Death loomed large from the beginning. The official opening of the Cannes Film Festival was delayed by World War II. When it raised its curtain, it gave Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946) the Palme d’Or (then called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) for the Best Film, the only Indian film with that feat till date. The Zohra Segal and Kamini Kaushal-starrer film dwelled upon dialogues between two Indias (rich/high and poor/low), excesses of power, ecological hostility, disease and death. Some of these themes are touched upon in India’s only official selection (in the non-competitive Special Screening segment) at the festival this year, Shaunak Sen’s 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary All That Breathes, where two brothers give their all to save the “more than human” (black kites) that fall dead/wounded from toxic Delhi skies. And, one can’t help notice a recurring theme of death in some of India’s showcase at Cannes.
“Death is the only thing that makes living real,” says Pratham Khurana, 23, whose Whistling Woods’ diploma film Nauha is among 16 student films competing in La Cinef section (formerly Cinéfondation). Previously, FTII graduates Payal Kapadia (Afternoon Clouds, 2017; her documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing won the Oeil d’Or last year) and Ashmita Guha Neogi (CatDogwhich won the 2020 top prize in the category) represented India.
A chamber film, Nauha (Urdu for mourning/lamentation) is the story of caretaker Kishan (Azhar Khan) and his inconspicuous relationship with Babuji (Uday Chandra). The bedridden septuagenarian’s lack of a name is of import. The generic address “Babuji” establishes age and class. His US-based family is irrelevant, and so their faces/heads are cut out of the frame in the funeral scenes, when they come home. The realness of death, however, never dampens the unusual, childlike exchanges, over three days, between a cranky but mischievous oldie and his vexed, yet tender, caregiver.
The story is inspired from Khurana’s own experience with his friend’s father, who he took care of when the latter was on a manual ventilator, which appears in the film. “Mothers are different, they treat you like their own child, but you never develop a close relationship with your friend’s father. It’s always very practical. But in those moments, an emotional connection had developed between us,” says Khurana, who lost his aunt and mother at a young age. Questions that remained buried deep within, he’s trying to address through his films.
Set in Noida’s winter, though shot in Mumbai’s Mira Road during the pandemicthe essence of weather’s symbolism was what the Mumbai-based Delhi boy wanted to evoke in Nauha — winter and night signal of death — an epiphany he had while watching Shoojit Sircar’s October (2018). As a 13-year-old, Raanjhanaa (2013), and Dhanush’s final monologue voiceover where his dying character ponders over letting go, made him realise the importance of a writer and a director.
As the lens stays on Kishan’s face, in a poignant bonfire-at-night scene, we see his reactions to the two domestic workers dwelling upon Kishan’s future. The class divide, like death, gets treated with grace and gravitas. Was it a pandemic afterthought? “The film eventually comes across that way,” says Khurana, “but it came up during our pre-pandemic rehearsals, questions of what the migrant workers are feeling, what’s the feeling of being separated from their houses and, when push comes to shove , how everybody want to return home,” he says.
Marathi director Nikhil Mahajan’s compelling meditation on the acceptance of death, marks a chalk-and-cheese shift from his previous thrillers to family drama. Godavari — part of the Indian government’s six-film delegation at the marketplace, including R Madhavan’s Rocketry: The Nambi Effectwhich had its world premier there, Achal Mishra’s DhuinBiswajeet Bora’s Boomba RideShankar Srikumar’s Alpha Beta Gammaand Jayaraj’s Niraye Thathakalulla Maram (Tree Full of Parrots) — is a tribute to the late Marathi director Nishikant Kamath, who died in 2020.
Though not a biopic, certain aspects of Kamath’s life, like his anger and questions about his lack of faith in things, crept in when his close friend and the protagonist Jitendra Joshi was playing Nishikant Deshmukh: an irritable, explosive, unhappy man, who lacks faith in everything — his marriage, family, house, religion, the, but his quest to find faith begins when life’s about to give up on him.
The ’90s Mumbai blasts and communal tension form the backdrop of the work-in-progress project Starfruit, to be directed by Gourab Kumar Mullick and produced by Umesh Kulkarni. It’s selected, among 10 films, to pitch for funds, at La Fabrique, an Institut Français program associated with Cannes. Set in a Konkan coastal village, a transit for smuggling in RDX, foregrounded by the story of a gangster’s right-hand man, loved by another man. “Homosexuality is only an undertone, it is primarily inspired by Bhupen Khakhar‘s painting Yayati (1987), that dwells upon corporeality,” says Mullick. There’s heartbreak, and a death.
Bengali filmmaker Aneek Chaudhuri in his Pawan Chopra-starrer Hindi film, The Tale of a Santa and His Moth, a tale of a bisexual poor widower who goes to all lengths to fulfil a singular wish of his terminally-ill daughter: to eat almond cake on Christmas. The feature film — pitching at Marche du Film, where India is the country of honor — cogitates on death and how a war’s aftermath affect the developing nations, that “even the minutest of beings fulfill the needs of their loved ones before thinking of their own survival/sustenance,” says Chaudhuri.
Resurrected from the dead are two restored classics. Govindan Aravindan‘s Tamp (The Circus Tent1978), to have a Restoration World Premiere, and Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970), by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee for the National Film Archive of India (now under NFDC), respectively. Restoration, besides creating original work, is the best way of honoring the masters, not making photocopies of their classics in the name of paying homages. It’s a hard but necessary pill that contemporary Bengali filmmakers would do well to swallow, instead of invoking the legends and killing them all over again with substandard paeans.
If in Aravindan’s lyrical “location film”, a traveling circus on the banks of Bharathappuzha instills life and awe in a sleepy village, enthuse its near-dead souls, and takes a disillusioned youth away from his time-worn village, Ray’s unemployed youth of the ’70s , Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee) is indignant, about capitalism, Vietnam war, leaving his dead-inside-cacophonic-outside big city, and explodes at the end. The film starts and ends with a peculiar bird call, which has haunted him for the better part of his life, and death (his father’s and, later, of a stranger).
Death, however, is not a salable subject. “Pitching to producers was very difficult (the self-funded Godavariis being backed by Jio Studios now). Sayratfor example, is the highest-grossing Marathi filmbut if somebody says, ‘I’m going to take a guy and a girl from a village, and kill them at the end,’ nobody’s going to invest in you. Godavari is about a man who discovers the idea of death. Who’s going to put their money?” says Mahajan, who adds that he’d be happier the day his film is selected/competes at Cannes, “The current government is pushing cinema, at the world’s greatest film festival, it’s great, but is it the best thing? I don’t think so.”