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The 2016 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) featured a bumper crop of Indian films, giving them a potent platform, but mainstream Bollywood couldn’t get any screen time.
Since Priyanka Chopra walked the red carpet for Mary Kom in 2014, the Mumbai masala factory has given way to another menu – from a choice of appetising documentaries to fulfilling features. And this appears to be a trend with North America’s most celebrated event of this nature. The nine films featured in 2016, a volume not seen in many years, fell well into the indie category.
The Indian documentary, in fact, was quite evident at TIFF. While it didn’t have a world premiere at the festival, The Cinema Travellers, directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, came with the cache of having won the special jury prize L’Oeil d’or: Le Prix du documentaire at Cannes.
A still from the documentary, The Cinema Travellers, which played at TIFF after an award-winning outing at Cannes. (Courtesy TIFF)
It follows the mobile theatres of Maharashtra that once brought movies to rural areas, usually pitching their tents at religious fairs. But these cinemas are dying, even though “they are trying very hard (to survive) but not being very successful”, Abraham said.
TIFF programmer for documentaries Thom Powers described the film as “lyrical”. Madhesiya saw TIFF as an apt venue for such a film. “This is like a travelling cinema,” he said, pointing to the bustle around downtown Toronto during the 10-day festival, much like the crowds that gather for a mela.
Also on show was Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s An Insignificant Man, which tracks the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party by Arvind Kejriwal. The documentary ends shortly after Kejriwal first became chief minister of Delhi.
A still from Bengali director Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tope (The Bait), which premiered at the TIFF. (Courtesy TIFF)
For TIFF audiences, Kejriwal was pitched as “the Bernie Sanders of India.” How matters have changed is evidenced by the fact that two of the three people that facilitated gonzo coverage of the party and its assembly election campaign, Prashant Bhushan and Shazia Ilmi, are no longer part of it.
The filmmakers embedded themselves in the process before many took Kejriwal or his political aspirations seriously. Shukla said, “None of us had imagined it getting as big as it did. That’s where we started, we just started on a hunch that this may be interesting.” In that sense, this is a pioneering political documentary in India.
Just as significant was Toronto-based Richie Mehta’s India In A Day, that catalogues the country from dawn to dusk, capturing moments from across the nation, with the footage crowd-sourced.
A still from the crowd-sourced documentary, India In A Day, which had its world premiere at the TIFF. (Courtesy TIFF)
Ranka, meanwhile, earned the rare privilege of being a director with two films at a major festival as her virtual reality venture, Right To Pray, was also at TIFF.
If Bollywood was missing, one name from the industry, Konkona Sensharma, was present with her debut film as a director, A Death In The Gunj. A moving, often riveting ensemble drama with eerie atmospherics, this film will make its way to open the Mumbai Film Festival next month.
The movie is set in 1979 in the Anglo-Indian enclave of McCluskiegunj, in what is now Jharkhand, and Sensharma pointed out she would visit this town with her parents as a child and had returned now to use it as the setting for a fiction feature for the first time.