The 14th of July could well go down in history, not only as the opening night of the 2016 London Indian Film Festival (LIFF), but also as the day that a film festival began to change the world. It may sound like a bold claim but it’s backed up by the festival’s diverse and pioneering programme which brought a wide variety of brand new features, documentaries, and short films which challenge the firmly held stereotypes of India and South Asia.
The festival kicked off with the powerful and deeply moving Parched, directed by Leena Yadav who is another of the steadily expanding group of famous female Indian directors who are gaining recognition on the world stage.
Before the movie, the director, producer Ajay Devgn, and the stars of the film Tannishtha Chatterjee, Chandan Anand, and Lehar Khan had the full red-carpet experience. This gave the assembled crowds the opportunity to take pictures of the stars whilst simultaneously building a palpable air of excitement and expectation.
During the film, we were transported to the desert villages of Gujarat to share in the lives of a trio of women and their seemingly simple but blissful existence. As the metaphorical curtain is pulled back, the film shows how the attitudes and expectations of both the men and women of the village could lead to friction, unhappiness, and tragedy. One of the interwoven tales concerns a child bride who is “bought” as part of an arranged marriage, an issue which is treated with a degree of realism that perhaps and likely enlightened Western audiences who may know little about the practicalities (and the shockingly young age a girl can be married off) and the heart-ache it can cause as passion and obligation collide. The underlying message of the film, however, is firmly about the strength and power of women. Despite all of the difficulties that the women encounter, there is a message of hope for the future.
Parched isn’t for the faint of heart. There are moments of domestic violence that make for very uncomfortable viewing but there are many moments of joy throughout the film too, ably demonstrating how bitter-sweet life can be. There are even a couple of musical numbers, although not of the type that would traditionally appear in a Bollywood movie.
The script, written by Leena Yadav and Supratik Sen, paints an enthralling story that’s full of multi-layered characters to love and hate, skillfully played by a talented and well-chosen cast. The audience was rapt right from the beginning, laughing in the right places and bursting into a large round of applause as soon as the end credits started to roll.
It was a powerful start to Europe’s largest Indian film festival but the pace did not slack through the 10 days of the festival. Among the many brilliant films, another highlight was A Girl In the River – The Price of Forgiveness, directed by double Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, which is a harrowing documentary concentrating on one young woman who narrowly survives an attempted honour killing, leaving her with the dilemma of how to make peace with her attempted murders, her own family.
The festival’s strong LGBTQ+ following flocked to its first transgender movie, Naanu Avanalla Avalu (I Am Not He…She). Based on a true story, a fearless young boy from rural Karnataka embraces his female persona. However, despite an understanding sister, he finds resistance from his father who throws him out onto the street. So begins a journey to Bangalore where Madesha plans to become a woman although there are more many challenges ahead than just the sex-change surgery itself.
There were also films tackling the tricky topic of mental health. In Dirty, Yellow, Darkness (Premaya Nam), Sri Lankan directors Kalpana and Vindana Ariyawansa explore the taboo subject of obsessive compulsive disorder where a man with a successful career and a beautiful wife finds his condition escalating beyond his capability to conceal it from those around him.
The closing night in London (21st July) saw the world premiere of Toba Tek Singh, directed by Ketan Mehta, which focuses on patients incarcerated in a Punjabi mental hospital during the Partition of India and Pakistan. The film was also the centrepiece of the closing night in Birmingham on 24th July. Produced by the Zeal for Unity, a unique peace initiative which aims to bring together nations in conflict through their creative thought leaders, Toba Tek Singh is seen a precursor to the 1947-2017 anniversary of independence, making this the first of many events due to take place in the coming year, in the UK.
As Cary Rajinder Sawhney, the director of the London Indian Film Festival, puts it, “we aim to showcase films that entertain but challenge and make one think about the many social issues happening in India today, and that includes many positive changes including the fact that so many emerging Indian women filmmakers who are producing world-class films that are giving their male counterparts a serious run for their money.”
But it’s also more than that. With all of the films being subtitled in English, LIFF is showing the world how South Asian films can appeal to a global market and exhibit a diversity of content and style than is far more than just the mainstream Bollywood films, typically associated with India.