Independent films internationally tend to represent unique filmmaker voices not restrained by studio rules, focus groups, and topics that are too contentious. Indian independent films, however, are usually a melting pot of everything that is not backed by a studio. This is even as India’s film studios are a new phenomenon consisting of essentially family businesses that have grown big in recent times.
But amongst everything that is classified under independent cinema in India, a few films come to light every year that manage to represent that very core above. While some of them strike the right balance on all fronts, others can be a niche genre or quite intense for an audience already steeped in too many of their own real-life problems. Yet, they all have an audience for their brave and individualistic storytelling.
Amongst the noteworthy that premiere at international film festivals in the first quarter of 2020 are the films below.
Cargo by Arati Kadav
CAST: Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi, Nandu Madhav
Cargo is a sci-fi film which imagines ancient Indian demons running afterlife through a spaceship. The story revolves around Prahastha (a lonely demon) astronaut, who has been working alone in a spaceship for centuries and responsible for millions of reincarnations. His spaceship comes close to Earth every morning to receive the Cargo, being people who have just died on Earth. Then, a new popular astronaut Yuvishka, trained in cutting edge technology joins him on board.
Cargo is Kadav’s debut feature film. It premiered at Mumbai Film Festival 2019 and will have its international premiere at SXSW Film Festival running from 13 – 22 March 2020.
Aadhaar by Suman Ghosh
CAST: Vineet Kumar Singh, Raghubir Yadav, Saurabh Shukla, Sanjay Mishra, Prrithvi
Aadhaar is a comedy-drama centred around a common man, Pharsua (Vineet Kumar Singh), who is the first in his village in Jharkhand to apply for an Aadhaar card, as he gets caught in the bureaucratic red tape in the process of enrolling his name in the scheme.
The teaser shows an enthusiastic Pharsua trying to get his picture clicked for the Aadhaar card, where the official explains to him that the camera would not capture an image if he smiles or laughs. And he wonders, does our government not like to see us happy?
Ghosh’s first feature film, Footsteps, won two National Film Awards in 2008. He makes his Hindi feature film debut with Aadhaar. Aadhaar had its world premiere at Busan Film Festival 2019 and is playing at Miami Film Festival, which is running from 6 – 15 March 2020.
Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare by Alankrita Shrivastava
CAST: Konkona Sen Sharma, Bhumi Pednekar, Vikrant Massey, Amol Parashar, Kubbra Sait, Amol Parashar, Karan Kundra
The film follows two cousins Dolly (Konkona Sensharma) and Kazal (Bhumi Pednekar) from the suburbs of Delhi. Dolly is a middle-class working mother with a son and a hardworking husband. They are excited as they plan to move to a newly built luxury apartment. But there’s a secret they keep to maintain their picture-perfect lifestyle.
Kazal moves from rural India to live in a city, but the opportunities are very few for a young woman with little skills. So, she works as a cyber-lover under the name Kitty on a dating app and meets a man. The two cousins, who used to be critical of each other’s life, find a bond through shared secrets to make dreams come true.
The film by the director of Lipstick Under My Burkha follows had a world premiere at the Busan Film Festival 2019 and is playing at Miami Film Festival, which is running from 6 – 15 March 2020.
Shut up Sona by Deepti Gupta
CAST: Sona Mohapatra
Music: Ram Sampath, Sona Mohapatra
Sona Mohapatra has always been in the news with her unabashed opinions and commentary. The equal parts concert film, fly-on-the-wall documentary, and road movie takes an intimate journey with the musician Sona Mohapatra as she forcefully demands gender equality in the music business.
The 90-minute film marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Deepti Gupta, who followed Mohapatra over three years capturing the singer’s various battles with music industry execs as well as documenting her rise to becoming one of the most outspoken voices in India’s #MeToo movement. Having known her for a decade and shot music videos for her, she definitely enjoys an intimate look into the life and mission of Mohapatra, even as the latter mostly finances the film.
After a world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 17-24), the film played at International Film Festival of Rotterdam in January 2020 and Goteborg Film Festival in February 2020.
Nasir by Arun Karthick
CAST: Koumarane Valavane, Sudha Ragunathan, Yasmin Rahman, Sabari, Bakkiyam Sarikar
This film tells the story of Nasir through the detailed observation of his vicinity over the span of one particular day.
As his day unfolds we find him to be a man living a life well-lived with his mother Fatima, wife Taj and nephew Iqbal. Employed as a salesman in a sari shop in Coimbatore, the middle-aged Nasir is a hard worker. He speaks humorously and recites poetry occasionally. But the increasing communal bigotry has other plans as his life is reduced to second-class citizenship as a Muslim in an India with the rising Hindu nationalism.
Based on Dilip Kumar’s diaristic 2012 short story “A Clerk’s Tale,” Nasir has been adapted by the author and Karthick in the light of Coimbatore’s September 2016 anti-Muslim riots. The film has made its world premiere in 2020 at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in January 2020, where it has won the Netpac Award. Karthick’s debut film, The Strange Case of Shiva, also bowed at the same festival in the Bright Future section five years ago.
Nasir plays next in New York at the 49th annual New Directors/New Films running 25 March – 5 April 2020.
Eeb Allay Ooo! by Prateek Vats
CAST: Shardul Bhardwaj, Shashi Bhushan, Mahender Nath, Naina Sareen, Nitin Goel, Nutan Sinha
Anjani lives with his heavily pregnant sister and her husband in a shack in New Delhi. He is one of the countless migrants moving to India’s expanding cities. His brother-in-law has arranged a job for him as a professional monkey repeller. Anjani is afraid of the monkeys. On one particular feast day, the situation escalates and he resorts to unusual measures.
Monkey repellers such as Anjani have an exceedingly tricky job in downtown New Delhi. With the sensitivity of a documentary and an Indian sense of humour, the film depicts the harsh life of a migrant while reflecting on urban society.
Prateek Vats’ first feature-length documentary, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, won the Special Jury Award at the 2018 National Film Awards in India. Eeb Allay Ooo! is his debut feature film, which won the Best Film, Young Critics Choice Award, and Best Actor for Shardul Bharadwaj at its premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film made its European premiere at the 70th Berlin Film Festival in February.
Laila Aur Satt Geet | The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs by Pushpendra Singh
CAST: Navjot Randhawa, Sadakkit Bijran, Shahnawaz Bhatt, Ranjit Khajuria, Mohammed Yaseen
Laila Aur Satt Geet is part allegory, part ethnographic study, and part feminist fairy tale, using the narrative device of local folk songs – seven, to be exact – to describe the protagonist – Laila’s inner and outer worlds. Inspired by the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded, and set against the backdrop of the conflict in Kashmir, nomadic shepherdess Laila is Tanvir’s wife, but she attracts the attentions of the entire tribe and especially of military officer Mushtaq, who is determined to conquer her. The film is meant to be a tribute to a very modern female figure who takes her fate and her desires into her own hands.
The film bagged the VKAAO Work In Progress Lab Award at Goa Film Bazaar 2019, and made its world premiere at the 70th Berlin Film Festival in February. Singh’s 2014 debut feature film, Lajwanti (The Honour Keeper), also premiered at Berlinale.
Laila Aur Satt Geet plays next in New York at the 49th annual New Directors/New Films running 25 March – 5 April 2020.
Sthalpuran | Chronicle of Space by Akshay Indikar
CAST: Neel Deshmukh, Anushree Wani, Rekha Thakur
Sthalpuran is, as the title suggests, is a chronicle of a place seen through the bespectacled eyes of the young Dighu. Forced to relocate with his mother and sister from Pune to a village in the Konkan after his father walks out on the family, Dighu regards his new surroundings warily. The film is about the internal experience of Dighu and how he processes the transition.
Does the synopsis remind you of the 2014 film Killa by Avinash Arun? Me too. Hopefully, the film would be different. After all, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
The Marathi film Sthalpuran is the second film by Akshay Indikar, having made its world premiere at the 70th Berlin Film Festival in February. His debut film Trijya was a nominee at the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival.
Nirmal Anand Ki Puppy by Sandeep Mohan
CAST: Karanveer Khullar, Gillian Pinto, Khushboo Upadhyay, Salmin Sheriff
Nirmal and Sarah, with one child, another on the way, and their dog Parie (from “pariah,” since she is a rescue dog), are young, successful, modern urban professionals, seemingly happy and secure. But after being diagnosed with a health condition, the ambitious pharma salesman decides to reexamine his life’s priorities, and embarks on a new path, to become an actor. But this quirky pursuit of happiness shakes up his married life and threatens its very foundation.
If you have been a fan of Mohan’s unique approach to making films, this one is for you. His fourth film, Nirmal Anand Ki Puppy premieres at Cinequest, running from 3 – 15 March 2020. His first three films are Love Wrinkle Free, Hola Venky, and Shreelancer.
Mogul Mowgli by Bassam Tariq
CAST: Riz Ahmed, Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, and Anjana Vasan
Although a British production, this film about a brown immigrant trying to find his place in the world, will resonate with many Indian fans.
Written by Tariq and Riz Ahmed, it tells the story of a Zed aka Zaheer, a British Pakistani rapper, who decides to fly home after two years to visit the family just before his first international tour. In the midst of trying to reconnect with his parents and rummaging through cassettes of Qawwali music, he is suddenly struck down by an autoimmune disease. As his condition worsens and his big breakthrough moment is in danger of vanishing into thin air, Zed descends into a physical and emotional crisis, amplified by vivid hallucinations. Long-buried childhood memories resurface with a vengeance, mingling with his father’s memories of fleeing India during Partition and confronting Zed with his repressed cultural heritage.
The debut film by Tariq with a great rap performance by Ahmed has made its world premiere at the 70th Berlin Film Festival in February where it has been adjudged the FIPRESCI Prize winner.
The ten films above should find their way to our watchlist, whether we end up liking them or not. Some might entertain, some educate and some enthral. Here’s hoping they all release in 2020.