Sinners and superstars
The ‘Made in India’ section at Canada’s HotDocs festival showcases fresh talent
These last couple of years have been fruitful ones for the Indian documentary. A number of local films have made the rounds of the global festival circuit and, unprecedentedly, found theatrical releases back home: Supermen Of Malegaon, Celluloid Man, Gulabi Gang, The World Before Her, Katiyabaaz. Many of these films were made by new directors, a trend that is reflected in the line-up for the “Made in India” section at the Toronto documentary festival HotDocs, which begins next week.
Of the six full-length films selected for the India focus, four are by first-time directors: Anuj Adlakha and Farha Alam’s Superstars Of Koti, Samarth Dixit and Jessica Sadana’s Prabhat Pheri, Saumyananda Sahi’s Small Things, Big Things and Abhay Kumar’s Placebo. Spandan Banerjee’s English India and Parvez Sharma’s Sinner In Mecca are the other full-length films; Udita Bhargava’s Imraan, c/o Carrom Club, Prita Chakraborthy’s Silent Voices and Hana Kitasei and Shriya Pilgaonkar’s Panchagavya) are the shorts that will be screened.
The country of origin may be the same, but the films differ dramatically in approach, philosophy and technique. The Superstars Of Koti follows a set of youngsters in a mountain town in Uttarakhand where a few chosen children are venerated as messengers of the local deity. Alam and Adlakha spent months getting their subjects used to the camera, which results in a raw intimacy and a Lord Of The Flies-like tension as the film progresses.
Over email, Alam says they would have “thought twice before applying if (HotDocs) didn’t have an India focus”. Describing the selection as a “big, big boost”, she says they were optimistic that this would open other doors for them.
Prabhat Pheri began as part of a documentary workshop. The idea was to make something on the ghosts that are said to haunt the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) campus; both studied there. They eventually concentrated on a different kind of ghost: the Prabhat Film Company, which existed from 1929-53 and was responsible for some of the great early Indian films.
Prabhat Pheri examines the legacy of the once-famous studio (whose grounds were later occupied by the FTII campus) from various angles—via film footage and photographs, eyewitness accounts, and through the prism of current events. The film had its premiere at the Berlinale last year. “I didn’t know how big HotDocs was until the film got selected,” Sadana says. “From Berlinale to this—we really couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Abhay Kumar’s unhinged-looking Placebo has already travelled to DocPoint, Helsinki, Finland, and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Set in “India’s most prestigious medical school”, the film investigates how students there are cracking under the immense stress of familial and academic expectations.
A Sinner In Mecca deals with similarly provocative material. The openly gay Sharma travelled to Saudi Arabia for the Haj, documenting his journey on an iPhone and two small cameras (street photography is outlawed in the country). English India, which looks at our relationship with the English language, will also show at the festival, as will Small Things, Big Things, about a primary school in rural Karnataka.
With limited slots on offer for documentary releases, it’s unlikely that many of these films will land up on Indian screens. Sadana, for one, says they are more optimistic about the option of paid online streaming than a theatrical release. Either way, a good showing at Toronto certainly wouldn’t hurt.