At Cannes this year, an eclectic range of stories provided an enriching glimpse of mostly female-led Indian independent filmmaking. Will this be a flash in the pan?

Indian cinema bathed in a golden glow at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, garnering critical acclaim and finally receiving long overdue recognition. In a bumper year, there were a respectable number of Indian films and short films in various categories, including the restored Shyam Benegal classic Manthan (1976) that played in the Cannes Classics section. It’s fair to say that India, a country with one of the largest number of films produced in the world, finally got its due. It’s also a break from the festival’s own tradition, whose roster is predominantly a roll call of European, American and Asian (read Japanese and Korean) movies.

While what Indian showcased at Cannes was a cross-section of its cinematic talent, it is hardly what Indian mainstream consumes or produces. Nevertheless, these films — Santosh, Shameless, Sister Midnight, In Retreat and Girls will be Girls — were received warmly at the Croisette with Shameless’s lead star Anasuya Sengupta winning the best actress award in the Uncertain Regard section. FTII student Chidanand Naik won the short film award, Cannes’ La Cinef, for his short Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know.

With the competition section standout Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light sweeping people away for its portrayal of female friendships and winning the Grand Prix, the Indian films this year were heavily female-led, featuring women-centric themes. A few of them are made by women — Santosh, directed by Sandhya Suri in Uncertain Regard, and Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls screened outside the festival sections.

Curiously, almost all these films are produced internationally, while outsiders directed films like Sister Midnight (British Indian Karan Kandhari), Santosh (another British Indian Sandhya Suri), and Shameless (by the Bulgarian director Konstantin Bojanov). This vision of outsiders (some with Indian roots) peering into an India of their imagination partially worked, especially in Santosh — a tautly written social realist drama. In Retreat’s Mehsam Ali is a Ladakhi filmmaker born in Iran whose meandering meditation of a Ladakhi man revisiting his town played at the Acid sidebar section.

Two heavyweights, two diverse roles

In Sandhya Suri’s Santosh, the eponymous, recently widowed lead played by Shahana Goswami, gets an insider look into the inner workings of police force in the hinterlands of India. The force is bigoted and heavily prejudiced towards the Muslim community — even Santosh believes her husband was hit by a stone to death by a Muslim rioter. The first half of the film is peppered with ominous signs of the narrative’s direction — prejudices are reinforced as Santosh slides into a reality created for her by her colleagues.

But Suri’s exceptionally empathetic script was only setting the viewer up for the big reveal — the complexities of the human psyche. Santosh realises that in her journey of vigilante justice disguised as law enforcement, she has travelled one step too far and there may be no turning back from it. Goswami’s satisfying performance is one of the highlights of the film, proving she is one of the silent superstars of Indian indie films.

Yet another heavyweight, Radhika Apte headlines Sister Midnight, where she plays the role of a foul-mouthed newlywed who moves to a Mumbai chawl from her village to live with her husband. Karan Kandhari’s film starts off as a commentary on patriarchy that sees women as commodities who needed to be traded off into marriage for family honour. Apte’s Uma is the rebellious village girl who can’t cook or clean and finds herself imprisoned in a bizarrely sexless marriage with Gopal (Ashok Pathak). When Uma lands herself on her feet, learning to navigate the big city on her own, she manages to find a nightly janitorial job.

This satire doesn’t keep up its initial promise for too long and derails quickly and devolves into a genre-bending caper combining horror, action and comedy with discordant background music — a blend of Kamai (Cambodian) ballads and American blues. Kandhari’s direction oscillates between sanguine earnestness and facetious belligerence of Uma’s character portrayal and doesn’t always land. But Apte and Chhaya Kadam (who plays her neighbour Sheetal) make it worthwhile.

Shameless and the politics of queer films

A somewhat similar fate haunts Konstantin Bojanov’s Shameless — a lesbian tale between a sex worker and a daughter of a devadasi. Setting aside the obvious red flags of a European director helming a lesbian film set in India — a topic that needs nuance, empathy, and would have benefited from script consultations with queer experts in the country — Shameless plays out like a middling Bollywood drama. Except Anasuya Sengupta, who plays the slightly older sex worker, gives it her all — little wonder, she won the best actress award.

In contrast to Sister Midnight’s chaotic energy and Shameless’s lowkey exploitation of queer topics, Mehsam Ali’s In Retreat is a quiet meditation that takes its time to unspool and patiently delivers a deeply involved tale about what it means to belong. It plays out in the alleyways of Leh, features conflicts in its migrant communities, the personal turmoil of locals, and even a Ladakhi wedding. It’s a moving portrait of a region and people’s lives in transition, while its lead is undergoing one of his own. In Retreat is like a meditative poem that takes time to comprehend but it is soulful to appreciate all the same.

At Cannes this year, an eclectic range of stories with kaleidoscopic narratives provided an enriching glimpse of mostly female-led Indian independent filmmaking. The only question remained to ask is — will this be a flash in the pan or a recurring phenomenon?

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