Debutant heroes: India’s first-time directors fly high at the 46th Toronto International Film Festival

The lone Indian movie in the festival’s industry platform is also by a debutante director.The lone Indian movie in the festival’s industry platform is also by a debutante director.

Even a drastically curtailed Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) can’t keep the number of Indian entries down. The 46th edition of the North American festival, dubbed the barometer of Oscar success, has three feature films from India this year in official selection, all by first-time directors. The lone Indian movie in the festival’s industry platform is also by a debutante director.

The Toronto festival, which concludes today, has traditionally selected Indian films every year to cater to Toronto’s large South Asian diaspora. Hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, TIFF cut the number of movies last year to a low 50 from over 300 world premieres alone in the past editions. This time, the number is about 100 at the event that has adopted a hybrid format of in-person and digital screenings to support the global film industry debilitated by the pandemic.

Indian cinema is represented at the Toronto festival by Malayalam film Paka (River of Blood) by Nithin Lukose, Hindi film Dug Dug by Ritwik Pareek and Hindi-Bengali film A Night of Knowing Nothing by Payal Kapadia. Another Hindi feature film, Shankar’s Fairies by Irfana Majumdar, is part of the market section of the festival, which began on September 9. Both Lukose and Kapadia are graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.

Migration and violence

Set in Wayanad, Kerala, Paka is a love story in the backdrop of a raging conflict between two families in a region that witnessed the arrival of settlers from central Travancore in the ’50s. Lukose’s grandparents too were among the settlers who had arrived from Kerala’s Kottayam district. “My grandmother used to tell me stories about the early days of settlements in Wayanad,” says Lukose, who was born in Wayanad’s Mananthavady town. Some of these stories were about the violent conflicts between families that wanted to stamp their authority and power in the region.

“The stories my grandmother told me were about feuds between families caught in migration-related conflicts,” says Lukose, who graduated in sound recording and design from FTII in 2014. “A river in our village was always part of these stories, about how people drowned in its deep trenches. And there was a man who was an expert in diving deep and retrieving the bodies,” he adds.

Lukose, who draws inspiration from the filmmaking styles of Serbian director Emir Kusturica and Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, went on to make the river the theatre of violence between settler families when he sat down to write the story and script two years ago. Once the script was ready, several former FTII students lined up to help Lukose make his first feature film. The film’s cinematographer Srikanth Kabothu, editor Arunima Shankar and Tobin Jayan (sound) were all seniors of Lukose at FTII. Director-producer Anurag Kashyap too jumped in later as a producer.

Faith and rituals

If Lukose learned from his grandmother’s stories of Wayanad, for Jaipur-born Ritwik Pareek, it was his several trips with his grandmother that became the foundation for his debut feature film, Dug Dug. “My grandmother used to take me to temples in the remotest villages in Rajasthan. She used to pray devoutly and I was more interested in the stories that each and every one of these temples had to tell,” says Pareek, a former art director in advertising.

A satirical takedown of quirky rituals, Dug Dug is the story of a village where a man meets with a fatal accident while riding his motorcycle on a highway. The next morning, the motorcycle mysteriously disappears from the police station and villagers discover it on the same spot where the man had died. Soon, a temple comes up for the man who is declared a god and people start offering prayers to the motorcycle.

“The one thing that I observed throughout my trips (with grandmother) was the blind and honest faith that people had in their gods,” says Pareek. “It took me a while to grasp the true nature of this reality in which we exist. The answer was very simple, it is nothing but the manifestation power of people’s mind, which led to their prayers being answered,” he adds. Both Paka and Dug Dug were part of the Discovery section of the Toronto festival. “TIFF programmers continue discovering compelling and diverse stories from around the globe,” says Diana Sanchez, TIFF’s senior director (film).

Making hybrid cinema

Another FTII alumnus, Payal Kapadia, experiments with fiction and documentary in her debut film, A Night of Knowing Nothing, which had its international premiere at the Toronto festival. Set in the backdrop of student protests, the film, which had its world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight parallel programme at the Cannes festival in July, is about a young woman writing letters to her estranged lover. Part of TIFF’s Wavelengths programme for boundary-pushing stories, A Night of Knowing Nothing arrived in Toronto after winning the Golden Eye prize in Cannes for the Best Documentary film.

Shankar’s Fairies by Varanasi-based filmmaker Irfana Majumdar, which had its world premiere at the Locarno festival in August, is the only Indian film in the Toronto film market. Inspired by her mother’s childhood in their ancestral home in Lucknow, Majumdar’s directorial debut deals with class and social hierarchies. Seen through the eyes of a little girl, the film tells the story of the strong bond between Anjana—the daughter of the district police chief—who grows up listening to the fairytales narrated by Shankar, their domestic help. “The house was a symbol of my mother’s and my childhood,” says Majumdar, also a theatre director and actor.

Best of TIFF 2021

The Mad Women’s Ball by Melanie Laurent

Good Madam by Jenna Cato Bass

Benediction by Terence Davies

The Survivor by Barry Levinson

Quickening by Haya Waseem

The Guilty by Antoine Fuqua

Belfast by Kenneth Branagh

Encounter by Michael Pearce

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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