The Indian Show at Toronto
A diverse slew of global
productions set in India or about Indian themes is among the
highlights of the 36th Toronto International Film Festival,
writes Saibal Chatterjee
Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Chatrak (Mushrooms) is an
Indo-French co-production set in Kolkata. Jayasundara has captured the innards
of Kolkata in a manner reminiscent of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak
Bangalore theatre actress Jayashree Basavra (R) plays the elderly Indian woman Padma in Lucky
Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIIF) engagement
with Indian cinema goes back a long way. Over the years, North
America’s premier celebration of the movies has screened films
of all hues from and about the subcontinent: offbeat works by
the masters, sparkling little gems by directorial debutants,
mainstream Mumbai masala fare and cutting-edge
festival regulars have been exposed to Bollywood films like Kabhi
Alvida Na Kehna and Singh is Kinng, besides smaller,
more intimate Mumbai films like last year’s Dhobi Ghat
and That Girl in Yellow Boots. Also in TIIF’s
programming have been powerful documentaries about Indian themes
made by filmmakers abroad. But it has never been quite like what
it is this year.
It is that
incredible global blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, Danny
Boyle’s much lauded drama that seems to have opened the sluice
gates. This year, the 36th TIFF has brought into its
fold a quartet of much-anticipated international co-productions,
either set in India or about characters with roots in this
country. Obviously, interest in the Indian cinema has never been
By the time the
11-day film festival winds down on September 18, all four
India-specific films it would have been unveiled, which are so
unlike each other that they could well have been about four
different cultures. But they are not. These co-productions,
anchored in varied filmmaking traditions and spaces, are bound
by their geographical unity.
The big desi
blockbuster wannabe in this lot is the Indo-Canadian production,
Breakaway, which views the immigrant experience through
the prism of ice hockey, a game that is hugely popular in Canada
but is barely followed in India.
Breakaway has been scripted by its lead actor, debutant Vinay Virmani
with the international title Breakaway, is a
forthcoming Canadian/Punjabi comedy-drama film. Camilla
Belle plays the female lead. Anupam Kher plays a father
who wants his son to quit ice hockey and devote his life
to the family business. Music composer and head of
Columbia Records India, Sandeep Chowta has composed music
for Speedy Singhs. Speedy Singhs is originally a
Hindi project. The international version, Breakaway,
will release in theatres in Canada, Europe and UK on
September 23, 2011, a week before the global release of
the original version.
Avie Luthra is an Indian
film director and screenwriter, who graduated from the
National Film and Television School, UK. He is a
practicing psychiatrist. Lucky is about a South
African AIDS orphan. It premiered at the Edinburgh Film
Festival and got a special mention at the AFI Festival in
Los Angeles. Lucky was nominated for the BAFTA
Award in 2006. The cast includes first-timer Sihle Dlamini,
who plays the 10 year-old title character, and Jayashree
Basavra, James Ngcobo, Vusi Kunene, Brenda Ngxoli.
is director Michael Winterbottom’s third Thomas Hardy
adaptation, after Jude and The Claim. The
film, starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, was shot
extensively in Jaipur and Mumbai early this year. It
premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It is produced by
Andrew Eaton, with Michael Winterbottom as the co-producer
and screenplay writer. The music is by Shigeru Umebayashi,
while Marcel Zyskind is the cinematographer.
Vimukthi Jayasundara got
his filming education in Le Fresnoy – Studio National
des Arts. Chatrak is the first film to be directed
by a Sri Lankan for a non-Sri Lankan producer in a foreign
language. The film has represented India at various film
festivals, as it is a Bengali language film. In May this
year, Chatrak was screened in the Director's
Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Kolkata’s Vinod
Lahoti is the producer the film. Bengali actress Paoli
Dam, Sudeep Mukarji, Anubrata Basu, Sumit Thakur, Shanker
Dey are the main cast of this film.
Set for release
in India later this month with the title Speedy Singhs, Breakaway
is helmed by American-born Canadian director Robert Lieberman
and scripted by its lead actor, debutant Vinay Virmani. The cast
includes Canadian standup comic Russell Peters, Rob Lowe and
American actresses Camilla Belle and Noureen DeWulf.
Akshay Kumar, who is a co-producer of the film, along with
leading Indo-Canadian entrepreneur Ajay Virmani, puts in an
on-screen cameo appearance and attributes his backing the film
to his "love for sports movies".
lead actor, who learnt the ropes of the craft at the Lee
Strasburg Actors’ Studio in New York City, plays the son of a
conservative Sikh immigrant (Anupam Kher), who wants the boy to
ease himself into the family transport business set up by an
uncle, Speedy Singh (Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi). But all that the
young protagonist wants to do in life is play ice hockey, the
favourite sport of his adoptive country.
his dad’s demands and his passion for ice hockey, he resorts
to a bit of subterfuge, with the help and monetary backing of
his uncle, to set up a rag-tag outfit of Sikh boys to take on
the might of the local champion team. After initial hiccups and
some reverses, the team makes its presence felt.
Not quite the Lagaan
of ice hockey, Breakaway is, however, an easy-to-like
feel-good drama in which an underdog beats all odds to achieve
his dream. "It is not really about one particular
community," says Virmani. "The story underscores the
fact that you might be different in many ways but you still have
a chance to assimilate yourself in the culture of the land that
you have adopted."
From the robust
Punjabi Canadian milieu of Breakaway to the more languid
rural Rajasthan setting of prolific British director Michael
Winterbottom’s Trishna, the leap is pretty significant.
It is especially so because this film, starring Freida Pinto and
Riz Ahmed, is actually a loose adaptation of a classic of
English literature, Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, Tess of
is a British production, mounted with some assistance from
Anurag Kashyap, who also plays himself in the film along with
his real-life partner Kalki Koechlin.
transports Hardy’s novel — well, only some segments of it
— to Rajasthan, where the son of a blind British citizen of
Indian origin (Roshan Seth) falls in love with the eponymous
heroine, a village girl, whose father owns and drives a pick-up
van for a living. The relationship takes on sinister dimensions
and ends in tragedy.
audiences, the unusual spin on a classic might seem a tad
stretched, but Trishna is likely to find takers around
the world, although not to the extent that Slumdog
Millionaire did. According to a review in The Hollywood
Reporter, "The film benefits from a strong sense of
place, without overworking the ethnic exotica."
director Avie Luthra’s South Africa-set film is markedly less
ambitious and none the worse for it. Luthra, who has also
scripted the film, tells a simple, heartfelt and sensitive tale
of an orphan boy, Lucky, who leaves his village and travels to
Durban to live with a dissolute uncle, after his mother succumbs
The boy wants
to go to school but his uncle has no interest in giving Lucky a
solid foundation for the future. As he drifts in search of love
and understand, the boy develops a bond with an elderly Indian
woman, who lives next door.
played by Bangalore theatre actress Jayashree Basavra, does not
understand Lucky’s language, and neither does the latter know
Hindi. Language barrier and racial differences notwithstanding,
a deep emotional connection brings them close to each other. Lucky
celebrates the power of humanity without going overboard. It
is understated and yet poignant.
most intriguing of these four films is Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Chatrak
(Mushrooms), an Indo-French co-production set in the city
of Kolkata and an unspecified forest location in Bengal. A
successful architect, just back from Dubai, goes out in search
of his missing brother.
The latter is
believed to have gone mad and sleeps on a tree in the middle of
a dense jungle. In characteristic style, Jayasundara creates a
surreal universe in which appearances are deceptive and the
brothers might have more in common with each other than is
The young Sri
Lankan director, who won the Camera d’Or in Cannes for his
first film, The Forsaken Land (2005), captures the
innards of Kolkata in a manner, reminiscent of Satyajit Ray and
Ritwik Ghatak, two filmmakers he admires. "Yes," says
Jayasundara, "it is my conscious tribute to the Bengali
movies that were my first introduction to this culture."
certainly a problem for Jayasundara but not big enough to
deflect him from his path. "There were three
Bengali-speaking assistant directors who ensured that everything
was right," he says. The director also had Bengali
filmmaker Bappaditya Bandopadhyay by his side during the
these films in various programmes of the festival, TIFF hosted a
conversation woven around Deepa Mehta’s upcoming adaptation of
Salman Rushdie’s epochal 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children.
While the theme is obviously entirely Indian, the production is
purely Canadian. "This film would not have happened without
the funding made available in Canada," says Rushdie.
Mehta, on her part, is a
Toronto resident and is regarded as a Canadian filmmaker. Says
TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey: "Mehta has completely
redefined what it means to be a Canadian director with her
consistently international outlook."