India is the land of innumerable civilizations, cultures and sub-cultures where countless settlements, little and big kingdoms have thrived independently for eras. Much of the north came together geographically under the Mughals first, finally forming into the map as we know it today united against British colonialism. The resultant intermingling over the centuries has made this populous country into a veritable treasure trove of stories. India is indeed the land of stories, some of which are fact, some imaginary, some that travel from buzzing metropolises, some from nooks and crannies appearing through little cracks and fissures.
The Indian Film Industry more popularly referred to as Bollywood, is the most popular, conspicuous flag bearer of story telling, bringing all varieties of tales to both national and international spectators. This is an exciting time to be associated in almost any capacity with Indian Cinema, which has embarked firmly upon a journey of self-discovery and coming of age. As even the most commercial of films go frantically hunting for a decent script, little gems are often exposed, shining with their own brilliance. Mehsampur and Manto, gaining mileage worldwide, seem to have all the potential to be landmark movies of 2018. And, fortunately for us they are both being screened at the Sydney film festival this month.
Mehsampur being widely touted as a daring take on the life and death of popular Punjabi folk singer Chamkila – made its international debut at the Docs Against Gravity festival in Poland. After Sydney, it’s set for a screening at the London Indian Film Festival. Director and producer Kabir Chowdhry is no stranger to the festival circuit. Previously lauded for his short films, he received the Grand Jury Award at the South Asian International Film Festival 2011 in New York. His movie is gaining recognition for being a hybrid – an eclectic mix of multiple genres from documentary to biopic to fiction traversing through unchartered territories striving for honesty and realism.
Amar Singh Chamkila (21 July 1960 – 8 March 1988) was a Punjabi singer, songwriter, with tremendous mass appeal in the early 1980’s. His lyrics were a truthful, suggestive, tongue in cheek commentary on Punjab and its people. On March 8, 1988 at the age of 27, Chamkila was shot dead, along with his partner Amarjot – presumably by Khalistani militants but no arrests were ever made.
Several ventures have tried and failed to make a film on his life. Chowdhry and his partner Akshay Singh’s own road was full of potholes to the point where they almost abandoned the film due to lack of funds. How ever their persistence paid off and Mehsampur, presented by Dark Matter Pictures is earning glowing reviews mentioning the extraordinary performances of the cast and the raw authenticity of the film.
Now, where does one even start with Manto? This biopic is a sincere, heartfelt tribute to the man who achieved cult status in his lifetime and became a legend after his death. Saadat Hasan Manto was a Pakistani writer, playwright and author born in British India. His most famous stories and essays uncover the naked wound of partition, the very real pain laid bare for all with the type of scathing quality no other writer dared at that time and probably won’t even today. He was tried for obscenity six times, thrice before 1947 in British India, and thrice after independence in 1947 in Pakistan, but never convicted.
Manto is the only Indian film to have made it to the official selection at the Cannes festival earlier this year – an enviable, prestigious start for any movie. Directed and written by acclaimed actor and director Nandita Das who has served twice on the jury of Cannes apart from being the recipient of France’s highest civilian award (Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres) she has lived and breathed Manto for seven long years. As a defender of freedom of speech and fearlessness herself, she considers the film highly relevant in todays times.
For critically applauded actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays Manto, to do this film was a no brainer. Drawn from the beginning to Manto’s prowess in making truth a way of his life, this was the role of a lifetime for him. The film has gained momentum, described as a heady introduction to one of the greatest writers of the 20th century the biography has been woven seamlessly with some of his greatest literary works. Another review talks about Nawaz’s astounding transformation into the character where he hurls Manto’s talent, wit, self-destructiveness and tragic gravity at the world like a punch in the stomach much like the impact of the stories Manto wrote himself.
So, now with what promises to be an exciting festival playing host to not one but two compelling, original Indian films, it’s perhaps time to pop that corn.