In terms of box office, India has always been the best market for movies, though with its plethora of languages and regional tastes in entertainment, the country has been impervious to imports. In recent months, however, there have been deals struck between Hollywood and Bollywood that allow for movement in both directions, specifically California money going into productions in India and Indian personnel traveling to the United States to make films there.
With all this activity and Bollywood’s product being more popular than ever, it’s easy to overlook those independent Indian films that also benefit from the national cinema boom but channel more idiosyncratic visions. These movies reflect Indian society in a more realistic fashion and use more conventional narrative devices, meaning essentially plots that aren’t interrupted by gaudy musical production numbers.
That also means they provide outsiders with a glimpse into social issues one usually only hears about on the news. In fact, three Indian films included in the Window on Asian Cinema section at this year’s Pusan International Film Festival have as their backdrop the tense Muslim-Hindu relationship that is a fact of life in India.
“I could have chosen a simpler subject for my first film,” says Nandita Das, the director of one of these films, “Firaaq,” over breakfast at the Grand Hotel. “As it is, I sit down with (foreign) buyers and they say, ‘Oh, we like the film, it’s very strong, but there’s no market for serious films.’ If it comes from India they either want exotic India or a fun flick about a call center, something that falls into a formula.”
“Firaaq” is hardly formulaic, but it is narratively conventional and easy for anyone to understand, even people who know nothing about the 2002 riots that killed thousands of people, mostly Muslims, in the western state of Gujarat and that provide the backdrop for the film. Das, who before she was a director was an actress and before she was an actress was a human-rights activist, weaves together half a dozen tales of individuals caught up in the aftermath of the violence, including Muslim refugees, Hindu bigots, would-be terrorists and even a well-to-do businessman who has spent his entire life denying his Muslim heritage. Though socially relevant films aren’t unusual in India, most avoid the kind of stark political statements that Das makes, since she clearly blames the authorities for allowing the violence to get out of hand.
“When people read the script they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re making a pro-Muslim film.’,” she says. “And I would say, ‘No, I’m making a pro-human film.’ In this case, Muslims suffered. If I were making a film of another time, say of the Holocaust, it would be about how the Jews suffered. If I had done a movie about Kashmir in 1889, I would have showed how the Hindu pundits suffered. But these are the times I’m living in, these are the things that disturb me. People say, ‘Why don’t you make a personal film for your first film? You’re not a Muslim. You haven’t suffered.’ But you don’t have to go through that to understand it.”
Das says that the situation for Muslims in India has worsened with the rise of the so-called War on Terror, since prejudices have been exacerbated by media reports of jihadists and suicide bombers in other parts of the world. It’s a common subtheme of many films shown at PIFF, since Asia is where the bulk of the world’s Muslim population lives.
Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Two-Legged Horse,” which opens in Japan next spring, provides a horrific snapshot of life in Afghanistan, where the war between the West and Islamic fundamentalists has left a civilian population maimed in both body and spirit.
In the Malaysian film “Muallaf,” which will be screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival, a lapsed Catholic schoolteacher falls in love with a girl whose practical and humane interpretation of the Quran puts the lie to the belief that Islam is a religion of intolerance and fanaticism.
As it happens, Das plays one of the lead characters in another directorial debut at PIFF about the Hindu-Muslim divide, but Mehreen Jabbar is Pakistani, and the victims in her film, “Ramchand Pakistani,” are Hindus, members of the Dalit (Untouchable) caste living near the frontier with India. An 8-year-old boy, angry at his mother, impulsively runs over the border pursued by his father, and both are arrested by Indian border guards and sent to prison, where they remain in unspeakable conditions for five years. Meanwhile, the mother (Das), not knowing if her son and husband are dead or alive, is forced into slavery to pay off the family’s debt to their Muslim landlord. The victimizers are both Hindu (the Indian authorities) and Muslim (the landlord).
Santosh Sivan’s latest film, “Tahaan,” which also screened at PIFF, takes place in Kashmir, one of the few Indian regions with a Muslim majority. Sivan, who directed “The Terrorist” (1997), probably the first film with a suicide bomber for a protagonist, uses the situation in Kashmir as a plot device, however, and the director denies any political purposes in his story about a boy who loses his beloved donkey when his missing father’s debt comes due.
“It’s designed to be a fable,” Sivan says over coffee in his hotel room. “It isn’t pointing fingers at anyone. There are no good people or bad people. It doesn’t even matter that it’s Kashmir. It’s just that the circumstances in Kashmir are such that it works for the story I wanted to film. The main character is an innocent who is drawn into conflict, which is the same basic story as ‘The Terrorist,’ except that in ‘The Terrorist’ the child is already affected by circumstances, while in ‘Tahaan,’ the child is in the process of being affected.”
Another boy, one who is connected to a terrorist cell, promises to get Tahaan’s donkey back if Tahaan throws a grenade at an Indian army barracks. Because he is just a boy, Tahaan can get through the checkpoint without being searched.
Both Sivan and Das state in the prologues to their respective films that the characters are fictitious but their stories are based on real events. Unlike Das, whose film dealt with what what she saw as an unalloyed atrocity, Sivan sees the Kashmir problem as being too historically complicated to address in a single film, which doesn’t necessarily mean the two directors are coming from different ideological places.
“The only thing you can do in this situation is not take sides,” says Sivan. “You can make a patriotic film where the army people go in and get tough with Muslim terrorists, and the majority of Indian viewers will be very happy with that. But then it becomes a viewpoint, not a movie.”
What both directors agree on, however, is the importance of not overdramatizing situations that already have drama built into them. All three of these movies simply clarify situations that news reports can barely begin to express.
“This is a child,” says Sivan, “and we feel more concern for a child. We watch his actions and worry about the choices he makes.”
“There was one story I wrote for my film that I eventually took out,” says Das. “It was about two sisters, one of whom had been raped. She holds a grudge against her sister because she suspects she saw the rape and did nothing to save her. But the story was too dramatic, and I think it would have actually subtracted from the power of the film. When the drama reaches some level, you tend to tell yourself, ‘It’s only a movie.’ “