Bollywood films often capture the colour and beauty of Indian culture through high-profile stars and big-budget blockbusters, but a group of filmmakers is attempting to show a different side of India’s people through smaller, independent fare.
The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, commencing on April 15, is bringing the movies made outside of the Bollywood studio system to Hollywood. The six-day event will showcase 33 feature films, documentaries and short films from filmmakers across nine countries, all exploring Indian stories.
Kicking off the festival is Sold, a gritty drama by director Jeffrey D. Brown, about a 13-year-old girl sold into prostitution in India.
Brown said he wanted the film to be a call to action globally for people to take a stand against child prostitution and slavery, which as of 2013, involved 115 million around the world, according to the United Nations.
“The film is an intense situation especially when you realise it’s a light version of the reality of one girl’s story that represents literally millions,” Brown said.
Sold, starring young actress Niyar Saikia, who turned 13 while filming, explores the harsh, terrible reality of child prostitution in India, but with a pinch of song-and-dance to “get the audience through” the dark themes, Brown said.
“The reality of India is so intense that you need to escape. Even the reality of my film, it’s one of the most intense realities on the planet, and so there are moments of tenderness, there are moments when everyone breaks into dance,” he said.
Such a playbook is also shared with the estimated $7.8 billion (Dh28.7 billion) Bollywood film industry, which often squeezes action, drama, comedy, romance, music and dance into three hours.
Brown, who won an Oscar in 1986 for best short live-action film, said India is experiencing a “golden age” as filmmakers from the subcontinent break out into the wider film industry.
“It’s a new wave of Indian cinema,” he said. “This is really mainstream, global cinema. It’s not art house exclusively.” The new wave of Indian cinema could be pinpointed to the success of British director Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, Brown said. The film won eight Oscars, including best picture, and made $377 million at the worldwide box office.
The Sundance of Indian cinema
The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles aims to be “the Sundance of Indian cinema”, according to festival director Jasmine Jaisinghani, with films that contrast Bollywood’s often glamourised escapism with vivid realism.
Those include Liar’s Dice, about a village woman who sets off to find her missing husband. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January, the largest gathering for the independent film community in the United States.
Siddharth explores a similar fate, where a father and mother go in search of their 12-year-old son who disappears after leaving home to find work in Delhi.
Bombay Talkies is an anthology of short films from four celebrated Indian directors, exploring love stories of ordinary people. The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers is a documentary of two Kolkata brothers who own one of the oldest auction houses in the city.
“A lot of our filmmakers are interested in telling stories of people that are not represented,” Jaisinghani said. “The films we curate are dealing with touching on various aspects and concerns of the filmmaker’s own society.”
Juxtaposing the grittiness of Sold is the festival’s closing night film Jadoo by British director Amit Gupta, a light-hearted comedy about a British-Indian family, and two food-loving brothers torn apart over the sale of a recipe.
Set in Leicester, a city in the East Midlands of England, Gupta mined his own experiences of growing up in a family-run restaurant to tell “a simple story” about family and cuisine.
“I wanted to make something where the conversation about the film was about the characters and the story and nothing else. I didn’t want it to be an issue film, because I feel it’s more subversive to do that,” Gupta said.
Jadoo, starring Amara Karan as the daughter trying to repair the rift between her father and her uncle, works as both a glimpse into the British-Indian community of Leicester, and the bigger theme of family feuds and culinary traditions, which the director believes will resonate with a larger audience.
“A story of two brothers falling out and being stubborn, and food being essential to family life, is something that I think has connected it with international audiences,” Gupta said.