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Manoj Bajpayee heads to Berlin

The star-actor gets set for his debut at Berlinale, where Nepal’s first-ever selection is in contention for the Golden Bear, 30 years after an Indian entry

Manoj Bajpayee heads to Berlin

‘The Fable’ is competing in the Encounters section.

Saibal Chatterjee

Writer-director Raam Reddy’s second film, ‘The Fable’, starring Manoj Bajpayee, is among 15 titles in the competitive Encounters section of the upcoming 74th Berlin Film Festival (February 15 to 25).

‘Shambhala’ is Nepal’s first film at the fest.

The selection represents a first for Bajpayee. While his films (‘Aligarh’, ‘Gali Guleiyan’, ‘Bhonsle’ and ‘Joram’) have premiered in Busan and Rotterdam over the years, none hitherto made it to Berlin. “It is a matter of great joy,” says Bajpayee. “I am looking forward to joining the team in Berlin.”

‘In the Belly of a Tiger’ is a critique of capitalism.

While Berlin has two other Indian narrative features — PS Vinothraj’s Tamil-language ‘Kottukkaali’ (‘The Adamant Girl’) and Siddhartha Jatla’s ‘In the Belly of a Tiger’ (both in Forum) — the biggest South Asian story at the 11-day festival will centre on Nepalese writer-director Min Bahadur Bham’s sophomore venture, ‘Shambhala’.

Nepal’s first film at Berlinale is also the first South Asian title in the festival’s main Competition in three decades. The last time the subcontinent competed for the Golden Bear was in 1994, with Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s ‘Charachar’ (‘Shelter of the Wings’, 1994).

‘Shambhala’ is set in a Himalayan village, where Pema is in a polyandrous relationship with Tashi and his two younger brothers. She is pregnant. One day, Tashi does not return from a trip. The community questions the legitimacy of Pema’s unborn child. Determined to prove herself, she sets out with a monk brother-in-law in a quest for Tashi across the harsh, daunting Himalayan terrain.

Bham’s short film ‘Bansulli’ (‘The Flute’, 2012) was the first Nepalese entry ever at the Venice Film Festival. His maiden feature ‘Kalo Pothi’ (‘The Black Hen’, 2015) was also in Venice, where it won the International Critics Week’s best film award.

‘The Fable’, also starring Priyanka Bose, Deepak Dobriyal and Tillotama Shome in the cast, marks a departure from his debut film ‘Thithi’ in significant ways. With a cast of non-actors, ‘Thithi’ bowed at the 2015 Locarno International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Leopard in the Filmmakers of the Present category.

‘The Fable’ is the second Indian film in Encounters, Berlinale’s newest section. In 2020, the year Encounters was introduced, the selection included Pushpendra Singh’s ‘Laila Aur Satt Geet’.

Set in 1989, ‘The Fable’ centres on Dev, owner of a sprawling estate of several orchards in the Himalayas. One day, he discovers that some of his trees have been burnt down. Despite all his efforts, fires continue to break out, which ultimately compels Dev to face the truth about himself and his family.

Says Reddy: “Making a film is only half the journey, the other half is getting it noticed and distributed. A Berlin premiere in a competitive section is both a validation of the quality of the film, and an incredible launching board.”

He adds: “In ‘Thithi’, non-actors essentially played themselves. In ‘The Fable’, the actors had to transform. I was lucky to have an incredible cast where each and every one of them had the ability to transform completely and convincingly.”

“Working with Raam was amazing,” says Bajpayee. “I can see a generational shift. The way he plans, prepares and directs his actors is very different from the other directors I’ve worked with,” he adds.

“Perfectionist is an overused word but Raam is one in the true sense. He knows that work is never over until it is over. He goes on correcting, changing, perfecting and cutting and is never satisfied. Even as we speak, he must be still working on the film even though it is now headed to Berlinale.”

The characters and everything else in ‘The Fable’, says Bajpayee, is simple and lifelike and yet difficult to pull off. “The writing is complex. What the film is trying to emphasise — the importance of detachment and disengaging — is close to my heart,” he reveals.

Esther Li of Beijing’s Wonder Pictures, producer of ‘In the Belly of a Tiger’, says: “A Berlin premiere definitely boosts the film’s global outreach. The Forum does so much great work to showcase unseen and sometimes complex human stories.”

‘In the Belly of a Tiger’, described as “a poignant critique of capitalism”, is about a debt-ridden old couple in a village. The man decides to let himself be killed by a tiger to save his family. Their last night becomes a surreal love story.

The logline of ‘Kottukkaali’, starring Soori and Anna Ben, reads: “A 21-year-old girl is forcibly taken to a shaman by her infuriated family in a remote village to undergo regressive rituals that will make her forget her lover from an oppressed caste.”

Vinothraj’s debut film, ‘Koozhangal’ (‘Pebbles’), won the Tiger Award at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2021. ‘Kottukkaali’ is the first Tamil film to have a world premiere in Berlinale Forum.


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