Cary Rajinder Sawhney has a double celebration up ahead. The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival founded by the seasoned British programmer will mark its tenth anniversary in late June. In addition, Sawhney has been selected to receive a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award, which Queen Elizabeth II bestows every year as a part of her birthday celebrations.
“I don’t think I realised just how big the festival would become – think big!” LIFF’s programming director said about the first of his achievements in an email interview. “It’s also been pretty cool that our audiences are now 40% non-South Asian with lots of people just coming to see quality world cinema.”
This year’s edition includes screenings of new and recent independent films and documentaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, classic titles and discussions with filmmakers. The festival will be inaugurated on June 20 in London with Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, which examines caste-based discrimination in rural India. Screenings will continue in cinemas in Birmingham and Manchester until July.
Among the 25 features in 11 languages are Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing, Jonathan Augustin’s The Lift Boy, Lenin M Sivam’s Roobha, Swarnavel Eswaran’s Kattumaram, Priya Ramusubban’s Chuskit, Rohena Gera’s Sir, Vasan Bala’s Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota, Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, Praveen Morchhale’s Widow of Silence, Arvind Kamat’s Arishadvarga, Shonajhurir Bhoot by Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen, Srijit Mukerji’s Vinci Da and Gaurav Bakshi’s Gadhvi. The sidebar events include conversations with Gurinder Chadha, Anurag Kashyap and Radhika Apte.
Screenings of classics include a 35mm print of Jean Renoir’s India-set The River, Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958) and Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar (1984). The Khandhar screening will commemorate Sen’s death on December 30, 2018.
Among the documentaries that will be shown are Anand Patwardhan’s Reason, about the rise and spread of intolerance in India, and Anjali Bhushan’s My Home India, about Polish refugees in India.
“We got lucky in that we saw the rise of Indian independent new wave cinema starting 10 years ago and grabbed a surf board as the wave of new films got bigger,” Sawhney said. “We were at the right place at the right time and championed mainstream film critics to watch our indie films convincing them that it wasn’t Bollywood.”
When the festival began a decade ago, its aims were both modest and ambitious: “to offer a quality international showcase and focus for Indian cinema, reflect the UK’s diverse Indian and South Asian community audience needs, celebrate emerging talent and great masters (including women)”,” Sawhney said. Indian filmmakers who did not always get noticed by some of the leading festivals, such as Cannes and Venice, were assured slots at LIFF, given its focus on the subcontinent.
“Cannes looks for a particular type of film, and this style isn’t always available in India, plus there are a whole other range of vagaries like world premiere status, which many Indian film companies can’t wait on,” Sawhney pointed out. “Other festivals are on the lookout for originality, well-structured and paced stories and often cool aesthetics. The truth is that many Indian films, even indie films, are just too long for Western tastes.”
In the process, alternative Indian films got the chances to be premiered beyond their shores, drawing the attention of potential sales agents and selectors. “I think programmer Naman Ramachandran and I both like to take risks programming wise, and for this reason we ended up with early hit premieres like Delhi Belly, Gandu, and LSD, which gave us an edgy different reputation from family film festivals,” recalled Sawhney, who had been an adviser on South Asian cinema for the BFI London Film Festival for 13 years. “I remember our early taglines were, ‘Don’t bring your granny!’ and ‘The Punk Rock of Indian film festivals’. Which, to some degree, we still are.”
The line-up at LIFF includes productions that march under the arthouse banner as well as mainstream films lumped under the catch-all “Bollywood” category. The Indian festival film doesn’t have an identifiable style or identity in the vein of its international counterparts. The sheer range of films made within the country can also pose challenges for international programmers looking for titles that properly represent the Indian alternative film tradition.
“India is, of course, a massive country with very old civilisations cheek-by-jowl with very new cultures,” Sawhney observed. “That massive diversity causes a myriad of voices, stories and sometimes, discordance. It would therefore be foolish to imagine that this country could produce one or even 10 cinemas.”