Indian film gave the world the delightfully distinctive song-and-dance spectacle of Bollywood, a cinematic signature that has won over audiences around the globe, both members of the Indian diaspora as well as those not of South Asian descent.
That said, a new crop of cineastes in Mumbai has begun pushing the envelope and putting an edgy, independent stamp on India's movie culture. They’re challenging the establishment by exploring darker topics and offering grittier portrayals, yet they’re still seeking the wide audiences of more commercial peers.
TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, a longtime programmer of films from the region, selected the 10 films for this year’s City to City program. He talked to CBC News about the exciting new wave of directors emerging out of Mumbai.
Q: What are you trying to showcase in this program?
A: There's a change happening in Mumbai right now … In the late '60s, when we had filmmakers like Arthur Penn and others challenge Hollywood [by] making movies like Bonnie and Clyde — that's what's happening in Mumbai right now. Or, if you think of people like John Salles and Spike Lee and the whole independent wave of New York filmmakers who came out in the late '70s and early '80s — that's this moment right now in Mumbai. So you have filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee who are challenging what the Bollywood studios are doing. But they're not just making pure arthouse movies, they want the big audiences as well. They just want [their] movies to have a little bit more grit, a little bit more edge than Bollywood movies typically would have.
Q: What's different in this new filmmaking wave?
A: You're seeing people take on genre films — gangster films, crime stories but crime stories with a little more punch … [These films have] no songs sometimes, which is a big revolution in terms of a lot of Indian commercial cinema. And they're taking on more political subjects, too. So if there's a crime story, sometimes there's a story of political corruption along with the crime, with cops or the legal system being implicated in the crimes that are committed. Films like Shahid that we have in the festival, or Peddlers are not just about bad guys and good guys, they're about that very murky world in between and I think that's also a new development in Indian cinema.
Q: So what's behind this shift in perspective?
A: Audiences in general in India are evolving. They're growing more international in their tastes. Satellite TV has brought in all kinds of movies from outside of the country … At the same time filmmakers are also coming out of film school [having seen] all kinds of films come out of all over the world. They're travelling to film festivals. The stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them are being influenced by what they're seeing coming out of North America or Europe or Latin America. So you have this more global sensibility on the part of the filmmakers and the audiences.
Q: What's the reception been for these newcomers in India so far?
A: There are still some people who want their old-style Bollywood movies with the five-song sequences and the intermission, the two-and-a-half, three-hour length — that's the classic Bollywood movie. It's just like how some people always want their classic Hollywood romantic comedies; they don't want too much change. But there is a younger audience that I think does wants to see something more interesting — or more varied anyhow — than what they've seen before.
Q: Have these newer directors had success at the box office?
A: Some of these films, like Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur, which was released in India recently, have done very well. Same with Shanghai, Dibakar Banerjee's new film. These filmmakers are reaching audiences, but sometimes they're a different audience or a younger audience than the old-school films.
Q: You've been a champion of Indian film in Toronto by bringing movies to TIFF. How do you think Canadians will react to this new wave from Mumbai?
A: We've got a very strong audience at the Toronto film festival for movies from India. There are obviously hundreds of thousands of people of Indian descent in the Toronto area. They know Indian cinema very well … They understand these evolutions and these changes that are happening in India and I think they'll want to see this new generation.
This is the first time that they've all been brought together — this new crop of filmmakers — in one place … so to see them as a group, I think, will be really interesting for the audience here.
(This interview has been edited and condensed)