IFFI 2021 reflected the growing appeal of India’s highly accomplished regional cinema

The 52nd edition of the festival showcased 24 feature and 20 non-feature films made in regional languages from across the country

One evening, about 10 years ago, filmmaker Biswajeet Bora was surfing channels on his television set when he stumbled upon a news report about a dilapidated government school in Assam. The school lacked sufficient benches, toilets, and teachers. During the monsoons, the school’s only pupil had to wade across the river or take a boat. “I felt bad thinking about our education system,” Bora says, “and the story stayed with me.”

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This November, after several failed efforts to raise funds, Bora screened his film Boomba Ride at the 52nd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Panaji, Goa. The Mishing language film was shot with non-professional actors in Golaghat, Assam, Bora’s hometown. “I wanted to give the film the right local flavour,” says Bora.

Boomba Ride revolves around Boomba, a mischievous Mishing boy negotiating his attachment to education and love for his local government school, where he is the only pupil. Boomba recognises that the school and its three staff depend on his attendance for their wages, and he leverages his power by determining when he will attend (when it suits him), what he will eat there (country chicken), and how he will be spoken to (with a certain reverence).

A still from Mishing film ‘Boomba Ride’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

Occasionally, when government authorities come to inspect, Boomba organises — for a quick bribe — a peer group from the village to fill up the otherwise empty classroom. This sharp comedy captures the wretched state of rural education in Assam and how tutors and administrators navigate the bureaucracy to siphon funds for their own wages and welfare.

IFFI 2021, the 52nd edition of the festival, showcased 24 feature and 20 non-feature films made in regional languages from across the country. Some of these languages, such as Dimasa (Semkhor), Mishing (Boomba Ride) or Garhwali (Sunpat), have never before been screened in the festival’s 70-year history. Many of the films — Witch (Santali) or Sijou (Bodo) — herald their region’s political and social landscape for a nationwide audience.

Sunpat, for example, is a 35-minute Garhwali film about a friendship between two school-going children told against the backdrop of Uttarakhand’s abandoned villages, emptied out by waves of migration to the cities. Set in the mountainous terrain of the State, the film follows the lives of two children as they explore the decaying villages: the locked doors, broken walls, the fallow land, and the emptiness that echoes in the hills. “This movie reflects the State, its traditions and culture, and language is integral to that,” says Rahul Rawat, Sunpat’s director. He asks if he can explain the meaning of Sunpat to me. “Because the title is very important,” he says. “Think about the silence one experiences after a wedding when family and friends have gone away. It’s not just quiet, there’s an emptiness. That’s what Sunpat is.”

A still from Garhwali film ‘Sunpat’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

In recent years, Assamese, Bengali, Malayalam, Marathi, and Tamil films have overshadowed Hindi films in their ability to depict the contemporary fault lines in society of gender, religion, and caste. Tamil movies such as Pariyerum Perumal powerfully chronicle caste in every aspect of the lives of Dalits. Movies such as Kabali and Kaala have been led by Dalit protagonists, quite an anomaly in mainstream Indian cinema. In Malayalam, The Great Indian Kitchen peels away layer-by-layer the systemic disempowerment of women in a benignly patriarchal household.

According to film historian S. Theodore Baskaran, regional films have always held the moral high ground in India. One reason, says Baskaran, is that Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam films each depict a homogeneous culture and are, therefore, better able to reflect local sensibilities. “Whereas Hindi cinema is pan-Indian, and has no separate cultural history,” he points out. Although, historically, several socially relevant films have been produced in Hindi, there have been many more made in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.

A still from Tamil film ‘Pariyerum Perumal’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

Up until the late 1920s, filmmakers in India did not have to worry about language. Films were silent with accompanying subtitles that were often read out aloud in theatres by those who could read to those who couldn’t. The advent of sound, accompanied by the question of language, caused tremendous disruption in the industry, suddenly requiring a new set of skills, expensive equipment, and facilities that were in short supply. In fact, at this time, several film production units, unable to cope, quietly wound up.

But for those producers who had built sound studios in the early 1930s, trepidation soon gave way to optimism and profits. In 1933, 75 Hindi features were released, with regional cinema produced in Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Tamil growing simultaneously. More to the point, films in vernacular tongues gave producers a specific demarcated market and a protective cover from foreign filmmakers that they had not earlier anticipated.

A still from Malayalam film ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

Regional platforms

Ninety years later, new homegrown OTT platforms are adopting marketing models to develop a similar protective cover against major international platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, and Prime Video. Each regional platform caters to a specific vernacular audience: Aha (Telugu), Reeldrama (Assamese), LetsFlix (Bhojpuri), Planet Marathi (Marathi), Koode and Neestream (Malayalam) and CityShor (Gujarati).

Reeldrama has about 60 films, a few television shows, music programmes, and cartoons; all of it in Assamese. “People in Assam have limited opportunities to watch local films,” says Sumit Dasgupta, director of Reeldrama. “There are only a few theatres, and even if local movies are screened there, they are likely to be replaced as soon as a new Hindi or English film is released.” Even in the OTT world, Prime Video, Netflix and Hotstar have larger resources to produce and secure premium regional cinema. Sometimes, for the smaller players, this means adapting and carving out a unique space in the market, often outside the world of cinema.

Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, founder and CEO of Koode, is scouting for new talent for his platform, and points out that there’s a niche between the likes of Netflix on one end and YouTube on the other that they would like to occupy. “How can I get a popular YouTube creator making 30-second or one-minute videos to create a mini-web series,” asks Ramachandran. Koode is now invested in building a video game platform for Malayali audiences.

Fans click groupfies as they wait to watch ‘Bahubali 2: The Conclusion’ in Bengaluru, 2017. | Photo Credit: PTI

If one director from regional cinema stands out in India, it is, of course, Satyajit Ray. This year, to honour Ray’s 100th birth anniversary, IFFI renamed its Lifetime Achievement Award as the Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award, an annual prize for excellence in cinema. It was Ray’s Bengali films, particularly The Apu Trilogy, that first spotlighted Indian cinema for the West. His films may not have been the first to win foreign festival recognition, but they were the first films to have successful commercial streaks on every continent. Arthur Knight, a film historian had said then, “After India’s Satyajit Ray won top honours at Cannes… and at Venice… it suddenly became impossible to ignore completely the Indian film industry any longer.”

In those years, film rolls were transported by ship in the cargo hold, along with groceries and other supplies. “Aan was the first Indian film to be played in the Netherlands in 1958,” says Sanderien Verstappen, a visual anthropologist at the University of Vienna. “The film rolls were transported first from India to England, then from England to Trinidad, then from Trinidad to Guyana, then from Guyana to Suriname, and then from Suriname, finally, they were imported to the Netherlands.”

Nearly five decades later, Verstappen remembers families with South Asian roots thronging DVD parlours in The Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands. “Every weekend at these video stores, you saw families coming in and finding out what is new, what are the hottest, biggest hits. It was a very lively scene,” says Verstappen. “These were primarily Indian communities from Suriname who had come to the Netherlands in the 1970s.”

A still from Dimasa film ‘Semkhor’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

In many ways, the OTT movement is a throwback to the age of Indian video stores lodged in the backstreets of Indian diaspora neighbourhoods. “Over 20 years ago, you could buy DVDs and show the films in homes, colleges and in clubs,” says Baskaran. “After that, OTT is the next big thing.”

The great DVD scene — once the main route for Indian communities to access pirated movies — died out with the advent of torrent services, online streaming channels, and smartphones, which made it much easier to download and watch films from around the world. Indian migrants could once access films via USB drives through their social networks or even at mobile phone shops, or by downloading from Torrent, RARBG or similar services, which were soon brought into tight legal nets, which then gave way to a more affluent diaspora in the Gulf, Singapore or the U.S. subscribing via credit cards to Netflix, Prime Video, or YuppTV.

Different tastes

“Regional cinema was always rather ‘regional’ in its viewership,” says Michiel Baas, author of Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class. “Beyond Rajinikanth movies, regional movies catered primarily to their own native speakers.” But this is changing. Regional cinema, in part facilitated by the online streaming boom, and in part by larger budgets, has further enhanced its appeal among various diaspora communities. “Bollywood was always the industry standard but now across the world, people watch movies like Bahubali,” says Baas.

In the coming weeks, Koode will be launched in West Asia. No film rolls will be transported by ship. Instead, Koode hopes to partner with major telecommunication firms and, through their networks, offer subscriptions to potential viewers. The Gulf is home to over two million Malayali migrants, but Ramachandran expects his audience in the Gulf to be different to those back home. The typical digital audience in India is primarily 19- to 30-year-olds,” says Ramachandran, “but markets such as Qatar and the UAE are likely to be older, with different tastes.”

A still from Marathi film ‘Godavari’. | Photo Credit: Special Arranagement

This expanding universe for regional cinema was mirrored in this year’s IFFI curation, which saw also for the first time the participation of streaming video platforms Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee5, Voot and SonyLIV. Aptly enough, Jitendra Joshi, famous as constable Katekar in the Netflix series Sacred Games, won best actor male for Nikhil Mahajan’s Marathi film Godavari.

There’s another way the word ‘regional’ resonates with me when I talk to the filmmakers. Although their films travel to festivals around the globe, these filmmakers are intimately connected to their hometowns and invariably want to change the places they come from. Says Rohit Rawat, producer of Sunpat: “One of the reasons we shot the film in Uttarakhand, in the local language, in the local spirit, is that we could motivate other filmmakers from the region.” Bora echoes this. “I believe it is about us creating awareness,” he says. “It’s up to society to take seriously the challenges faced by the poor and the marginalised. Otherwise, we cannot create a broader social change.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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