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The Indian Film Scene Diversifies, Even As Bollywood Dominates

<em>M Cream</em>, written and co-directed by Agneya Singh, won Best Feature Film at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Courtesy of the filmmaker
M Cream, written and co-directed by Agneya Singh, won Best Feature Film at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

A 14-year-old girl fights to escape the horrors of the sex trade. A young man from a dysfunctional criminal family dreams of escape, but falls victim to the corruption that surrounds him and his own predisposition for violence.

Those are the storylines of Lakshmi and Titli, two Indian films generating buzz and making the rounds at international film festivals – the latest are Vancouver and Chicago – and they are not your mother's Indian movies.

Bollywood, full of boy-meets-girl plots and elaborate dance numbers, has dominated the Indian film scene for so long that is has become synonymous with Indian culture. In a country of 1.2 billion people and 22 official languages, Bollywood cleverly meshes the music and film industries to create a single appealing product for its massive audience.

But over the past few years, independent Indian films have been gaining traction at film festivals worldwide. And most recently, a new generation of filmmakers are creating films with an aesthetic, and appeal, that's a far cry from the glitz and glamour of India's commercial films.

Agneya Singh is one such filmmaker. He's from New Delhi, and graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His first feature film, M Cream, premiered at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in early August, and won the Best Feature Film award. In it, four wealthy but disillusioned college students – rebels without a cause – go on the road in search of a mythical drug and to find something beyond their comfortable middle class existence.

Singh says he wanted to capture what many in his generation feel amidst the social and economic changes that India is going through. It's not something you often see reflected in mainstream Indian cinema.

"Bollywood entertains millions of people, but for me, personally, I couldn't really relate to the dreams and ideas in it. It's really based on escapism. And the fact of the matter is, we are living in turbulent times, and I think there's an audience in India, and internationally as well, that wants to see the more realistic aspects of what's happening in the country rather than the version of what we would like to believe."

Deepti DCunha is a film consultant from Mumbai, India, who works with both independent filmmakers and international film festivals. Over the past few years, she's seen a rise in films like Singh's that feature young protagonists going on a journey of self-discovery. And they're doing particularly well in American festivals.

"If you look at American films at film festivals around the world, a lot of them are about coming of age, self-discovery. That's a very American narrative. There's a generation of young people like this in India, well-educated and privileged, who may not relate to the person on the street — and they're expressing this in films. It's the search of identity in these independent movies — that's why it works," says DCunha.

The support and interest of the Indian diaspora have also helped increase the visibility of independent Indian films.

"When you immigrate somewhere, you take a little bit with you. There's a certain nostalgia about home for Indian immigrants, and their children, the second generation that grows up in America, want to explore their roots. So we've seen great responses because they can see a more realistic India," says DCunha.

But Bollywood, which churns out around 1000 movies a year — twice the number produced by Hollywood — still dominates the Indian film scene.

Aseem Chhabra is a freelance journalist and the director of the New York Indian Film Festival. The issue, he says, is that movie theaters can rely on commercial films with celebrity star power to consistently make money. But in big cities, multiplexes are beginning to show independent films in limited release, because "they're realizing there's an audience for it, people who are looking for something new, and then supporting independent cinema, which is very encouraging."

Chhabra points to The Lunchbox, which won the Viewer's Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and opened up a lot of new audiences for Indian cinema. And it did well in India, too, getting more distribution than any previous independent film.

Indian independent films are slowly beginning to carve out a niche, says Singh, and he's happy to be a part of it.

"I think a lot of independent filmmakers, we're trying to grapple with reality, and comment on it, explore it. It's a complicated country, a wonderful country, and the films that are coming out of it are incredibly dynamic right now – it's a reflection of what we're going through."

The next test? How Liar's Dice does at the Oscars.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amulya Shankar
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