Not Just Bollywood introduces audiences to distinctive characters in the ‘real India’ unlike the ‘make believe’ of many Bollywood films. Films in the season take us on journeys across time and space, especially in the opening Elements trilogy by Deepa Mehta. First she shows us a wedding visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra before returning to contemporary Delhi in 1996 in Fire. Then Earth takes us north-west to Lahore in Punjab at the time of Partition in 1947. Finally Water goes back south-east to the 1930s in Benares (Varanasi). But you might notice that the palm trees and other lush vegetation look ‘exotic’ in North Central India. This is because political and religious protests about the film’s story forced Mehta to abandon production in Varanasi and re-locate to Sri Lanka.
Moving south-west from Varansi to the state of Madyha Pradesh finds us in the city of Bhopal for Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha. Four women each explore different aspects of what it means to be a ‘New Woman’ in contemporary India, attempting to make their own choices about personal identity, education and employment, marriage and family life. These are important issues in towns and cities everywhere in India and not just in Mumbai and Delhi or the other big ‘metro’ cities.
Moving back east, Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj is precisely set around New Year in 1979 in the unusual forest community of Anglo-Indians in McCluskiegunj, then part of the state of Bihar and a holiday destination for visitors from Calcutta. The sophisticated English-speaking people from the city will arrive by car and will come across the local adavasi or ‘tribal people’ in the forest.
We travel west again to Mumbai for Rohena Gera’s Sir. The film’s setting is mainly the upper middle-class world of the modern global city, but we also learn about the background of a personal servant, a migrant from the hinterland of Maharashtra. We see her village in the mountains and her journey to the city involving a pillion seat on a motorbike, a communal taxi, a bus and finally a train into the city. This is a journey millions of migrants have made across India.
The final two films both begin in Mumbai but then take us to contrasting locations at opposite ends of the sub-continent. In Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau in Search of Silence, the central character can no longer bear the noise of the city and he sets out to find the mythical ‘Silent Valley’ in the Himalayas. His train journey will take over 30 hours to reach Jammu Tawi in Kashmir and from there various buses will take him deep into Ladakh, as far north as it’s possible to go in India.
In Anu Menon’s Waiting, the direction of travel is south and the young female protagonist will fly to the coastal city of Konchi (Cochin) in Kerala. Like the Himalayas, Kerala offers beautiful landscapes often used by popular Indian films, but the state also offers a different kind of modernity to that of Mumbai, one which nurtures intellectual traditions and the importance of medicine and education.
Roy Stafford, 2/9/2019
Roy Stafford is a freelance lecturer and writer based in West Yorkshire, working in film education with independent cinemas. Roy has taught film in further, higher and adult education in the UK. He is co-author of The Media Student’s Book (5th edition, 2010) and has written widely on film including Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry (2007) and study guides on La Haine (2000) and Seven Samurai (2001). His most recent publication is The Global Film Book (2014). He writes regularly for his film site: ‘The Case for Global Film‘