Debutant Ball

On 23 May 2015, an Indian film gave Indian cinephiles a reason to celebrate: news arrived from the Cannes International Film Festival that director Neeraj Ghaywan had won two major awards for his debut, Masaan. Ghaywan’s film opened in Indian theatres a few weeks later. But Masaan’s triumph – of an accomplished Indian movie, feted at a renowned film festival, securing a theatrical release in its own country – wasn’t unique. It shared that privilege with four other films – Court, Kakka Muttai, Killa and Titli – and all of them shared something else in common, a commonality that augurs well for Indian cinema: They were all made by young debutant filmmakers.

These debuts, although superficially distinct, are, at their core, quite similar. Both Court, where the outcome of a legal case is subconsciously shaped by the social awareness and economic standing of its lawyers and judge, and Kakka Muttai, centered on two preteens trying to procure pizza from an eatery that’s recently opened outside their slum, talk about the two “Indias” that are constantly rejecting, and yet running into, each other. Even NH10, made by Navdeep Singh, directing his second film, adeptly explores the unsettling consequences of that intersection. Kanu Behl’s Titli and Masaan, to varying degrees, revolve around characters in search of their freedom; the male leads, bashful and reserved, harbour a deep-seated desire to escape their world and people, desperately seeking solace in an unfamiliar space and time. Killa, though thematically removed from Behl and Ghaywan’s film, also deals with, for a major part of its runtime, anxieties induced by isolation.

But these debuts wouldn’t have materialized had their makers not found key collaborators and mentors at critical junctures. Ghaywan assisted Anurag Kashyap on Gangs Of Wasseypur and Ugly, while Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. Later, Kashyap and Banerjee helped co-produce their protégé’s first films. Similarly, Chaitanya Tamhane, Court’s director, formed a fruitful creative and financial partnership with Vivek Gomber, who both acted in and produced the film. M Manikandan, a wedding photographer by profession before directing his first feature, impressed Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran with Kakka Muttai’s script, who along with Dhanush, decided to produce the movie. Kashyap, Banerjee, Vetrimaaran, Gomber and Dhanush are primarily known as directors and actors rather than producers, and it was this sensibility – recognizing the need for stories likes these to be told regardless of their commercial viability – that made these fine debuts happen.

Some of these films also toyed with the conventional definition of a hero; Killa and Kakka Muttai, in particular, which placed kids at the center of their stories. Indian directors, for long, have failed to appropriately utilize children in their films, often overselling and banking on their cuteness and innocence, as if kids can be only defined by such superficial traits. Killa and Kakka Muttai, in sharp contrast, and quite laudably, managed to achieve the opposite: their protagonists were fully formed, complete with complexities and ambiguities, defying simplistic labels. Manikandan and Arun did retain, through their characters, the quintessential qualities of childhood, the sense of wonderment and innocence, but their “heroes” weren’t paragons of virtues; they were, at various times, impolite, cheeky, sarcastic and, often, self-aware.

Eleven-year-old Chinmay, Killa’s lead, who is otherwise shown as reticent in the film, scribbles an expletive on the wall of the school’s toilet, when no one’s watching; his letters to his cousin include inquires centered on, among other things, masturbation. The brothers in Kakka Muttai slyly dupe a delivery guy to peer into his box that contains slices of pizza and ingeniously devise a method to make money out of men too drunk to find their homes. Masaan’s fourth character, who plays a crucial role in the film’s climax, is a kid called Jhonta (Nikhil Saini), sharing an unlikely bond with an elderly retired college professor – one that contains shades of filial affection and playful companionship. Even the biggest grosser of the year, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, featured a six-year-old girl, Shahida (Harshil Malhotra), who was as integral to the film as its star, Salman Khan. Mainstream Hindi films usually reserve this amount of gravitas for their adult leads, not cute-as-button kids, who are typically treated as pleasant distractions from the main narrative.

But 2015 proved to be different, for it was a year when Indian cinema impressed and surprised, largely via new, young directors who made their own rules and made some much-needed noise. And the trend is set to continue: a couple of weeks ago, a Kannada film, Thithi, won two top awards at the Locarno International Film Festival; Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai (Interrogation) screened at the Venice International Film Festival in the Orizzonti section, where Court premiered last year. Even Shahrukh Khan – who’s signed his next few films with risk-taking directors, such as Anand L. Rai, Maneesh Sharma, Rahul Dholakia and, reportedly, Imtiaz Ali – seems intent to take some chances himself, reinvent his image and career. The last bit sounds more promising than it should: Because if Khan has gotten tired of extending his arms in foreign locales, then maybe the time for a meaningful, lasting change has indeed come.

A slightly edited version of this piece was published in the December issue of GQ.

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