SBS Film talks with festival director Mitu Bhowmick Lange and the filmmakers whose work will debut on our shores.
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9 Mar 2011 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

The 2011 Indian Film Festival (IFF) is one of the year's best opportunities to view Indian cinema in Australia and New Zealand. For festival director Mitu Bhowmick Lange, IFF is a “showcase of India” with a range of films on offer that includes regional language gems, Bollywood blockbusters and films that present something innovative and new in the ever changing, and always complex, Indian film industry. Of the diverse selection of 30 films, more than half are Australian and New Zealand premieres, some with filmmakers in attendance. Many of the films are rare opportunities to see premier examples of the diverse slate that comprises the Indian film industry.

There are three strands that make up the IFF 2011 program: Hurrah Bollywood, Beyond Bollywood, and the Vidya Retrospective. The first is compiled with films that we have grown to expect (and love), straight from the all-singing, all dancing extravaganzas of Bollywood – or, as Amir Khan reminded us when he visited in 2010, “Hindi-language cinema”. In this strand, you can catch films that may have slipped by when they were released theatrically. They include the surprise hit of 2010, Maneesh Sharma's debut, Band Baaja Baraat, a film that represents the next generation of the Yash Raj brand. This romantic comedy follows the engaging exploits of two twenty-something Delhiite graduates, the practical and determined Shruti (Anushka Sharma) and the resourceful Bittoo (Ranveer Singh). Both deliver star turns as wedding planners, and Singh won numerous notable Indian films awards (including the Filmfare, Stardust and Zee Cine Awards) for his portrayal.

In the past year, no film has done bigger business than the Salman Khan vehicle, Dabaang, another feature of the strand. The action film is Abhinav Kashyap's first as director, ditto Arbaaz Khan's as producer and Sonakshi Sinha's as a female lead. Sinha's success in Dabaang mirrored Ranveer Singh, and was lauded with accolades. Dabaang itself was the highest grossing film of the year and one of the most commercially successful Hindi-language films of all time. It stars one of the most popular stars of Indian cinema, Khan, as Chulbul Pandey, a police officer who sees himself as a self-styled Robin Hood but proves he is not beyond corruption, by keeping the spoils. Chalbul is in love with Rajo (Sonakshi Sinha) while his stepbrother Makkhi (Arbaaz Khan, Salman's real-life brother) is in love with Nirmala (Mahi Gill). Dabaang opens the Melbourne leg of IFFF 2011 with the producers and star of the film – Arbaaz and Malaika Khan –– in attendance.

Most of the Australian and New Zealand premieres of IFF 2011 are in the Beyond Bollywood strand. Titles in this section range in languages and styles, and include films in Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi and English. Part of this list includes the critically acclaimed I Am, the latest film from independent practitioner, Onir.

Yet to be released in India, I Am is structured as four interwoven stories – I Am Omar, I Am Megha, I Am Abhimanyu and I Am Afia – with the characters moving between the multiple narratives. The director cites The Gitanjali by Nobel laureate and Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore as inspiration.

“The stories reflect contemporary conflicts in modern India,” Onir says via phone from Mumbai. “They are each about dignity and self-respect without fear being because of political, personal, gender or sexuality.”

I Am is particularly noteworthy for its singular genesis: in the spirit of independence, Onir and his team reached out to the public via social networking sites to secure production funding. The director had initially expected to seek funding via a conventional route, but he eventually decided “not to go through the heartbreak.” His business partner suggested they seek funds from different sources. The result was what Onir calls “an experiment on Facebook.” More than 400 people in 45 cities across the world contributed money and volunteered their time and services towards the production of the film. The director was able to move from concept to shooting in one-and-a-half months on a film that didn't boast an A-list cast. The director says the experimental financing process was both humbling and liberating. “I am very proud to have so much trust from people I don't even know. The biggest challenge now is returning everybody's money. I have to prove that this system can work.”

I Am features figures prominent in the parallel cinema culture; Juhi Chawala, who has appeared in Onir's previous work, also assumes the role of producer, and Anurag Kashyap and Anurag Basu, two of India's most respected, non-mainstream Hindi-language filmmakers, have roles in the film. Onir and producer/star Juhi Chawala will both be in attendance at IFF 2011.

Fans of the 1999 film, East Is East can look forward to the Australian premiere of the sequel, West Is West at IFF. Despite the worldwide success of the first film, West Is West very nearly didn't happen. “The perceived notion about sequels is that they are disappointing,” says producer Leslee Udwin via telephone from continental Europe.“It's why Ayub Khan-Din, my wonderful writer, was so reticent to do the sequel. It took me five years to convince him”.

West Is West is a standalone film that also happens to be a sequel,” Udwin explains. “It reaches parts that East is East doesn't, both geographically and emotionally.”

She says the bridge between the two films is their shared “characters and sensibilities”.

West Is West returns to Manchester in 1975, five years after the close of East Is East. Sajid, now 14 and played by newcomer, Aqib Khan, is the last child left in the family home of first generation Pakistani, George Khan (played by the legendary Indian actor, Om Puri) and his English wife, Ella (Linda Bassett). Furious by what he perceives to be Sajid's ignorance about Pakistan, and overwhelming adolescent malaise, George sends him to his 'other' family in Punjab – his first wife and their two daughters, who he abandoned over 30 years ago. “We think it's a film about Sajid's coming of age, but what we find is that his father is the one who needs to come of age,” Udwin says., “When George returns, bearing gifts, 'the King of England returned' as it were, the Pakistan he comes back to is not the Pakistan of his rose-tinted view. It is a place that is teeming with prejudice against what he did, and he returns to a very neglected, angry wife and daughters. He has to make the journey of understanding where he has gone wrong and he repents.”

The film unites the original cast with a number of stellar Indian actors, but when asked to nominate a standout, Udwin singles out the performance by popular Rajasthani playback singer and actress, Ila Arun as Basheera Khan. “[Arun's performance] just breaks the heart. It is so beautiful, so finely judged and so moving, and also George (Om Puri). He expresses shame. This is the tyrant from East is East who we saw as so completely intransigent and selfish and unsympathetic. Suddenly we are weeping for him in this film.” Udwin is a guest of the festival.

The final strand, and the one to get fan's hearts racing collectively, is the Vidya Retrospective, which highlights the work of actress, Vidya Balan. The dual appearances of Rani Mukerjee at IFF 2010 and Aamir Khan at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival gave Australian audiences a taste of the rock-star reception awarded to top-tier Indian film stars. This year will be no exception as the focus shifts to Balan, known as a Bollywood star who takes risks.

Since Balan's debut in Pardeep Sakar's 2005 reworking of the Bengali love story, Parineeta opposite Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt which garnered her numerous awards including Filmfare Best Female Debut and Face of the Year, the actress has worked with lauded directors such as Rajkumar Hirani in Raho Munna Bhai (2006), again opposite Sanjay Dutt, and Mani Ratnam in Guru (2007) alongside superstar couple Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan.

Balan is an anomaly in mainstream Indian cinema in that she regularly tackles complex, unglamorous, and unconventional roles. Recently, Balan has been rewarded for star turns in R. Balki and Ricky Sandhu's Paa (2009) in which she plays the mother of Auro (Amitabh Bhachan), a 13-year-old boy who suffers from a rare genetic defect that causes accelerated aging. The film, which owes a debt to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, secured Balan's place as a contemporary screen icon. She won the 2010 Filmfare Best Actress Award, Star Screen Best Actress Award and the Best Actress Award (shared with Kareena Kapoor) at the International Indian Film Academy Awards amongst others. Next up for Balan was Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya (2010), a film that again provided her an opportunity to play a less than conventional heroine and showcase her talent, this time as the widow of a kidnapper. Balan was lavishly awarded for this role, winning numerous best actress awards for the second consecutive year.

Raj Kumar Gupta's No One Killed Jessica (2011, pictured), which opens the festival in Sydney and Melbourne with Balan and Gupta in attendance, is based on the real life case of the murder of Jessica Lall, a young woman senselessly killed by the son of a politician at a nightclub in New Delhi. Balan plays the elder sister of Jessica, Sabrina Lall, a young woman who commits her life to seeking justice for her kin. In what is a notably female-centric cast, the film also stars Rani Mukerjee as the singularly sharp reporter Meera Gaity whose interest in the case elevates its publicity nationwide. Says festival director, Bhowmick Lange “Vidya Balan is a mainstream commercial actress who represents the changing face of women in Bollywood. All characters she has played are gutsy, beautiful, ambitious and strong. She is the perfect pick for our festival.”

Read our reviews of Indian Film Festival films:

Band Baaja Baaraat

Dhobi Ghat

Guzaarish

Parineeta

Robot

The 2011 Indian Film Festival runs in Australia and New Zealand throughout March.