Tales of loss and exile

Stories of loss and displacement were common at the London Indian Film Festival, says Shrabani Basu

  • Published 26.07.15
TAKE IT: Konkona Sen Sharma and Ritwick Chakraborty in Sari Raat

In a cold foreign country, a woman in a sari looks at her bodyguards and manages to say one line: "I am hungry". The minders don't understand. In desperation, she mimes the process of eating. They take her to a kitchen and show her tins of food and vacuum-packed processed meats. She opens one, is revolted by the smell, and throws up.

The unnamed woman with short hair is unmistakably the character of Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer in exile. The film is Churni Ganguly's directorial debut Nirbashito (Banished) which was screened at the London Indian Film Festival earlier this week. Though it does not mention Nasreen by name, the film looks at the period in the writer's life when she was forced to leave Calcutta and travel to Stockholm.

The story of loss and displacement was a common theme in many of the films at the festival. While the author in Nirbashito looks at the bleak Scandinavian landscape and yearns to go back home, two brothers from a small village in Madhya Pradesh dream of going to America in Prashant Nair's directorial debut Umrika which won the Sundance Audience Award earlier this year.

Starring Suraj Sharma ( Life of Pi, Homeland) and Tony Revolori ( Grand Budapest Hotel), Umrika tells the story of Udai (Prateik Babbar), who leaves his village on a bullock cart to chase his dream in America. After months of waiting, the letters from the US finally arrive filled with press cuttings and photographs of American life. The family are reassured that Udai has made it big.

After the death of his father, Udai's younger brother, Rama (Sharma), discovers that the letters were actually forged by the friendly village postman. Determined to find the truth, he sets out to search for Udai. His friend Lalu (Revolori) joins him in the search.

Flying in from New York to attend the premiere, Suraj Sharma was in top form describing how he managed to master the local Madhya Pradesh dialect and help co-actor Revolori along the way. "It was hard work," laughed Sharma, "But the good thing is that we became close friends and remain so." He bagged the Outstanding Young Talent Award.

The dark-haired Revolori was noticed by Nair when he played the irrepressible lobby boy Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel. "I thought he was Indian, as Wes Anderson often casts Indians in his films," said Nair.

Churni Ganguly in Nirbashito

By the time they realised he was a Guatemalan-American, the script had been sent to Revolori. "So we just went ahead. We sent him a tape and asked him to record the dialogue," Nair said. "The first recording was terrible! But Suraj helped him practise his lines!"

The film explores the story of migration and the reasons that make people risk their lives to make the journey. "I wanted the audience to understand that there are several reasons that make a person take the steps they do. Nothing is simply black and white," said Nair.

For director Ganguly, the story of exile and yearning for one's homeland took over her life. "My husband [filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly] had written a script, but I wanted to tell the story my own way. I wanted to bring out the claustrophobia of banishment."

Ganguly said she had not initially planned to cast herself as the author, but found that she had lived with the character for so long (it took her three years to write the script and make the film) that she had internalised the role.

Asked about the relevance of the story, given the recent attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh, she said: "That is why I made the film. The story is even more important today." In the film, the exiled author says, "It's a fight between the pen and the sword and the sword always wins."

Why did she choose not to name Nasreen in the film? Ganguly replied that it was because the character represented a free-thinking person and she did not want to box her in. "It is a story of exile, it can be the story of a man or a woman, a writer or a painter. I did not feel the need to name her. Also, part of the story is fictionalised."

Ganguly added that when she showed Nasreen the film, the author was overwhelmed. The film is dedicated to the artist, M.F. Husain, who died in exile.

Films from Bengal at the festival also included veteran director Aparna Sen's first Hindi feature film, Sari Raat (All Night), based on a play by Badal Sircar, starring Konkona Sen Sharma, Ritwick Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt, and Aasha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love), directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta.

Set on a stormy night, Sari Raat is about a couple who take shelter in a large crumbling house full of antiques. A mysterious old man who lives there draws them into conversation, playing mental games with them. Over the course of the night, they learn secrets about each other and about themselves. Sen Sharma, who plays a 28-year-old woman in Sari Raat, also acts as the elderly wife of a freedom fighter in Ananth Mahadevan's Gour Hari Dastaan (The Freedom File) which had its UK premiere at the festival.

The biggest draw was the crowd-funded Konkani film Nachom-ia-Kumpasar set among the jazz musicians of Goa, who would go on to influence the Bollywood film music of the 1960s and 1970s. Based on the true-life story of two musicians, Lorna Cordeiro and Chris Perry, the film had three sold-out screenings at the festival. Belting out the songs was Bengali actress and singer, Palomi Ghosh as Dona (Lorna). The film won the Audience Award at the festival.

With a mix of documentary and feature films and star appearances by Mani Ratnam, Manisha Koirala, Suraj Sharma and others, the festival brought a touch of India to the London summer. "We hope to continue to bring the best of independent Indian cinema to London viewers every year," promised programming director Cary Rajinder Sawhney. The festival - now in its fifth year - has certainly become part of the London film calendar.