WSFF Spotlight on India

Yesterday afternoon, I caught the WSFF Spotlight on India screening. A considerable crowd appeared to catch films from India, by Indians, about Indian culture.

Before the screening began, Amal director Richie Mehta was brought on stage to say a few words (he won the honorable mention for the best emerging Canadian filmmaker) and asked the audience why, since he and most of the cast and crew were from Toronto, they thought his piece was included in the India screening and not one of the Canadian programmes.

After the shorts, one audience member gave him a button in response to his questions, that read "I am a person first. Second " I'm not sure that the festival programmers were thinking quite along those lines - the story is set in India, and the characters are Indian. It's interesting to think about, but if this years Spotlight had been on Tibet or something, Amal would probably be included in the Canadian screenings, rather than the international groups. But who knows?

AMAL was the first short to screen, and it was quite lovely. It tells the story of an autorickshaw driver who takes his job seriously, but is quite unselfish with money - it's clear that he is poor (in part because his brother takes advantage of him) but that hasn't made him tight. One passenger, a crotchety millionaire, is struck by his simple honesty, and tries to posthumously reward him. The film is shot documentary style on the streets of Delhi, which gives the short it's realistic feel. Most of the acting is understated and subtle, though the brother seems a little awkward on screen. It's a simple but appealing story, whose characters and setting are portrayed well and leaves further detail to conjecture. AMAL should be airing on CBC's Reflections sometime in the fall.

SAANJH (The Dusk) was another subtle and simple film, in which a man moves into a rooming house next to a sweet and toothless old man called Baba. As the story progresses, we see that Baba is becoming senile and confused, and his neighbors struggle to help him in spite of their frustration with his fading comprehension and increasing sadness. The actors beautifully convey each of their character's loneliness, and some of the cinematography is quite lovely. The film stock looks like the bright technicolour stock used in the '50s - the brighter greens, blues, and reds are quite dramatic against the more drab colours of the streets and concrete buildings of the city.

BLESSING seemed incongruent in this screening, in subject and mood as well as execution. A woman comes home for her brother's graduation and her eccentric mother celebrates both events exuberantly, with the help of the '7-11 Swami', throwing a party to bless the grads and hopefully set up her daughter. There's nothing particularly wrong with the short, the acting is a little flat (though the mother is fun to watch) but there are some excellent comic moments. My major complaint is that in placing this film with the others in the screening, it's plot seems cheap by comparison. What would otherwise be an enjoyable culture clash comedy seems shallow among films with heavier subject matter, more subtlety, and far more complex characterizations.

ELEPHANT BOY is frankly quite depressing, though beautifully shot. The titular Elephant Boy is a beggar in Calcutta, who wanders the streets with his beautiful friend Nisha trying to get money. They are under the thumb of a particular gang leader who beats the boy and forces him to steal and turns Nisha into a prostitute. The tragedies in their life are unrelenting; every time there seems to be a moment of hope or peace, the reality of their street life forces them down. Gripping and horrifying.

LITTLE TERRORIST is the story of a boy who, trying to rescue a cricket ball, crosses a minefield between India and Pakistan - shot at and pursued by the border guards. A school teacher and his daughter from a nearby village help him hide, cutting his hair and feeding him. The acting is honest and charming, the story compelling, using small, simple instances to illustrate larger cultural fears and misunderstanding. Illuminating.

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