IFFK at 20: Classics of Indian cinema to be screened

iffk 2015Thiruvananthapuram: The upcoming 20th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) will feature screenings of films that occupy pride of place in the pantheon of Indian cinema.

The line-up in the ‘Restored classics’ category features the auteur works Kaagaz Ke Phool, Amma Ariyan, Oko Oori Katha, Mathilukal, Garam Hava and Jait Re Jait. Each film is a classic from an iconic filmmaker in near-absolute comprehension of his vision and command of his craft.

While the films differ in theme, milieu, and language, a stirring narrative and powerful parable is common to all. That their relevance has not dimmed either with age or across audiences speaks to both the timelessness and universality of their respective message.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Even among Guru Dutt’s oeuvre, Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) stands out not only because it was the first shot in cinemascope, but due to the eerie parallels to the master’s own life. The film follows the rise of a debutante into an acclaimed actress even as the director who discovers her sinks into obscurity.

Despite the film’s early commercial failure – its uncompromisingly bleak outlook failing to strike a chord with cinemagoers in the mood for escapist fare – and the damage to Dutt’s reputation as a ‘sure thing’ hit-maker, it is today regarded as one of the greatest Indian films ever made. Much of the credit goes to Dutt’s command of cinematic storytelling and Geeta Dutt’s renditions of S.D. Burman’s music compositions.

In 2002, a Sight & Sound critics and directors’ poll ranked Kaagaz Ke Phool among the Top 200 greatest films of all time.

Amma Ariyan (1986)

Filmmaker John Abraham’s avant-grade Malayalam classic Amma Ariyan (What I want my mother to know) is a complex film of incredible depth – both of vision and meaning. Underneath its many layers is the story of a recently deceased youth, whose friends travel to his mother’s village to inform her of the death of her only son.

Equal part reportage and revue and interweaving fact and fiction, it is a story not only of personal grief, but the tragedies of several mothers and several sons at a hugely turbulent time in Kerala’s history. Shot in documentary style with moving handheld camera, Abraham’s film – his last – was ‘crowd-funded’ by the villages it travels through. This was in keeping with his philosophy of ‘purely independent filmmaking’ without catering to market forces.

Winning a ‘Special Jury’ award at the 1987 National Film Awards, Amma Ariyan was the only south Indian feature to make the British Film Institute’s list of ‘Top 10 Indian Films’ of all time.

Oka Oori Katha (1977)

A liberal adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s story Kafan, Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oori Katha (The Marginal Ones) explores the dichotomous theme of the effects of oppression on its victims and its perpetrators.

Situated in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, the story initially follows two landless vagrants – a father and son who decide not to work after coming to the conclusion that their lives are an unending cycle of exploitation and humiliation at the hands of the landlord class.

That their claim to a moral higher ground withers as deprivation pushes them to depravity is Sen’s commentary on the dangers of irrational, rootless iconoclasm. The film condemns their exploitation without condoning their anger.

Mathilukal (1989)

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal (Walls) is based on Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novel of the same name. The film is set in the prison the literary giant and freedom fighter was sent to for writing against the British raj and follows the real-life love that bloomed between Basheer and Narayani, a female inmate.

Though Basheer (and the audience) never sees the woman he talks to daily since their respective enclosures are separated by a high wall, they exchange messages, gifts and eventually their hearts. After laying plans to rendezvous at the prison hospital, Basheer is unexpectedly released. He finds the freedom more bitter than sweet.

The film was well received upon screening at the Venice Film Festival, and won four awards at the National Film Awards in 1990.

Garam Hava (1973)

Based on an unpublished work of short fiction by Ismat Chughtai, M.S. Sathyu’s Urdu drama Garam Hava (Hot winds) deals with the trauma of the post-Partition period through its effects on a Muslim family in Agra. As the patriarch debates whether to move to Pakistan, his family is swept up by the titular scorching winds swirling in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

The film captures the oppressive atmosphere of communalism, intolerance and downright bigotry of the day. Despite the pain at being forced to sell their ancestral haveli and the downturn of their family businesses, the household struggles to keep its faith in the secular promise of New India.

Backed by Sathyu’s eye and a memorable score by Ustad Bahadur Khan, the National Award-winning film was at the front of a ‘new wave’ in Hindi Cinema. Being nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category and the Palme d’Or at Cannes cemented its landmark status.

Jait Re Jait (1977)

Though widely regarded as one of the greatest in the Marathi musical cinema tradition, Jabbar Patel’s Jait Re Jait (Win, Win) was a box-office bomb despite featuring stars Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil. Based on a book by G.N. Dandekar, the film is, at its core, a poignant story of love and loss.

It explores the lives and traditions of the ‘Thakar’ tribal society through a honey gatherer protagonist who is as obsessed with his drumming passion as he is with attaining personal peace. He finds a measure of this with a divorcee. They come to grief as he thoughtlessly chases his ‘white whale’.

The sensitive portrayal of life, its trials, victories and their costs is well served by Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s score brought to life by Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Usha Mangeshkar, among others. Despite winning a President’s Silver Medal at the National Film Awards, it is the immense popularity of its music that has elevated the film to classic status.

IFFK 2015, Kerala’s premier film festival, runs from December 4-11.

Previous ArticleNext Article