Berlinale and the India connect

The Berlin Film Festival has been encouraging Indian film­-makers ever since its inception.

Updated: Feb 26, 2018 14:44:39

By Meenakshi Shedde

Employees install the Berlin Film Festival logo at a cinema in Berlin. (Photo: AP)

Twenty years is probably longer than most marriages last today. That’s how long I’ve been working with the Berlin International Film Festival as its South Asia consultant — since 1998. It is very gratifying to look back, and see how Indian cinema has evolved at the festival. The festival has showcased art-house films and also encompassed a range of regional language cinemas, Bollywood, documentaries, experimental films and shorts.

My job entails looking at hundreds of films each year from all over India (in all languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese, Kokborok and Sherdukpen), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, recommending the best films to the festival for selection, and explaining why my recommended films are important. A primarily German committee makes the selection. The festival receives thousands of entries each year, and I work closely with Dorothee Wenner, delegate and South Asia programmer to the Berlin Film Festival. It has been thrilling, through my dual role as film critic and film programmer, when festival selection enables especially indie, art-house films, to find distribution and audiences in India and South Asia.

Actors Udo Kier and Joaquin Phoenix arrive for the screening of the film Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot. ( AP )

The festival receives thousands of entries each year, from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. It considers hundreds of Indian films in languages from all over India. The preselection is done in close coordination with Wenner and headed by Dieter Kosslick.

The challenges of programming Indian cinema were different two decades ago. Mani Ratnam had entered his Dil Se (the Germans called it Von Herzen in 1998), wondering if he should send an “international cut” without the songs.

The film was selected, and when I discussed the subject as a member of the FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) Jury in Berlin, fellow juror Derek Malcolm said mockingly, “What’s a Mani Ratnam film without the songs? Tell him we want only the songs!” Indian film-makers are always apologetic about their songs, but some Western connoisseurs feel that this is Indian cinema’s USP — provided you are in Mani Ratnam’s league, of course. Soon after, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (2000) was selected in the forum.

Actor Joshua Leonard and director Steven Soderbergh, during a photo call for the movie Unsane. ( AP )

Wenner had explained why they selected this masala film, “What is this huge film industry in India whereas Hollywood is so small? (Hollywood has less than 10% of the film market in India). It’s unthinkable for us that German or any other cinema can beat Hollywood in our own countries. We wanted to introduce our audiences to this vibrant film industry.” Bhansali, too, nervously chain-smoking outside the houseful hall showing his film, wondered, “Yaar, why do all these goras want to see my Bollywood film?” In fact, the audience warmly applauded the film, and the Q/A session with Bhansali went on till way past midnight.

The Berlinale, as it is called, has also frequently experienced the Shah Rukh Khan phenomenon; his presence always triggering mass hysteria amid fans arriving from all over Germany, France, Switzerland and Poland. At the premiere of Om Shanti Om (2007), a 99% white audience danced in the aisles during the climax song. It was remarkable as Berlin is not NRI territory. I once asked Shah Rukh Khan why the foreigners were so crazy about him. He was most eloquent in explaining why audiences felt free to express their emotions during his films: “In the West you have a button for everything. You press a button for the elevator, to make orange juice... I think I am their button to cry.”

Dorothee Wenner, South Asia programmer of Berlin Film Festival with director Imtiaz Ali, actor Alia Bhatt and the author Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia consultant of the festival.

Despite Bollywood’s star power, there is no doubt that art-house films have brought credibility to Indian cinema at film festivals since the 1930s, from DK Bose’s Seeta at the Venice Film Festival (1934), and Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar at Cannes (1946) to Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar at Berlin (1964). Indian films selected at Berlin have ranged from mindie (mainstream +indie) films such as Kai Po Che (2013) to Indian art house and regional language films such as Sairat (2016), Vihir (2009) and Killa (2014) all in Marathi, Paruthiveeran (2007) in Tamil, Ottaal (2014) in Malayalam, Bariwali (2000) and Arekti Premer Golpo (2010) both in Bengali, Lady Of The Lake (2016) in Manipuri, Newton (2017) Hindi and Udhed Bun (2008) a short film in Bhojpuri, to documentaries such as John And Jane (2005). India hasn’t had a film in competition in some years. Most of the Indian films have been shown in the Forum, headed by Christoph Terhechte — as well as Panorama, Generation and Berlinale Shorts sections. Many Indians have also been selected in the Berlinale Talents and Berlinale CoProduction Market, and participated in the European Film Market.

Through its eclectic choices, the Berlinale has helped expand the cinematic imagination of Indian filmmakers. Moreover, it is much more politically engaged than most A-list festivals, backing films that would be difficult to release in India. Its daring political choices have included Rakesh Sharma’s documentary, Final Solution, based on the Gujarat riots of 2002, and Q’s feature, Garbage, this year, whose protagonists include a social media troll, a woman he has enslaved, and another woman whose ex-boyfriend has leaked “revenge porn” online. It is a powerful and provocative critique of Indian right-wing ideology, patriarchy and misogyny in contemporary India.

First Published: Feb 26, 2018 14:44:27


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