IFFLA 2019: From Neon to Tungrus and Searching for Saraswati, the best short films at the Los Angeles festival

Anupam Kant Verma

Apr 18, 2019 11:08:15 IST

The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2019, presented ten short films as part of its official program. It featured the work of filmmakers seeking to engage with the contemporary concerns of Indians. Their themes range from the spectre of war, capitalism and ultra-nationalism to racism and classism, women’s struggle for independence and even our relationship with pets. From students graduating film school to first time and seasoned filmmakers, the program put the spotlight on a wide variety of voices.

I sat down to watch all of them (excluding The Field) and came away with renewed hope for the future of Indian cinema. Here’s a personal selection of the five most significant films from the program.

Neon

Far and away the best of the lot, Sakshi Gulati’s film is a work of art. It is a searing critique that works away at capitalism’s manifold layers to expose the gradual rot engendered within its ever-widening shadow. Gulati begins with the deceptively simple story of a working-class family that rents out space in their balcony for a massive hoarding to supplement their income. Living quite literally under the spectre of capitalism, the members of the family struggle to sleep under its sheer blue glow and the sound of the electricity powering it. Their interactions with the world are mediated by this ominous presence. The adults fail to escape it even at their workplaces. As one of the children insightfully observes, they are like goldfish in an aquarium, almost machines.

Gulati’s deft directorial hand empathetically traces the disrupted rhythm of their lives. She showcases humans’ remarkable resilience to craft meaning out of a seemingly meaningless existence. It is a quiet and powerful ode to a city it intentionally chooses not to show us. Instead, it lets the camera wander through a shopping mall and a house cut off from everything by a hoarding advertising the promise of happiness.

IFFLA 2019: From Neon to Tungrus and Searching for Saraswati, the best short films at the Los Angeles festival

(Clockwise from top-left) Neon, Tungrus, Maya and Bebaak

Searching for Saraswati

Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham document the government-sponsored search for the mythical river Saraswati in a Haryanvi village. It is the sobering account of a government’s pursuit of power and a populist, nationalist agenda based on the primacy of a single religion by systemically abusing peoples’ emotional connection with the idea of a river that holds religious value. It pits men of science against men of ‘faith’ in the tale of an entire village held in thrall by the windfall gains that must accompany the discovery of the river.

An RTI (Right to Information) activist, a scientifically sound farmer, an upper caste priest and a man obsessed with the river play their parts in the hullaballoo surrounding Saraswati. The film depicts the endless efforts made by the government to popularise the idea of the river flowing through the village, from events at schools to celebratory processions. Searching for Saraswati is an illuminating glimpse into the complex connections underlying the present government’s agenda.

Tungrus

One fine day, Mr Bharde brings a rooster to his Santacruz flat and announces him as the newest member of the family. The rooster turns out to be as eccentric as its new master and its appearance confounds everyone else in the family. Slowly and gradually, it starts to take over the house.

Rishi Chandna’s debut film is a funny and poignant story of the bewildering ways of love. I wrote about it at length here.

Maya

Featuring strong performances and a determined focus on the often frustrating nature of human relationships, Maya is director Vikas Chandra’s portrait of a modern woman. Maya, ably played by Kirti Kulhari — an actress whose work deserves wider recognition and applause — is uncompromising in her mission to make her mother continue staying with her in Mumbai. This comes in the way of marriage, as a string of men blanch at the idea of sharing space with an aged woman who has got a peculiar problem: a weak bladder.

Maya’s quest has made her stronger. But it has also made her stubborn and difficult. Her complex personality weighs heavily on the men who wish to settle down with her. The men’s families even more. The endless rejections take a toll on the mother, who thinks she is coming in the way of her daughter’s happiness, a daughter who seems to be becoming angrier and more controlling by the day. By the time it ends, Chandra’s film gracefully morphs into a quiet yet explosive tale of a mother-daughter relationship.

Bebaak

Bebaak, translated as defiant, is the story of a young girl who’s seeking a scholarship from an Islamic organisation to fund her architecture course. Based on a true story, it chronicles her struggle to align her belief in liberty of thought and action with religious strictures that put restrictions on women’s conduct in society. Shazia Iqbal’s film could very well have been titled ‘Birth of a Leader’, for the girl’s crisis, accentuated by the economic conditions of her family, demands that she summon every ounce of her courage if she doesn’t wish to compromise and fall in line.

Bolstered by fine performances, Iqbal’s singular focus on making us witness the world as felt and withstood by the girl is its greatest strength. Gritty and driven, the girl is aware of her unique position in society, a liberal family behind her and a conservative society all around, and seems possessed by a sense of destiny. She is beset by doubt, fear and angst, but she knows she must lead by example as well. This constant, overwhelming struggle and the film's wordless, undeniably stronger stretches, make Bebaak a worthy work.

Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 09:44:36 IST

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