The most prolific film-producing country in the world, India puts out well over 1,000 films annually, a number that includes the nationally distributed, hugely popular Hindustani All-India cinema (nicknamed “Bollywood” for the outlandish formula musicals that have gained minor cult status here), and regional filmmaking produced by and for the speakers of India's 1,600-plus dialects. It's this regional cinema – Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and others – that is the nut of UCLA's series “FilmIndia” and which speaks most succinctly for the country's inhabitants with an eloquence made all the more affecting by the fact that it issues from a nation of over 950 million.
With so many peoples sharing a history of colonization and appropriation, the constant push and pull of sectarian infighting, and a centuries-old system of caste, it's no surprise that the regional filmmaking of India is frequently grounded in issues of identity. It is a cinema that reflects a country perpetually redefining and asserting itself and, as a byproduct of the instability, taking and holding to heart what constants it can – the bonds of family and love, of endurance and a shared human experience. It is the embrace of these bonds, of course, that enfolds viewers who know little of the very foreign, very other Indian experience.
“Leaving one's home is nothing short of leaving one's life,” says an old man to his son in Jayaraaj's elegiac Journey to Wisdom. More emphatic than “There's no place like home” perhaps, but nonetheless a sentiment which anyone can understand. The crisis that Journey is built upon, however, is considerably less familiar: A rural family is torn between grief and duty when a grandfather promises his young grandson as a novice to the local temple. The family is modern enough to feel horrified about relinquishing their only boy – Grandfather thought they would be elated, as surely they would have decades earlier – but the hold of tradition is far stronger. “To each one his destiny,” a neighbor says by way of comfort, and, in that one phrase, expresses the strength in resignation that comes from a long time of struggle.
Forbearance permeates this series, and, excepting Mani Rathnam's loudly dramatic The Duo (which, of the group, hews closest to Bollywood conventions), there is a marked lack of fiery passions in the work. Not that emotions don't run high, it simply seems that these filmmakers see no need for hand-wringing when quiet expression will do. The preface to Santwana Bardoloi's The Flight is voiced over a soft blue image of a woman writing. “This is no history,” she intones. “I don't intend analyzing or critically examining religious customs or faith.” The film then proceeds to tell the wrenching story of three Brahmin widows in a manner that is at times nearly inscrutable, strangely detached and enthralling.
Waris Hussein's Sixth Happiness is in English, which may or may not account for why it seems the most thoughtful of the series. Adapted by Firdaus Kanga from his autobiographical novel, the film is narrated by Brit (played at all ages by Kanga himself), who is born with bones so brittle he's unable to walk or grow beyond the size of a 5-year-old – his ribs crack when he hiccups. With the sort of exquisite dialogue that could only be written by someone with too much time to sit alone turning words over, Brit details not only the ways in which his adoring, dotty Anglophilic mother and disappointed father embody the ever-changing face of India, but the ways in which India changes him. Unable to go out into the world, the country comes to him, personified by Brit's first lover, a beautiful college boy; by his deaf childhood friend; and by a rich, Oxford-educated woman who teaches Brit strength – each brings to Brit an element of India that he, in turn, subsumes as a part of himself. Brit knows that he and India mirror each other, that identity is a work in progress – he knows the meaning of growing pains. As he not unhappily notes in the film's closing, “I realize, we never stop breaking.”
FilmIndia screens at UCLA's James Bridges Theater, Thursday-Sunday, February 12-15. Call (310) 206-FILM for schedule and information.