In a review dated May 15, 1977, India Today characterised Shyam Benegal’s Manthan as “a valid contribution in sociological terms”. True enough. The film is, after all, about the empowerment of rural milk producers, through a co-operative. But what was it doing in the Culinary Cinema section at the 2010 Berlinale, alongside films like Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s Kings of Pastry, which was about French pastry chefs competing for an award? For that, we must turn to this section’s credo: “Films about the dark sides of the food world, such as hunger and poor nutrition, monocultures and factory farming, are also an important part of the programme because they raise awareness about the consequences of our eating habits.”
Going through the Berlinale’s selections over the years yields fascinating trivia about the Indian presence at the festival. The earliest entry I found was from 1956. Come on, take a guess. No, it isn’t Jagte Raho, the Raj Kapoor-starrer that won four National Awards and the Crystal Globe Grand Prix at the 1957 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It isn’t Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, either — the second installment of his career-launching trilogy. The film is (drumroll)… Spring Comes to Kashmir, a 12-minute Films Division documentary directed by Ravi Prakash. It won the Silver Bear in the Short Film category. Here it is, in gorgeous Eastman Colour.
For more entries in the Films You May Never Have Heard Of (And Should Feel Slightly Ashamed About It) category, the Forum section of the Berlinale is an especially fertile mining ground. Allow me to present Nilita Vachani’s Sabzi Mandi ke Heere (1993), Gautam Bora’s Karbi film Wosobipo (1991), and — my favourite — Paresh Kamdar’s Tinnu ki Tina (1997), which sounds like the spiritual predecessor of Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety. Which is not to say that this section is only about the low-wattage movie. In 2004, the Forum screens must have resembled an Indian multiplex, with Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Nikhil Advani’s Kal Ho Naa Ho and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, along with Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution and Partho Sen Gupta’s Hava Aney Dey.
Over the years, the Forum section has comfortably accommodated the biggest names of both art-house and mainstream Indian cinema. On the one hand, you have Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tahader Katha (1993), Utpalendu Chakraborty’s Chokh (1983), Anand Patwardhan’s Hamara Shahar (1985), Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1985), Prakash Jha’s Damul (1986), Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan (1998), Mrinal Sen’s Mahaprithivi (1992), and Mani Kaul’s Dhrupad (1984). (Kaul was quite a fixture, here. He had Mati Manas in 1986, and Siddheshwari in 1990.) And at the other end of the spectrum, we have Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (2000), Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2004), Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2005), AK Lohithadas’s Bhoothakkannadi (1999), Jayaraj’s Kaliyattam (1999), and Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1999). The latter’s Alaipaayuthey (2001) was the first Tamil feature screened at the Berlinale, and later, there was Ameer Sulthan’s Paruthiveeran (2008).
The Forum section played its first Shah Rukh Khan film in 2007: Don. Since then, the actor has been seen in other categories, too — like Out of Competition (My Name Is Khan, 2010) and Berlinale Special (Om Shanti Om, 2008, and Don – The King Is Back, 2012). The latter category is the one that will screen Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy this year. Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing, on the other hand, will feature in the Generation category. (“Coming-of-age stories: awesome, wild and angry, heartfelt and headstrong.”) This category, over the years, has seen Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie (2010), Jayaraj’s Ottaal (2016), Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak (2015), and Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Vanaja (2007). The highlight, for me, was the screening of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (2016). The largely non-Indian audience was tapping their feet with the songs, and shell-shocked by the end.
Indian films have featured in the Retrospective section (K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, 2005), in the Shorts section (Umesh Kulkarni’s Three of Us, 2008), and especially in the younger audience-skewing Kinderfilmfest section (AK Bir’s Lavanya Preeti (1994). The important Panorama section has also featured a range of Indian cinema: Ketan Mehta’s Holi (1985), Mahesh Mathai’s Bhopal Express (2000), Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che (2014), Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014), and Q’s Gandu (2011). Should we cheat and include films about India, but made by non-Indians (and featured in the Retrospective category)? This is a heavyweight list, comprising Jean Renoir’s River (2010), Franz Osten’s The Light of Asia (2018), and Ingmar Bergman’s A Ship to India (2011).
What about the films in Competition? This is a smaller number. Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala (1957) inaugurated the Indian presence in this section, and was followed by V Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1958), JS Bhownagary’s Radha and Krishna (1959), Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Charachar (1994), M.F. Hussain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967), and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (1981). Beginning with Mahanagar (1964), Satyajit Ray was the biggest presence in this category. In 1965, Charulata duked it out with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Incredibly, the trio duked it out again the following year, with Nayak, Cul-de-sac and Masculin-Féminin. Ray’s last appearance in this category was in 1973, with Ashani Sanket, which won India’s first (and so far, only) Golden Bear.
In terms of numbers, 1988 was a major year for Indian cinema at the Berlinale. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Phera was in the Competition section. Kinderfilmfest had Tapan Sinha’s Aaj ka Robin Hood. Forum had Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan, Abhijay Karlekar’s Dharamtalla ka Mela, Shri Yash Chaudhary’s Frame Within the Frame, Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Iss Shahar Ko?, Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Kamal Swaroop’s Om dar b dar, G Aravindan’s Oridathu, and Pavithran’s Uppu. Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray had a sort of double celebration each. Benegal had Susman playing, along with his documentary, Satyajit Ray. The master, in addition to appearing in that documentary (it was a series of interviews), had Ghare-Baire in the mix. As if to compensate, the next edition of the Berlinale featured no films from India.