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IFFR 2023: filming India on the brink

At the International Film Festival Rotterdam, a handful of Indian films looked at the changes in the country today

A still from Harshad Nalawade’s  ‘Follower’
A still from Harshad Nalawade’s ‘Follower’

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Indian cinema was in the spotlight at the recent International Film Festival Rotterdam, with over 30 titles presented at the two-week event. The majority of these were part of a special non-competitive section titled “The Shape of Things to Come?”, curated by Stefan Borsos, which sought to explore the question: “Is the institutional success of right-wing Hindu-nationalist groups and the persecution of dissenting voices a sign for the shape of things to come—and not only in India?”

The formally eclectic programme showcased acclaimed fiction features, documentaries, experimental YouTube videos and Bollywood productions alongside a lecture and a panel discussion. The political ascent of Hindutva was the dominant theme of the curation, with a number of films delving into the ideological and operational aspects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Many of the works dealt with particular events—the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Godhra riots, anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, covid-19 lockdown—while some others evoked the atmosphere of fear and disillusionment prevalent at different times and places in the country over the last 30 years. A notable subset of films trained their lens on the phenomenon of radicalisation and the role digital media has played in exacerbating it.

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Harshad Nalawade’s smart, sympathetic drama Follower confronts the issue of radicalisation head on but remaps it along linguistic lines. The film takes place in the border town of Belgaum, which has long been a bone of contention between Kannada and Marathi chauvinists. Raghu is an activist at an online media outlet affiliated with a Marathi political party. When his inflammatory posts result in tragedy, we are taken back in time to understand how a decent, kind young man came to be an internet thug.

The younger Raghu is close friends with Sachin, a successful Kannadiga YouTuber, and Parveen, a single mother he has feelings for. Seemingly immune to language wars, the three friends converse in a mixture of tongues and are at ease with their differences. Yet, at various moments, Raghu is shown his place by those around him. These everyday frustrations snowball into a psychic assault on Raghu.

Anurag Kashyap’s short film, Four Slippers, affirms Follower’s diagnosis but its subject is the personal cost of radicalisation. Written by Varun Grover, it’s divided into four chapters wittily modelled on the four ashramas of Hindu life. In the first episode, set in Varanasi in the 1970s, a boy named Rajat is caught fantasising in class and humiliated by a sadistic schoolmaster. This brutal repression marks the young man for good, catapulting him into a life of progressive social and emotional isolation that comes to an ironic end some 20 years from now. Despite its coolly analytical approach that obliges the viewer to observe Rajat rather than identify with him, Four Slippers manages to convey the tragedy of a sensitive individual lost to hatred and communal polarisation.

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A still from Avijit Mukul Kishore’s  ‘An Election Diary’
A still from Avijit Mukul Kishore’s ‘An Election Diary’

How has the telecom revolution of the past decade changed the shape of Indian democracy? Avijit Mukul Kishore’s short documentary, An Election Diary, considers this question against the backdrop of the 2019 general election. Confining itself to the suburban constituency of Phulpur in Prayagraj, the film examines the efforts of the BJP in reaching out to voters through targeted campaigns and bringing them to the booth on election day.

Made as part of a research project for Germany’s University of Göttingen, An Election Diary furnishes no voice-over commentary, nor does it place its material within a national context. What we get is a highly local mixture of street interviews, kitschy YouTube clips and revealing IT-cell meetings. The cadres, organised into niche social media units responsible for particular tasks, discuss the strategy of using smartphones to rally voters. Their campaign consistently foregrounds the personality of Narendra Modi, whose shining image is used to gloss over the constituency’s infrastructural issues. So, digital media becomes a veritable simulacrum replacing reality.

Smartphones and social media enjoy only a marginal presence in Varun Chopra’s Holy Cowboys. Set in Vapi in Gujarat, Chopra’s loosely fictionalised documentary attempts to trace a classic pathway to radicalisation. Gopal, a teenager who works at a packaging plant, comes across a calf feeding on the kind of plastic bags he produces at work. He takes the stray animal to a cow shelter. He becomes a regular visitor and is soon caught up in the outfit’s vigilante operations.

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Narrated like a coming-of-age tale with moody music, Holy Cowboys devotes significant time to Gopal’s interactions with his teenage peers. We don’t get to know what the boy thinks of the organisation’s activities but it is apparent that his attraction to it originates from the camaraderie and sense of community it offers—an empowerment sorely missing in his daily life. In shining a light on the weaponisation of compassion, Chopra’s film agrees with Follower and Four Slippers that forces of radicalisation feed on deep-seated human issues, offering hatred as a coping mechanism. Illness masquerading as cure.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a Bengaluru-based film critic.

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