Going to Bangalore, a city of more than 10 million people in India’s south, to spend five days watching movies is not the sort of thing I usually do. Which is exactly why I agreed to serve on a jury for the Network for Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (NETPAC) at the 11th Bengaluru International Film Festival (Feb. 21-28). Focusing on Japanese films as a reviewer, reporter and programmer has its advantages, but cinematic diversity isn’t one of them. Bangalore was a chance to step out of my bubble.
Of the festival’s 200 or so films, only one — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” — was from Japan. And it was not among the 14 films in the Asian Cinema Competition section that the NETPAC jury was assigned to cover. Instead, they were from everywhere else on the Asian continent, from Derek Chiu’s “No. 1 Chung Ying Street,” a formally adventurous examination of two generations of political protesters in Hong Kong, to Bassam Jarbawi’s “Screwdriver,” a disturbing portrait of a Palestinian man who has spent 15 years in an Israeli prison.
But the film that won our award was “Sivaranjini and Other Women,” a Tamil-language drama depicting the lives of three women in three different years: 1980, 1995 and 2007. Directed by Vasanth Sai, the film has a documentary-like naturalism, beginning with the arduous daily round of a lower-caste woman struggling to care for her baby while her stonily silent husband provides no financial or other support. At the same time, it is sharply critical, without sermonizing, of traditional male dominance and family strictures. At the end, we see the heroines fighting back instead of knuckling under.
Also on our short list was Devashish Makhija’s “Bhonsle,” a hard-hitting ensemble drama set in a crowded Mumbai chawl (working-class residential building) inhabited by Marathi majority locals and minority Bihari migrants. A reclusive retired military man (Manoj Bajpai) comes reluctantly to the aid of the latter when a Marathi gang threatens them with violence. Though its politics are domestic, the film’s broader concerns, including the isolation of its aging hero and the passions aroused by migration, are becoming universal.
But these and other quality Indian films seldom make their way to Japan. This isn’t from a lack of Indian interest. Makhija and other local filmmakers I met were eager to send their films out into the world, Japan included.
When a journalist for the Deccan Herald, a local English-language newspaper, interviewed me, most of his questions were about how the film industry in Karnataka — the state of which Bangalore is the capital — could somehow cooperate with its Japanese counterpart and penetrate the Japanese market. I had no good answers. How many Japanese are aware that the nearly 200 films made annually in the local Kannada language are seen by millions when even the products of the far more famous Bollywood — the Hindi-language film industry centered in Mumbai — get almost no theatrical distribution here? The answer: Few, if any. Another bubble needs a pop.