquit themselves with inconsistent results; Sidhu and Shella are solid but a couple of actors in supporting roles appear ill-at-ease, and as the film flits between its disparate storylines few of these characters are given an opportunity to make a memorable impact on the film. Nevertheless, Tooting Broadway is an commendable debut, which only lacks a sense of originality in its storytelling and emotional impact when it's really needed.
A Decent Arrangement
The decent arrangement in Sarovar Banka's film is a marriage for American-born Indian Ashok (Adam Laupus). He has returned to the country of his heritage in order to find a wife – or, to be more exact, to choose a wife from the contenders who have already been selected for him. His older cousin Preeti (Shabana Azmi) has taken charge of this situation and has already evaluated all of the eligible females in the local area, producing a thoroughly detailed dossier that ranks them for Ashok; all he has to do is pick one. Of course, it's not as simple as that, and Banka's film wittily explores the customs and traditions involved in this process, through the eyes of the beleaguered Ashok.
Ashok is essentially a passenger for much of the movie, following Preeti's instructions and barely uttering a word of dissent, despite his obvious misgivings. This performance suits the character's awkwardness but it can also make him a maddeningly passive protagonist, and a difficult guy to empathise with as he goes through this very taxing ordeal. Far better equipped to carry the dramatic load are the female performers, with Azmi giving a tremendously enjoyable turn as the woman coordinating Ashok's future, and the beautiful Diksha Basu bringing a non-nonsense practicality to her turn as Amita, the woman with whom Ashok is finally paired with. Amita makes it very clear from the start that she is doing this for her parents, and that love is not a consideration for her, which is a dismaying point of view for the western-raised Ashok to digest. This clash of cultures is played with perception and a light comic touch by Banka, a former playwright making his directorial debut here. He imposes a leisurely pace on the picture and is excellent at making the key conversations between the central characters count. He has delivered a very Indian story that should prove to be accessible, entertaining and eye-opening for all viewers.
Gandu is the Indian word for asshole, and the fact that director Kaushik Mukherjee (going by the Bond-like pseudonym Q) has given his film this word as its title suggests the confrontational tone being adopted here. The director has said that his intention with the film is simply "to fuck up your mind" and the whole movie plays as a visual and aural assault on the audience. Your mileage may vary with this sort of thing, but I found it almost unendurably crass and juvenile, and while it has whipped up plenty of controversy and discourse on the festival circuit, I just wish it was worth the attention.
The title character is a sexually frustrated wannabe rapper played by Anubrata Basu, who lives with his mother and spends most of his time masturbating, stealing money from the wallet of his mother's sleazy boyfriend, and performing his generally awful raps to the camera. Gandu is angry, obnoxious and not much fun to be around, so it's hard to get on board with a movie that indulges him as much as this one does. However, the biggest problem with the film is something that may be viewed by others as its greatest virtue; namely, Q's heedless and convention-busting direction. Gandu is screaming for our attention at every minute, with split-screens, captions and hyperactive editing, and while the luminous black-and-white cinematography is often very striking, we aren't given a moment to enjoy it before Q hits us with another example of his directorial verve. Late in the film, the picture shifts into an astonishingly vivid colour sequence for a frank sex scene, but by that point Gandu has already revealed itself to be a mess; the equivalent of being shouted at for 90 minutes, and not having a clue what was said at the end of it all.
The London Indian Film Festival runs from June 20th to July 3rd at venues across the capital.