The Sundance Film Festival, North America’s largest independent film festival, will commence its forty-sixth edition on the 19th of January 2024. Sundance has offered a voice to numerous independent voices that have gone on to establish themselves in the mainstream, most prominently Steven Soderbergh, whose 1989 feature sex, lies, and videotape became a major cultural phenomenon, winning the festival’s Audience Award Dramatic; and Quentin Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs (1992) opened at the festival. Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and Todd Field, among a host of others, also got their breaks at Sundance.
In 2024, Sundance will be host to as many as 147 titles, and of the twenty that make up the World Dramatic and Documentary Competition selections, two come from India – one in each category. One of them is Shuchi Talati's Girls Will Be Girls in the former category, and the other is Anupama Srinivasan and Anirban Dutta’s Nocturnes in the latter category.
The first Indian film to be selected as part of the World Dramatic Competition section at Sundance was Aamir Khan Productions’ Peepli Live, directed by Anusha Rizvi, in 2010. Over the years, films like Valley of Saints (Musa Syeed, 2012), Liar’s Dice (Geethu Mohandas, 2014), Umrika (Prashant Nair, 2015), and Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2018), to note a few, were played in various sections at Sundance.
The Indian offerings at the festival have efficiently reflected the multitudes that make up the country. Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains (2021) delved into the challenges of life in the Himalayas; All That Breathes (2022), directed by Shaunak Sen, was recognised as the Best Documentary at the festival for its depiction of the polluted environment of Delhi; Sarvnik Kaur took to the choppy waters of the Arabian Sea with Against the Tide (2023), diving into the contrasting lives and practices of two Koli fishermen who happen to be close friends.
An Indo-American co-production, Nocturnes, will be the other Indian competition film, selected as part of the World Cinema Documentary section. Directed by Anupama Srinivasan (I Wonder….) and Anirban Dutta (Flickering Lights), the eco-documentary is set in India and Bhutan, and marks the second collaboration between the directors, whose 2023 film Flickering Lights was a contender for the Best Feature-Length Documentary Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
The film’s narrative follows scientist Mansi, her mentor the ecologist and astrophysicist Ramana, and a local young man named Bicki. Together, the trio undertake a research project to study moths in their chosen geographical region and the impact of increasing temperatures on them, ultimately arriving at a likely scenario of what might be the situation in 2050. In the midst of this research study, the film also focuses on Mansi’s drive to arrive at conclusive answers to the specific problem, and trying to place the ecological impact in a larger context, while Bicki, whose eyes have been opened to the possibilities that may exist with the uniqueness of the moths, wonders if moth tourism ventures might be the way forward for the likes of him, raising questions about tourism to ecologically-sensitive areas and the lives of indigenous communities. In a conversation with Deadline last month, the directors commented that through “the cinematic style of the film, we seek to create an experience where the audience feels embedded in the natural environment, and responds to the vibrations of nature.”
Nocturnes will bow on the 22nd of January at The Ray Theatre in Park City, with three more screenings thereafter; it will be made available online from the 25th of January to the 29th of January.
In March 2021, Richa Chadha (Gangs of Wasseypur, Inside Edge) and Ali Fazal (Fukrey, Mirzapur) plunged into the heady world of film production after having faced the camera for over a decade. They announced the birth of their production house – Pushing Buttons Studios – and their first production on the same day. Girls Will Be Girls, helmed by debutant Shuchi Talati, was first presented at the 2018 Film Bazaar organised by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) alongside the International Film Festival of India. Chadha and Talati collaborated on the project after having co-directed a documentary about adults with autism and Down’s syndrome during their college days. The film found co-producers at the Film Bazaar in Crawling Angel Films from India and France’s Dolce Vita Films, while also securing a place as one of the ten selections for the Berlinale Talents Script Station in 2021. It had already received a development grant from the New York State Council for the Arts, and was one of the scripts to be selected for the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film Lab.
Girls Will Be Girls is set in a boarding school in the Himalayas and deals with the coming of age of sixteen-year-old Mira (debutant Preeti Panigrahi) and her clash with her mother (Kani Kusruti), who never got to come of age herself. The film also stars Kesav Binoy Kiron. Talati, in describing her choice of subject matter, said that she liked her work “to challenge the dominant narratives around gender, sexuality, and the Indian identity.”
The film is set to debut on the 20th of January at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, and will have three more screenings at the festival. It will also be made available online for public viewing from the 25th of January to the 29th of January.