Three films in and I am hugely impressed at the range of movies I have watched during this year’s Birmingham Indian Film Festival (BIFF) - and there are still 5 more days to go! This 10-day indie film festival sponsored by the Bagri Foundation boasts 11 feature films, 2 music documentaries, and a host of talent over a range of Q & As.
The Black Prince
BIFF kicked off last Friday with The Black Prince, an exquisitely photographed and sumptuously designed period drama telling the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, during a complex and controversial time of shared British Indian colonial history. Duleep played by Punjabi music star Satinder Sartaaj is crowned as king at the age of five, but taken from his mother to be raised as a Christian in England by Queen Victoria. Following a reunion with his mother during adulhood, played brilliantly by Shabana Azmi, he is torn between two cultures. Following her death Duleep begins a quest to challenge the British Raj, return to India and free his people as a Sikh.
The Black Prince is insightful, thought provoking, and raises many important questions about Britain’s colonial past and the significance of exploring history and heritage. This movie is not simply for South Asian audiences as with all the BIFF films, but a story that is educational and quite necessary, particularly during times of xenophobia and rising fear of the ‘other’. It is an interesting piece of educational material that challenges modern education in Britain that needs to be de-colonised, and told from a range of perspectives.
It is wonderful to see many people from the local South Asian community hitting the red carpet at the screening, a particularly strong presence from Birmingham’s Punjabi community and media, including the main star Satinder Sartaaj participating in a Q and A. This is what makes BIFF special and of huge value to the city, making the cinema experience exciting, unlike sitting at home in front of your laptop with Netflix. Cinema is certainly not dead as long as Film Festivals like BIFF continue to entertain, challenge and enlighten us with the range of movies available. We need these stories to be told.
I had to see Babylon Sisters, a heart-warming Italian movie set in Trieste about a struggling Indian family living in a run-down apartment block, dealing with a nasty landlord threatening to evict them and a number of other families from their homes. The movie is promoted as one of sisterhood and it certainly does this really well. Babylon Sisters crosses all cultural boundaries and you feel a real sense of solidarity with the female actors and families that are immigrants in Italy from a range of countries including Turkey, Croatia and China. The women laugh, cry, fight and empower each other, and try to take control of their situation by finding creative solutions. The focus is on the Indian family, a young couple and their 12 year old daughter Kamala, who befriends an elderly neighbour, an ex-professor. As the movie progresses we see Kamala’s powerful relationship with her parents and the teacher blossom, as well as the women coming together. Connection and a sense of community are at the heart of the film, and beautifully come across through the music and close up shots carefully crafted over just 4 weeks of filming.
We learn during the Q and A that Kamala and her dad in the movie are actually father and daughter in reality. What makes the movie magical and work so well is how much of the personality, experience, and personal stories of the actors are allowed to come into the roles they are playing. The director has deliberately cast an Indian man and young girl that have been living in Italy, rather than an actor from India, to give it a more authentic feel that works. You see the audience sit up and smile when 3 of the cast members, the Indian family and Director are welcomed for a Q and A following the screening. Again this really makes the afternoon a real treat, and extends the appreciation of the movie far beyond what you can experience in your living room.
My third choice was easy, a black comedy and award winner at the Berlin International Film Festival. Newton, played by Rajkummar Rao is the story of an everyday clerk who is selected for election duty in the conflict-ridden Indian state of Chhattisgarh. You don’t hear of many Bollywood movies set in Chhattisgarh, a heavily forested state I heard of for the first time on my last visit to India in 2015. During the movie we grow fond of a number of funny and likeable characters, whilst the plot unfolds to reveal ongoing harassment of the local villagers by the police and Maoists. Newton, a man of honesty and courage (and nerdy-ness) is determined to save the day and make every vote count in his plight to ensure as many people as possible from the area cast their vote, regardless of whether or not they understand who they are voting for and if the results will make any desired difference to their lives at all.
The theme of democracy and corruption in relation to elections, government and politics is at the heart of the movie. Who do policies and parties really serve and do we really understand who and what we are voting for? This theme is relevant globally in countries both North and South. What is the impact of policies on the lower classes and low income families? In developing countries like India, is it wrong to assume villages falling outside the big cities and economically booming states are less advantaged, when their societies and values may be less patriarchal, for example in some places?
The Q and A with director Amit Masurkar reveals that the villagers in the film were not trained actors but genuine local villagers, and Newton was also cast locally; not from Mumbai or Delhi. This seems to be the recipe for success with the films I have seen. My highlight from this evening is listening to Amit’s personal journey. Following 10 years of chasing producers with a number of big budget film scripts he had written, he decided to take the plunge and follow his heart. With no big plan or intention of hitting the big screen, he made his first film Sulemani Keeda taking one step at a time, filming in the locations he knew that included friends’ houses, to then go on to edit and then screen the movie. The movie was so well received that a producer on hearing the story for Newton was so convinced he took it on without even reading the script, and Amit’s second movie was made. Amit’s tale of following your passion and instinct is truly inspiring and sends me home smiling.