The first London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) came to a close on July 20 with the UK premiere of the Marathi film Vihir (The Well). In its six day run, the LIFF screened as many feature films and collaborated with their primary sponsor – the Satyajit Ray Foundation – for the latter’s short film competition. Besides the opening and closing night films, the other feature films screened were Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, Mahesh Manjrekar’s City of Gold, Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Last Chance Mumbai, and Amit Rai’s Road to Sangam. All these films have already been released in India and, in most cases, were screened to an international audience for the first time.
A much-appreciated element in LIFF was the inclusion of short films that are in some way about the Indian or NRI experience. In collaboration with the LIFF, the Satyajit Ray Foundation held a competitive screening of six shorts that dealt with issues of Indian identity, family life and documenting unknown stories. All the films were sincere efforts for their debutant filmmakers, but often edged on either oversimplifying or over-exaggerating the stories, which ultimately took away from the experience. Billy Dosanjh’s A Miracle in West Brom, a documentary about his parents and the unraveling of their shaky past, shone in this group for its multiple layers and clear development of a very personal and engaging story. Deservedly so, it won the award for the short film competition (along with some cash). Regardless of the kind of films in this year’s competition, the attention given to short films from or about India and NRI experiences is commendable.
The closing night feature, the UK premiere of Vihir, has done the festival rounds to much critical acclaim. Directed by Umesh Kulkarni, this is a Marathi-language film produced by AB Corp Ltd (the resurrecting production house of Hindi film legend Amitabh Bachchan). Vihir tells the story of two cousins-who-are-also-best-friends who reconnect at a family wedding. Sameer, the extroverted younger one of the two, has a difficult time understanding his cousin Nachiket’s newfound philosophical meanderings. When Nachiket mysteriously dies, Sameer is left grappling with the loss and goes on a search to find the meaning of life, understand Nachiket’s earlier musings, and to hopefully “find” his cousin once again. Speaking to The NRI before the screening, the film’s writer and executive producer Girish Kulkarni explained, “The story is based on events in [the director] Umesh’s life. It raises many questions about life that are triggered by death. It is meant to be an experience.” It’s a heavy concept, both for the teenage protagonists and the audience. Luckily, it works.
The relationship between the two protagonists is developed swiftly and effectively through voiceovers and well-scripted dialogues. The various members of the family work very naturally with one another and provide many of the film’s light moments. At times, the film does get too slow, lingering on a shot or in some cases being repetitive in expressing a mood. Some of the dialogue, especially the existential thoughts, come off as forced or unnatural, which could either have been improved with the actor’s delivery or simplified writing. However, the film works because it stays true to its main story and strives to resolve it. The children’s game of hide-and-seek is used deftly both literally and figuratively as Sameer begins searching for Nachiket who, by dying, is hiding from him. The principal actors Madan Deodhar (Sameer) and Alok Rajwade (Nachiket) are naturals and bring an endearing mix of childish innocence and coming-of-age maturity to their roles. Never do they overdo it or let you get distracted from the plot. The cinematography by Sudhir Palsane is a sumptuous display of Maharashtrian countryside and lends more beauty to the story. Vihir released in Maharashtra in March this year to a decent stint at the box office. However, it’s the international accolades for the film that have excited the Marathi and other regional film industries from India. As Kulkarni said, “This is a boost for regional cinema all over India which is growing day by day and gaining greater international exposure. It’s exciting to see much smaller non-Hindi films be appreciated internationally, much beyond the restricted regional markets within India.”
The LIFF has therefore been successful in bringing such smaller independent films to international audiences. The inclusion of shorts and Indian films in languages other than Hindi is also promising. At the closing night, festival director Cary Rajinder Sawhney proudly announced that the LIFF had over 1000 visitors in its maiden run. Not a bad start at all for a new festival that is actively shunning mainstream fare. We look forward to seeing how it evolves over the years, and for that matter how independent Indian films are received in the future. Exciting times indeed.