Filmmaker Anmol Sidhu still remembers the first time he watched a DVD of Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002). Gripped, he ran out on the streets. “Pata nahi kya ho gaya tha humein (I don’t know what happened to me)," he says. He was eight. Two decades later, Sidhu says the film still gives him goosebumps. Growing up in Kauloke, a village in Punjab, films were a rare treat. He watched his first at a theatre as late as 2012. He was 18 then, and had just completed his 12th boards. “Where I grew up, the closest barber shop was about 12 km away,” says Sidhu. "The nearest ration shop was 15 km away.” Sidhu's debut feature film, Jaggi, premiered at IFFLA (the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles) earlier this year. The film, named after its protagonist played by Ramnish Chaudhary, is a raw and stark interrogation of hyper masculinity in rural Punjab. It's the perennially jolly commercial Punjabi film industry turned on its head, sitting closer to the gritty realism of Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab. The dialogue is laced with expletives, there are graphic scenes of sexual violence.
Mainstream Bollywood has cornered the ‘small-town’ market in the last few years, turning it into a template of sorts. Recurring actors like Rajkummar Raos, Ayushmann Khurranas, Gajraj Raos and Sheeba Chadhas pop up in these films. However, we’ve also seen the emergence of independent films from far-off villages and small towns in Assam, Bihar, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Alongside director Rima Das – whose feature Tora’s Husband premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year – filmmakers Parth Saurabh (Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar), Siddharth Chauhan (Amar Colony) and Sidhu have all put out films in the last 12 months. Their subjects range from sexual repression and dysfunctional romances to coming of age under the most dire circumstances. These independent filmmakers are self-taught and operate at a fraction of the budget of their Bollywood counterparts. And yet, they're edgier than the neatly compartmentalised, safe and largely inoffensive current spate of Hindi movies.
Director Siddharth Chauhan, who was never really a fan of most of the Bollywood films playing at Shimla's Gaiety theatre, attributes a large part of his film education to the work and interviews of auteurs like Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Lars Von Trier. “I remember discovering their cinema and thinking about how filmmaking could be a personal expression,” Chauhan says. The Hindi film that most affected him was Onir’s I Am (2010) -- an anthology on topics ranging from the sexual abuse of children to the harassment inflicted on the queer folk across India.
His film, Amar Colony, currently premiering at the 2022 Black Nights Tallinn film festival, is a strange collection of stories about three families residing in a colonial-era structure. A man is ‘trapped’ taking care of his paraplegic mother, who he often mistreats. A pregnant woman seeks companionship outside her lonely marriage, and another middle-aged woman tries to hold on to whatever’s left of her youth by placing her faith in Hanuman. “In Class 7, I was introduced to Buddhism. I voraciously read the texts, and I learned more from them than the formal education imparted to me in college and business school,” he says of his influences. Having grown up and spent a large part of his life in Shimla, Chauhan says a lot of his early work emerged from the frustration of being a rebel in a largely conservative town.
Likewise, 29-year-old filmmaker Parth Saurabh couldn't wait to escape his hometown of Darbhanga in Bihar when he was a teeanger. He moved to Kota and enrolled in IIT coaching after 10th grade, eventually finding himself more and more reluctant to return once he gained admission to IIT Kanpur. “The vacations were a month long, but I would come home for only 10 days," he says. Intrigued by the glamour of a big-city life, he finally sought admission to Whistling Woods in Mumbai. He cites Scorsese, Fincher and Fellini as his cinematic inspirations.
Saurabh's film, Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar, premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival earlier this year and recently screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Centered on a Darbhanga couple who elope to Delhi, but are forced to return after lockdown-imposed hardships, the film is a quiet portrait of young lovers confronted with real-world challenges. It's also an affectionate ode to the idealism of a bygone era, given how a large part of the film’s setting is a youth hostel of the Communist Party of India (CPI) – an outfit nearly obliterated from the political landscape in the last few years. Saurabh says that it’s only when he had lived in Mumbai long enough that he began to see Darbhanga in a new light. “I think the life-related exposure in a village is truly unparallelled. The folks in an Indian village can be weird, the individualism in a village is more stark than in a city.”
Rima Das agrees. Her move to Mumbai to pursue acting pushed her to see the cinematic potential of her hometown of Chhaygaon. "There was a newfound appreciation for the culture, the food, music and the natural beauty – I treasure it more," she says, describing how she spent much of her time watching world cinema. She eventually returned home in Assam, a move she credits with failing to understand "Bollywood culture."
Hometown experiences of the more harrowing kind shaped Jaggi, in which a boy’s impotence is misconstrued as proof that he’s gay. In an environment defined by rigid norms of masculinity, this results in him being bullied and eventually raped by his seniors. Sidhu calls this a “depressingly frequent” occurrence in rural Punjab. “This usually happens between the ages of 12 to 17 among boys. Most of us aren’t well-versed in sex education, and we don’t know much about queer communities either.” In one shocking scene, two seniors pick up the protagonist and carry him towards a field, something Sidhu himself had witnessed.
He shot the film at a government school in his village, relying on crowdfunding and money he borrowed from his relatives. With the first two lakhs he raised, Sindhu bought a good camera. “A man who used to shoot wedding videos shot the first 20-25% of our film. It was around the time of COVID, so fortunately for us, he was free to teach us the ropes,” he says. His parents and school authorities still haven’t seen the film, and their reaction is not something he’s looking forward to. While Sindu’s school teachers have been congratulating him on Jaggi’s premieres, he isn’t sure how they will react to the sexual violence in the film. “There’s obviously a gap between us, and I’m sure they’ll eventually watch it on their own, but I don’t think we’ll bring it up amongst ourselves.” When Sidhu showed his film to a few men he knew had committed the kind of crimes that the film depicts, they broke down.
On the other hand, shooting Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar involved Saurabh getting over some of his personal hangups. The filmmaker found himself having to overcome his self-consciousness and include cuss words in his work, given that the film is about a bunch of folks in their early 20s. Saurabh’s parents have seen the film twice at San Sebastian and were mostly nonchalant about the expletives. “My mother enjoyed it, my father had a few notes about how a ‘drinking scene’ could be shorter,” he says, with an amused laugh.
A scene in Amar Colony, in which a middle-aged man had to indulge in obscene behaviour with a shop mannequin, put director Siddhart Chauhan in the position of having to explain to his actor why it was necessary. “He’s a theatre actor. It was initially a bit awkward for him, but once I convinced him that it had to be done to bring out his character’s sexual repression, even at that age, he understood it and was a real professional about it.” A few filmmaker friends have told Chauhan how one of his characters (played by Nimisha Nair) comes across as a nymphomaniac. He gets what they mean, but also thinks that most Indians are prudish when it comes to sex and need lust to be rooted in an explanation. “These people in the colony don’t have interesting lives. They can’t go to Thailand or party in Goa. So sex becomes their escape, in my opinion. For them it’s the easiest way to seek pleasure,” he says.
Of these independent filmmakers, Rima Das is perhaps one with the most prolific run - five films in three years. She still describes her career as “one baby step at a time,” saying that her role as a producer has been more challenging than the actual process of filmmaking. “How to approach the festival circuit, how to release the film, how to reach out to OTT platforms. It’s a journey. And a lot of elements to take care of,” she says. “The universe helped me. How else does one explain spending 170 to 180 days shooting a film like Village Rockstars? At this point, it becomes less of a project and more of a life-transforming journey.”
Das knows the chief ingredient for independent filmmaking: Perseverance. “Not everyday is a victory, obviously there are going to be bad days. But standing here today, I think I’m proof that it’s possible. If you really want to make a film, you can,” she says. “It’s a lot of determination, love and some magic.”