Every great film festival is like the fabled elephant being pawed by blind men, each of whom describes it differently. This year’s Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the seventh since 2002, feels especially elephantine, if not literally (25 short and feature programs over six days), then certainly in its implications. One unavoidable inference is how dramatically the once hard-and-fast boundaries between the Indian commercial cinema and its “parallel,” independent alternative have been eroded. Every other event here seems to be a crossover, in one direction or the other.
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Farhan Akhtar, a scion of Bollywood royalty, turns in a fine-grained performance as a fast-talking fixer who exploits the Orientalism of European art snobs in the festival’s opening-night presentation, Anand Surapur’s absorbing The Fakir of Venice, a surprisingly serious comedy in which a bogus holy man from Benares is installed as an exhibit in an Italian art gallery. Nandita Das, the acclaimed actress who makes a sure-footed directorial debut with Firaaq, employs crowd-pleasing narrative skills to weave together several human stories, even as she lectures us a about the lingering after effects of the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat. (The great Naseeruddin Shah gives a lovingly textured master-class performance as an aging Muslim musician.)
Judging by the evidence, there is no equivalent on the Indian indie scene of America’s self-consciously disheveled “mumblecore” movement; no compulsion to spurn professional polish in order to look serious. On the contrary, these alternative directors are enthusiastically pulled together, embracing both the technical flair and narrative cunning of the commercial sector. A standout example from the festival’s first week is Satish Manwar’s The Damned Rain, a neorealist excavation with a grim subject — an epidemic of suicides in a drought-ridden farming area — that is enriched by the use of that most maligned of Bollywood conventions, the “playback” song sequence, which comments on the action. (Sample lyric: “A farmer sows his life along with his seeds.”)
This openness to anything and everything that might enhance the expressiveness of a film, the utter absence of aesthetic squeamishness, is what some of us fell in love with when we discovered Bollywood. That these ideas are trickling down to all modes of moviemaking in India is splendid news.
(ArcLight Hollywood; Tues.-Sun., Apr. 21-26. www.indianfilmfestival.org)