River to River - Festival 2020

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 10 February 2021

River to River (RtoR) film festival was started by Selvaggia Velo in Florence (Italy) in 2001. It was the first festival entirely dedicated to Indian films held outside India. For many years, while living in Bologna, which is not far from Florence, I regularly visited this festival. Some years ago, we shifted to Schio, about 350 km to the north of Florence, so participating in this festival became difficult. However, the December 2020 edition of RtoR was held online due to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic. This gave me an opportunity watch some of the festival films.

River to River Indian Film Festival 2020 - Still Berlin to Bombay

My main interest was in watching documentary and short films in the festival. Thus, I watched only one full-length feature film - Kadakh. This post is to share a few impressions of the films which I liked in this festival.

Kadakh

Kadakh was the opening film of the festival, directed by Rajat Kapoor. It is a black comedy centred around a dead body in an upper middle class drawing room in Mumbai, which is full of guests for a Diwali party.

Sunil (Ranvir Shorey) is the owner of the house while the dead guy is Raghav, husband of his office colleague Chhaya, with whom he is having an affair. Raghav has discovered their affair and comes to talk to Sunil. He is trying to be mature about it, but continues to get too angry to control himself and shoots himself during a fit of rage. Soon Sunil's wife (Manasi Multani) comes back home and finds her husband with the corpse in their drawing room. He confesses his affair but there is no time to deal with the marital infidelity as their guests are soon going to arrive. So the husband and wife hide the dead body in a box, cover it with tapestry and get ready to welcome the guests.

River to River Indian Film Festival 2020 - Poster Kadakh film

The guests include Chayya, the wife of the dead man. The last part of the movie is about getting rid of the dead body, and is its most cynical and damning part, with the whole gang of friends helping Sunil. When the film was ending, I almost expected it to show the whole lot going to the chautha (funeral) ceremony of the poor guy and express condolences to the widow.

I do not like the genre of dark comedy, but the film is well made and well-acted. All the actors are good, though I liked most Manasi Multani, who plays Sunil's wife Malti and Palomi Ghosh, who plays Chhaya. I also thought the guy playing Raghav (Chandrachoor Rai) was good in his brief role.

The Newly Weds, short film (5 min.) by Prataya Saha

You can watch this short film on YouTube. The film has a young man (Mahesh Gowda) and his wife (Suvin Valson) and it looks at the way they relate to each other, mediated by technology. When together, they hardly talk to each other and their eyes are constantly on their mobile phones and laptop screens. At night, a laptop stays in the bed between them. However, they expresses their love in the messages they write to each other, in which they open their hearts.

The tiny film presents the role of tech in a young couple's life as a kind of caricature. I felt that it could have been more relatable as a depiction of a long-married couple who does not have much left to say to each other. It felt a bit unrealistic for a young newly married couple, because it ignores their need for physical touch and sex. Their messages express a yearning, which is inexplicably missing from their real lives.

Berlin to Bombay, documentary film, 51 min. by Marco Hulser

Poster Berlin to BombayFor me, this was the most enjoyable film of the festival. It showed the fascination for the world of Bollywood, of an Indian origin boy Abu Chaka Khan, raised in Berlin (Germany). Abu works in a restaurant but his dream is to go and act in Bollywood. He does not want to work in German films where he can play Indian or Pakistani roles - he prefers the idea of Bollywood heroes with their songs and dances.

He makes videos for auditions but when they do not get him any offers, he goes to Mumbai and tries to negotiate his way through the barriers surrounding its film world, full of people who are waiting for bakras like him, selling them dreams and taking their money. Abu finds himself playing an extra in a film. As his dreams crash with the hard realities of the Bollywood, Abu comes back to Berlin and to his restaurant.

Though it is an old theme, Abu has an expressive face and he comes across very well with his ingenuity, hope and dreams.

While the film ended, I was thinking of the YouTube and TikTok stars - today people with dreams of making it in Bollywood, have some alternative pathways to become famous, even if that fame does not last very long. I think that I would like to watch a documentary exploring the worlds of the YouTube-TikTok stars.

The GesheMa is Born, Documentary, 56 min., by Malati Rao

Geshe Ma is the title of a learned Buddhist nun who has reached the highest level of religious knowledge. Rao's documentary is a glimpse into the hidden world of Buddhist nuns. I liked it because it showed a world which was unfamiliar to me.

River to River Indian Film Festival 2020 - Still GesheMa is Born

Though ancient Buddhism spoke of nuns, modern Buddhism did not have nuns. It was Dalai Lama who had established the first nuns' order 40 years ago. He also proposed allowing the nuns to study religious books. This idea was discussed in the international council of Buddhist leaders from different countries, but some countries were against the changes. Finally in 2012, it was accepted that the nuns could study to become the learned teachers (Geshe).

The film follows a group of nuns in a monastery in Nepal who became the first group of women admitted to the Buddhist theological studies. The film focuses on the story of Namdol Phuntsok, who had earned the top marks in these studies and received the title of Geshe Ma in 2016.

The film moves forward and backward in time, with some interviews and unobtrusive observation of the lives of the Buddhist nuns. They talk about the setting up of the first nunnery. It looks at their celibate lives, their shaving of heads and their determined animation during theological discussions, where a raised leg-movement and clapping of hands in stereotypical gestures, looked like a dance.

GesheMa Namdol talks about her childhood and her family's opposition to her idea of becoming a nun, her desire for studying the Buddhist religious texts and how they must argue and debate their ideas and defend them against questions. The film concludes with the group of the nuns holding the coveted yellow head-dresses in their hands, which are a visible sign of their learning, walking in the room full of monks. They all don those yellow head-dresses, signifying a new beginning of the role of the women leadership in Buddhism.

Buddha of the Chadar, 28 Min. by Jean Whitaker

This film can also be watched on internet. It is about a father and son from Ladakh making a long winter journey on the frozen Zanskar River - a route known as the Chadar. They carry a heavy gold-plated statue of Buddha, which they plan to offer to a Buddhist monastery located at the top of the hill near their village.

River to River Indian Film Festival 2020 - Still Buddha of Chadar

The film brings out the solitude and difficulties of the long journey surrounded by beautiful snow-covered mountains. It also shows the on-going construction of a new road by the Indian Border Road Organisation, so that in future, it should be possible to complete that same journey in a vehicle.

The film has beautiful photography and makes you reflect on the human urge to choose a tough journey as a part of a spiritual quest.

Silence in the Wind, 13 min. by Gautam Baruah and Ballav Prajnyan

This short film is about a father remembering his son, his desire to see him married and his initial rejection when he discovers that he is gay. The father remembers the day when he had heard about his young son drowning in the river and his desperate prayers to God to save his life. The memory of that desperation helps him to say to his son that he does not understand but he will accept.

It is a beautiful film.

The Ashram Children, 67 min., by Jonathan Ofek

India is seen as the land of spirituality. It has many famous gurus with their ashrams, and followers coming from all over the world to seek their guidance. This film shows a hidden aspect of this spiritual quest - the feelings of the expat children about those Gurus.

The director of this film, Jonathan is from Israel and he feels scarred by his childhood experiences in the ashram. His own parents, especially his mother, do not take his complaints very seriously - for her, it was not a cult and she was only going to the ashram for some months every year. She says that he could have told her that he did not want to go and she would not have forced him. He feels that saying no was not easy, especially as he had grown up inside it from early childhood. The whole issue of obedience to the Guru was experienced by him as something absolute, he had learned to not question anything and was afraid to express himself.

River to River Indian Film Festival 2020 - Still Ashram's Children

During the film, Jonathan goes to look for other expatriate children that he had met and known in the ashram during his childhood. Most of them agree that their childhood experience of the ashram was negative for them. Most of them try to hide this part of their past lives and do not talk about it. One of the guys also talks about the hypocrisy of the Guru, who taught lessons of detachment and spirituality, but also loved gold, luxury watches, and costly perfumes.

It forced me to see how the spirituality-and-guru industry of India can be perceived by young children who are pulled in to this experience by their parents. I had never thought about it before in these terms. For me, many of the ashrams and their jet setting Gurus, who run their spirituality businesses like money-making exercises, are persons who profit from human frailties.

Conclusions

There were some other short and documentary films from the festival which I had watched but they were similar in terms of themes and treatment to others that I had seen earlier, so I am not writing about those.

In the past RtoR festival had been an opportunity for me to meet and talk to persons from the world of Indian films - persons like Onir, Rahul Bose, Aparna Sen and even Amitabh Bachchan. That was no longer possible with an online festival. I hope that in future, after the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, River to River festival will continue to offer the possibility of online participation.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com