From A Faraway Land
The inaugural Indian Film Festival of Melbourne will attempt to show audiences that there’s more to their thriving cinema scene than song and dance… though there’s that too.
For years, the Indian film industry has grown into its own universe, one which dwarfs even the Hollywood machine. Lavish, large-scale productions, a great number of films released each year which triples what we regularly find at the local multiplex, and stars who are revered as idols; all of this with almost no outside influence and by keeping a low profile.
Bollywood is constantly evolving, and nowadays releases all types of films, not just the garish and colourful musicals we associate with the mammoth industry where everyone breaks out into spontaneous song and dance numbers. However, despite its diversity on offer, Indian films remain a rarity to Western audiences. The first annual Indian Film Festival of Melbourne is hoping to change that.
Vidya Balan (pictured), currently one of the most popular and sought-after actresses in India, acts as Festival ambassador and also knows firsthand about the changes her country's film industry has been undergoing for a really long time; for directors, producers, and especially for actresses.
"In earlier times, actresses were either expected to play the glorious, quintessential Indian woman, or they were vilified as a vamp," she explains. With a culture that is largely male-dominated, actresses were unfortunately typecast as a mere romantic foil to the dashing leading men. Nowadays, however, there has been a marked change in how they are perceived. "You're being humanized; being seen as someone who's leading life on her own terms, making progress in a professional's field, and still retaining her femininity."
Although she is humbled by it, it has been agreed that this change is partly due to Balan's work. An actress who refuses to be typecast and is always willing to take up the challenge of a new role, she has worked in everything from musicals and comedies to thrillers and dramas, each time earning raves from Indian critics and audiences. Her latest role is in festival highlight The Dirty Picture, a biography of ‘80s sex symbol Silk Smitha, who, with her highly erotic and sexualised performances, became a trendsetter for Indian cinema in her own right. "She said, ‘If that's my calling card, then I'm going to celebrate it, I'm not going to be apologetic for it.' She was way ahead of her time."
These changes extend to the whole of Indian cinema. With movies being largely a reflection of the times in which they are made, local films have evolved with social changes, both in content and in their methods. "There was a time in India when we were grappling with various problems," Vidya explains. "In the ‘70s, unemployment was big, so you had more films with the lead being an unemployed youth. Everything else was inconsequential; the angst of the main character was driving the film." Nowadays, more economic stability and an ever-expanding, better-educated middle class have widened audience tastes, with people willing to accept and experience the rest of the world.
The festival's programming reflects this, with a wide range of films catering to all tastes: Ra.One is a big-budget, martial arts influenced superhero blockbuster; Bollywood superstar Sharukh Khan headlines the crime saga Don 2; and Vicky Donor is a romantic comedy about, of all things, sperm donation. On a more serious note, there's a film like Bombay March 12, a hard-hitting account of the true-life bombings in the titular city in 1993.
Bollywood stars will also bring their glitz and glamour as special guests of the festival. Among them are former Miss India Priyanka Chopra, and Tamil heartthrob Vijay, whose massive following has made him the official face of Coca-Cola in the region and whose films also continuously smash box office records.
It's also not just a showcase for Indian cinema, but an opportunity for films from lesser-known countries to reach a wider audience. Thus, there are movies from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, all of them dealing with their own realities, as well as master classes with writers/directors Rajkumar Hirani and Ahbijat Joshi, responsible for box office smashes like 3 Idiots, who will demonstrate their own particular filmmaking style and that of their country.
With such a wealth of genres and talent on display, the Indian Film Festival is ready to open the doors of the country to Western audiences, a cultural exchange which Vidya assures is ongoing. "‘Think Global, Act Local' is what we've been doing for a long time, but now the distribution mechanisms have become stronger."
The Indian Film Festival of Melbourne is set to run June 11-22. For more information or to buy tickets, visit the festival website.