By Nirpal Dhaliwal –
The London Indian film festival showcases the controversial new movies that are winning international acclaim but offending the establishment by exposing hypocrisies at home
The London Indian film festival opened on Wednesday with Gangs of Wasseypur, a two-part epic about criminal dynasties who control a mining town in the lawless state of Jharkand. With its raw potrayal of a reality that never appears in the glossy utopia of Bollywood, it heralds a movement towards exposing the hypocrisies of Indian society about sex, drugs, development and injustice. And it’s a movement that is not going unnoticed: Gangs was the first mainstream Indian film to compete in the director’s fortnight at Cannes last month. The critics adored it.
Also showing at the London festival is Gandu (“Arsehole”), a thrash-metal rap musical about a young dopehead and his lust for fame and sex that, despite being banned in India, has become one of the country’s most talked about films, with its explicit opium smoking, foul language and masturbation. It’s fringe cinema, but follows mainstream hits such as last year’s The Dirty Picture – the fruity tale of a south Indian movie siren – the success of which indicates a greater honesty and confidence in discussing sexuality. Cannes also gave a warm reception to Miss Lovely, a story set in the pulpy soft-porn industry of 80s Bombay.
This new cinema is both a product of and a reaction to India’s development since it opened its economy to the rest of the world. With dark-skinned heroes swearing liberally in Bhojpuri, a regional vernacular, and no mainstream stars, Gangs of Wasseypur is an exceptional film for a mainstream production company, enabled by the new fluidity of Indian society. Produced by Viacom, headed by Vikram Malhotra, a former airline executive, it is directed by Anurag Kashyap, the son of an engineeer from Varanasi. Both are outsiders in Bollywood, a world in which nepotistic family ties and formulaic film-making hold sway. Their film has the audacity to reflect the folk bawdiness of Indian life, with song lyrics that have been translated as: “You’ll know my name when I fuck you dry … Ain’t I nice, I just fucked you twice.” You can almost taste the salt as the sweaty lovers frolic to the score.
Pot-smoking, bigamist Muslim hoodlums stab and shoot one another in the mutt-infested gullies of Wasseypur, a world reminiscent of arid Sergio Leone westerns and nothing like the Gucci-clad fantasy normally peddled by Hindi cinema.
“I just wanted to be honest,” says Kashyap of his film, the most expensive to be made in India with a non-star cast. “I came across a story that captivated me and I wanted to be true to it.” He has a history of making provocative films, the most famous of which is 2004’s Black Friday, telling the story of the 1993 Mumbai bombings and the sectarian rivalry behind them. “I’ve been lucky in my career that my first few films were the first movie of a new studio, who then didn’t want to work with me again because I was too controversial.”
The enthusiastic international reaction to the new film helped pull the rug from under domestic objections. “It has a lot to do with the reception at Cannes, and also social media. Opinion formers got excited about it and the moralists didn’t get a chance to say anything,” says Kashyap. “Social media has brought a lot of things out into the open in India.”
The confusion of a society in thrall to its own ancient morals while increasingly experiencing the wider world is acutely captured in Gandu, whose eponymous hero is an angst-ridden skinhead who yearns to rap with Asian Dub Foundation while loafing and getting high on the streets of Calcutta. Shot in black and white, it features a kung-fu-kicking rickshaw-wallah sidekick and an explicit blowjob scene performed by the director’s girlfriend, followed by her squatting brazenly on the young man’s face. The movie is a surreal Bengali mix of Jim Jarmusch kookiness and the raw sexuality of Nagisa Oshima, and is absolutely nothing like any Indian film I’ve ever seen.
Growing up in Calcutta, the former capital of British India, but exposed to global culture, the director, known simply as Q, wants to challenge a society he describes as “highly moralistic and post-Victorian”. He’s inspired by Japanese and Korean auteurs such as Takeshi Miike, making films “coming from an oriental context that are critical of their own societies. Like Japan, India is a country where there is a strict division between social behaviour and private identity.” His film explodes the boundary the between the two, with a character whose frustration with his own uselessness and his mother’s relationship with a local goon is expressed through druggy rants and ramblings through the city’s filthy slums. It is a middle finger to the Bollywood myth-machine that portrays contemporary India as “a version of the 1970s American dream – very conservative, rich, beautiful and extremely polished”.
In India, he says: “We have a brilliant way of shielding ourselves from moral reality and pretending that nothing is going on.” And Indian pretences are exquisitely mocked in series of interviews with middle-class Indians that intersperse the movie, in which they give their ostentatious opinions on subjects such as rap music and pornography. “They’re all very wise,” he laughs, “very knowledgeable.” When I ask him why Indians feel the need to pretend at worldliness, he replies, “If you don’t pretend you don’t get anywhere in India. Everyone’s pretending to be a good son, a good husband, a good father. It’s what we’re taught to do.”
Leaked on the internet, Gandu has been downloaded more than a million times and hawkers openly sell the DVDs. It is now getting government exemptions to be shown on the Indian festival circuit and has opened a serious debate on censorship.
But Tannishtha Chatterjee, the star of the 2007 adaptation of Monica Ali’s book Brick Lane, strikes a note of caution about the new sexual freedom. She stars in Dhek Indian Circus, a satire on the iniquities of economic development, also showing at the London festival, and she laments the “male gaze” that controls the industry, that makes films with “women in bikinis, focusing the camera on their breasts”. There is no liberation, she says, in an industry in which a female actor “cannot be a character in a story, but only a sex symbol”. A split now exists, she says, between Indian TV, which caters almost entirely for female audiences, and cinemas: “Women stay at home and watch TV now, while the men go out and watch porn.”
The London Indian film festival runs until 3 July at venues across London