Indie films have a terrible reputation among those who do not enjoy indie films. The convention of a beginning-middle-end, a three-act structure, a first-half-second-half slashing of a story is often tossed aside by the indie filmmaker, who sometimes works entirely from their intuitive understanding of space and time. There is no logic. You cannot teach its structure the way you do with commercial screenplays, simply because there often isn't one. The story is something that emerges from the film, as opposed to the other way round. Often you are watching the film, unsure of who the protagonist is, where the story is going, what it is trying to say, swimming in ambiguity that can be challenging and inaccessible. But every now and then these films have a sledgehammer-like emotional quality that leaves you dazed in disbelief.
At the 11th edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, my ideas of what a “story” is, were challenged. After the screening of Dostojee — a tender tale of two children who are friends but divided by a thatch fence but also religion — many of us stood outside, moved but wondering if the film was too long. The same conversations and questions came up after Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar, a fraying but gentle love story set in Darbhanga. Throughout the film’s latter half, there were many moments where we thought the film was taking a bow and ushering in its end credits, but it would go on still more. We are so trained by this singular idea of tragedy, the insistence on resolved knots, that the moment we see some form of it on screen, we wait impatiently for the conclusion. But what if there is more?
Whether we like them or not, indie films challenge all the received ideas of being a spectator — how impatient we are, what are the clues we can assume a conclusion from, what are our expectations of “narrative”, of catharsis.
It is why the best, most widely appreciated films of DIFF — Fire In The Mountains, Jhini Bini Chadariya, Joyland — were films that did not challenge the larger structures of storytelling, but infused the indie spirit of sputtering, unwieldy, intense, and reckless moments into a commercial (and thus comfortable) format.
To watch these films in a marathon daze, often ending your day in a faluda of images, is to see how filmmakers take a genre and wreck it with their imagination. Watching Payal Kapadia’s “hybrid documentary” A Night Of Knowing Nothing alongside Haobam Paban Kumar’ Nine Hills One Valley, which like Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, gives a portrait of the violence and resilience in Manipur as a man drives from the hills to Imphal city. You can see how a director has completely re-written the “political” film, the former stylising it till the very shape and form of a documentary is remade, and the latter trying to bridge the difference between fiction and non-fiction, between performance and being. Seeing Bani Singh’s Taangh, where Singh documents her journey trying to find her father’s friend from youth on the other side of the India-Pakistan border, takes the home video genre, the Partition genre, and makes something ecstatically moving from it. How do we talk of categories with such films? At best, it seems like a reductive gesture on my part.
To be fair, it can get frustrating. When an actor stares into the distance, gazing poignantly, you are often unable to grasp the shape of thoughts inside his head. Sometimes, the filmmakers are so carried away by the precise beauty of their frames, they forget the heart of the frame is a stillborn idea, an emotionally empty portrait. You have to rummage through the reels, watching some truly bizarre and boring films to get at what truly moves you while also questioning all your intuitions about why you found something bizarre and boring.
The worst tic, for me, is the desire to pile up metaphors in a film, because as a filmmaker you are so insecure about meaning-making. Or worse, you feel superior prioritising the cerebral over the visceral. In one of the most catty but telling moments, during the question session with the director of Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar, Parth Saurabh, the following exchange ensued:
“Was the horse you showed a metaphor for the main character?”
“Can you explain it?”
Later, during the screening of Once Upon A Time In Calcutta, the audience kept prodding for metaphors to be unveiled and the director, Aditya Vikram Sengupta, seemed to not want to indulge this at all, almost dismissing these readings. When an audience asked for the meaning of an insect falling off a wall, Sengupta just waved his hands, noting that on watching the film again he realised that he hates that frame and wishes it weren't there. Other directors, however, insist on this mining of meaning.
As a viewer, we must ask that if the first thing we hold onto in a film is its metaphor — which is, anyway, one layer of thought removed from the film — what does that say about the film? What does it say about us? That we are unable to grasp what is immediately there. That we are resorting to an intellectual cartwheeling. That we prefer to think than to feel.
The 11th edition of DIFF took place between 3-6 November, 2022. A digital edition of the festival will go online from 7-13 November, 2022, with a truncated lineup.