India Today, on Thursday, released five short films as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations. These films have been directed by some of Bollywood’s best and what are considered “hatke" directors. This is no Bombay Talkies with commercial directors donning the indie film hat. The directors whom India Today has gathered are Pradeep Sarkar, Imtiaz Ali, Rohan Sippy, Hansal Mehta and Meghna Gulzar.
Short films are the new it thing in Bollywood, with stars and directors making them by the dozen. The USP of many of these shorts is that they star known actors like Raveena Tandon, Manoj Bajpai, Konkona Sen Sharma, Radhika Apte and so on. Which is one of the best parts of the India Today compilation of films. They have no stars cast in them and have to bank on their storyline to grab your attention.
The thought behind these five films, according to Kallie Purie’s accompanying note with them, is that India Today asked five Bollywood directors to “go small"—“small budget, small screen and small run time". The note also states that the films are less than three minutes in duration, but it seems only Pradeep Sarkar read that memo, because the other films are 5-10 minutes long. But yes, as Kallie Purie’s letter says, “They are short, sweet and lay bare the truth of India", although I hope for our sake not all of the films predict what is to come our way in #IndiaTomorrow.
The films range from the good, the middling to the slightly pretentious—but I have to say in today’s age of horrible news and even more wretched films, it’s almost relaxing to watch these short, tight films with a smidgen of a heart. The problem though with films with a social message or which are socially relevant is that they always run the fear of becoming a tad too preachy.
The first film, Others, is directed by Pradeep Sarkar and is the only one which sticks to the time limit. The film is about the improved life of transgenders in India and about the transgender who fought three court cases to become India’s first transgender sub-inspector. The casting is spot on and everyone looks their part and acts very well, without histrionics a la Sadak. But Sarkar’s undoing is that it’s way too preachy a film—like a public awareness ad by the government.
The second film, My Dream, is the one directed by Imtiaz Ali and in five minutes tries to deliver the message of independence—even for sex workers. While you get what Ali seems to be getting at, what jars in the film is that you don’t understand why the female protagonist suddenly becomes so aggressive and antagonistic at the end of the film, going by how helpful she was being barely a couple of minutes ago. It’s the perennial problem of trying to complete a film in less time than two hours—it becomes difficult to develop the arc of any character. Also, the storyline reminds me of the FRIENDS episode in which Phoebe says she had a massage client who offered her a job in Merrill Lynch because he felt she had a knack for stocks. I’m sincerely hoping Ali didn’t get his story idea from there. What’s lovely, though, are the images of Ali posing with a giggly and smiling bunch of sex workers at the end of the film. Just their joy and mirth is worth watching the film for.
I found the third film, Primetime, by Rohan Sippy the most fun because of two reasons. It’s about something we love to hate—the media. It’s a spoof on how editorial meetings take place and how social media and hashtags determine news. Actors Kunaal Roy Kapur and Anuvab Pal play the journalists who discuss the day’s news with an editor who has an air of Arnab Goswami about him. The film is about our inability to listen to others’ points of view while keeping on stressing our own, and how others are complicit in crime by keeping silent. Or maybe I’ve given it more meaning than it was meant to have. It’s funny, but could have been far tighter and features my current favourite song at the end.
The film which won me over totally and actually made me gasp out loud when I read the writer’s name, was Hansal Mehta’s Reach For The Stars. The film is written by Rohith Vemula, because it is a reading of the letter written by Vemula, the 26-year-old Dalit PhD scholar who committed suicide which led to protests across Hyderabad Central University and Smriti Irani offering to self-decapitate for Mayawati. The film is riveting for the manner in which it has been shot, in black and white, with just an actor reading out the letter Vemula wrote. The actor’s enunciation and delivery are simply brilliant. He’s the same actor who plays Kangana Ranaut’s obsessive new paramour in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. It’s one thing to read Vemula’s letter. It’s another to hear it read out. You also realise what a fine writer the young man was. Someone should really send this film to Smriti Irani to see if it touches any chord in her. I doubt it. But what’s the harm in trying? We should all watch it to remind ourselves of what a young, talented student went through and that he was owed seven months of his fellowship—a truly princely sum of ₹ 1,70,000. It is this film which makes you hope that this isn’t #IndiaTomorrow.
The last film is Meghna Gulzar’s India India. It’s a sweet little film about a young street-hawker. There must be barely two lines of dialogue in the film, but it still makes an impact mainly because of the choice of actor. It’s a perfect film for all who feel their god is more equal than others.
Like all anthologies, some films resonate more than others. And I’m guessing that the ones I liked may not be the ones others do. It’s definitely an interesting array of directors and stories. Each with their own tone and treatment—Sippy is more youthful, Sarkar more dramatic, Ali gritty, Mehta without artifice, and Gulzar displays a welcome sensitivity and lightness of touch. If you watch all the films in one go, it’s around a half hour’s watch. Time well spent definitely. What I do feel though after watching all the films is that they are not about #IndiaTomorrow. They are about today’s India, and I cannot understand why no one pointed out to Aroon Purie that naming the anthology #IndiaToday would actually have been the best branding exercise possible.
Watch the films—they aren’t all great, but it’s nice to see directors banking on their scripts, directorial ability and writers, rather than only on big actors. And to see a media house try something different for a change.