Bollywood superstar and special guest Amitabh Bachchan headlines the most ambitious edition of the Indian Film Festival so far.
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29 Apr 2014 - 1:15 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

It took just 48 hours from when tickets went on sale for the opening night of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne for the event to sell out – Amitabh Bachchan can have that sort of impact. The legendary 71-year-old Indian actor, with a celebrated Bollywood career spanning more than four decades and a recent uptick in international interest thanks to a prominent role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is a special guest of the festival, which is screening a restored 3D conversion of his 1975 hit Sholay, long considered a classic of the Indian cinema, as the opening night attraction.

This is the third Indian Film Festival of Melbourne and it marks a clear escalation in both the scope of the associated events as well as the breadth of the scheduled program. What began in 2012 as a means of culturally recognising the city’s connection to India via a sizable student and expatriate community at a time when headlines were growing worrying in both countries has quickly evolved into a purposeful film festival with obvious ambitions.

Bachchan, for example, will also be appearing at one of several new initiatives for the 2014 program: the IFFM Awards. With a jury that mixes Indian cinematic luminaries (Rajkumar Jirani, Suhasini Maniratnam) with their Australian contemporaries (Phillip Noyce, Jill Bilcock), the inaugural awards to be presented at the Princess Theatre – including an IFFM International Screen Icon Award for Bachchan – are indicative of the thought that’s gone into growing the festival. There’s some pizzazz, but also some potency.

The Short Film Competition – entries are 10 minutes or less with the subject being ‘hope’ – has a fascinating pair of judges in the contradictory forms of filmmakers Paul Cox (Man of Flowers) and Vijay Krishna Acharya (Dhoom 3), while festival guests are not just providing the smiling pleasantries prior to their film’s sessions but also taking masterclasses. The respected actor Konkona Sen Sharma (Omkara, Wake Up Sid), twice a winner of India’s National Film Award, will explain the often under-appreciated diversity of Indian cinema in ‘Arthouse vs. Mainstream’, while the team behind Pakistan’s highest grossing film, writer/producer Hassan Waqas Rana and star Shaan Shahid, will use a Q&A to discuss the making of 2013’s Waar.

The latter is an example of a crucial programming strand that takes the form of ‘From the Subcontinent’, which places Sri Lankan, Pakistani and even a Nepalese release (Eelum Dixit’s love triangle Pailahuru) alongside a wide selection of mainstream Mumbai and challenging alternative titles from the busy Indian cinema.

If the program is now a little daunting in its denseness, here are five intriguing Indian Film Festival of Melbourne participants we’ve previewed in advance.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

(187 minutes, MA)
Festival guest Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s sporting biopic pursues the life of champion Indian 400 metre runner Milkha Singh, who as a child witnessed the death of family members during the shocking violence that marked the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 before competing for his newly independent homeland at Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Like the various Hollywood movies about 1970s American champion Steve Prefontaine, Farhan Akhtan’s ‘The Flying Sikh’ is a man who makes sense of the conflict around, and within, himself when he runs.

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

(153 minutes, M)
Inspired by one of the enduring cornerstones of romantic storytelling – William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s take on illicit love between the offspring of feuding clans is glossy and seductive; there’s no adolescent wispiness or melancholic longing to Ranveer Singh’s Ram or Deepika Padukone’s Leela, who grasp and gaze at each other with passionate fervour in a contemporary retelling relocated from Verona to the western Indian state of Gujurat. It’s a vivid melodrama, with a dominating supporting turn by Suprika Pathak as the powerful matriarch of Leela’s clan.

Lakshmi

(109 minutes, 18+)
From the valuable Beyond Bollywood programming strand comes Nagesh Kukunoor’s shockingly harsh true story of a 13-year-old girl, Lakshmi (Monali Thakur), sold into sex slavery at the hands of the exploitative but charismatic Chinna (writer/director Kukunoor). The teenage girl is repeatedly raped and abused, but refuses to yield, eventually having her day in court where she was able to deliver one of the first convictions for child prostitution in India. It’s a vital, confronting work, even if the subject matter almost gets away from the filmmaker at times.

Lootera

(136 minutes, M)
A period romance set in 1953, Vikramaditya Motwane’s opulent production sits in the lineage of lavish melodrama that’s been such a staple of Bollywood filmmaking, whatever the generation. The busy Ranveer Singh plays Varun, an archeologist arriving in aristocratic Bengal to excavate a temple who soon becomes involved, against his better judgment, with Sonakshi Sinha’s Pakhi. Set over two intense periods a year apart, the film has the requisite meet cute opening but also a naturalistic feel for establishing the two central characters.

Qissa

(109 minutes, 18+)
If you’re an IFFM attendee whose first act each year is to check for Irrfan Khan’s presence, then you’re in luck. This year he stars in Rotesh Batra’s affectionate romance The Lunchbox, as well as giving a raging but lucid performance as a fierce patriarch in Anup Singh’s historical drama. Khan plays Umber Singh, a Sikh father and husband who has to rebuild his family’s life after fleeing during Partition, but refuses to accept that he only has daughters, raising his youngest girl as a son in an act of defiance that has tragic consequences.

The Indian Film Festival of Melbourne runs from Thursday 1 to Tuesday 11 May. See www.iffm.com.au for full details.