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A new India emerges at the movies

Still from The Waiting City
The Waiting City is an ode to Calcutta

A slew of films in the recently concluded Toronto film festival show India in a new light, says film critic Saibal Chatterjee, who attended the festival.

Western filmmakers are increasingly tapping India for inspiration and locations and perceiving it in a new light.

The runaway global success of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire may have triggered the growing focus on the subcontinent, but a spate of new films is going beyond the much flogged India-as-a-land-of-slums-and-squalor syndrome.

Three major films in the official line-up of the 34th Toronto International Film Festival - The Waiting City (Australia), Google Baby (Israel) and Cooking with Stella (Canada) - narrate Indian stories while eschewing the clichés associated with the country.

The Waiting City, written and directed by Sydney-based Claire McCarthy, is set in bustling, chaotic Calcutta (Kolkata).

But it is a far cry from Roland Joffe's 1992 cinematic rendition of Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy and Nicolas Klotz's La Nuit Bengali (1988), based on Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade's doomed love affair with a girl from an aristocratic 1950s Calcutta family.

'Love song'

Both the older films had courted controversy during and after their making.

In The Waiting City, an outwardly happy Australian couple arrive in India to take possession of an adopted baby girl. Red tape holds them up in Calcutta for many weeks.

The delay tests their patience, but they are gradually exposed to facets of the city that change them as human beings.

Stella still
Stella explores the interface between Indian households and domestic staff

Serious differences arise between the two - Fiona (Radha Mitchell) is a busy lawyer who cannot get off the mobile phone and the internet; Ben (Joel Edgerton) is a failed but spirited musician who goes out in search of adventure and friends in a strange city - and the couple begin to drift apart.

The relationship reaches breaking point when the mystical and the tragic combine to pull them back from the brink.

"The Waiting City is like a love song to Calcutta, one of my favourite cities in the world," says McCarthy who, earlier in the decade, spent weeks making a documentary about her younger sister's voluntary work with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.

"The city transforms Fiona and Ben spiritually and emotionally."

McCarthy, an outsider with deep knowledge and understanding of the city's rhythms, brings an insider's view to bear upon the narrative.

"I was determined from the very outset not to perpetuate Western misconceptions about India," she says.

Similarly, renowned photojournalist Dilip Mehta, a Canadian citizen of Indian origin and director of Cooking with Stella, was mindful of how he was going to project the city of his birth, Delhi.

"I was sensitive to the images of this city," he says.

"I wanted to show a rather different India. Of course poverty and despair are huge parts of life in India .. but that is not the world that Cooking with Stella sets out to explore."

Cooking with Stella, which the director co-wrote with his sister Deepa Mehta, explores the complex interface between urban Indian households and their domestic staff seen through Canadian eyes.

Ethical issues

The film revolves around a Canadian diplomat Maya (Lisa Ray) who, along with her chef-husband Michael (Don McKellar) and infant daughter, arrives in Delhi.

The long-time housekeeper Stella (Seema Biswas), a divine cook and a charming woman, takes the stay-at-home dad under her wing and teaches him the finer points of south Indian cuisine.

Still from Google Baby
Google Baby focuses on surrogacy

But there is more to this remarkable lady: she skims diplomatic supplies from the pantry to run a duty-free business that supplements her income.

"There is a Stella in every Indian household," says Mehta. "We often deny them their identity, their sexuality, their dignity, but they have a way of getting back at us."

Among the more unusual films screened in Toronto this year was Israeli documentarian Zippi Brand Frank's Google Baby, which travels across three countries - the US, Israel and India - to unravel the global surrogacy industry.

Sperm is selected in Israel, eggs are developed in labs in the US and wombs are rented in Gujarat, India.

Google Baby focuses on the work of Indian gynaecologist Dr Nayna Patel, whose IVF clinic in Anand provides surrogates who bear babies for foreign couples.

The film raises many ethical and emotional questions without being judgmental.

"Working on Google Baby, I knew I was dealing with the actual application of business rules and commercial dynamics to making babies. Yet the actual real-life examples were on many occasions surprising and hard to digest," says Frank.

Hollywood star Julia Roberts has landed in India for the India leg of the shoot of Ryan Murphy's Eat, Pray, Love, an adaptation of writer and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 spiritual travelogue of the same name.

Gilbert, after a contentious divorce and a bout of depression, had taken off for Italy, India and Indonesia on a year-long voyage of regeneration. In the film, Roberts plays the protagonist who spends many months in a Hindu ashram to master the art of meditation.

Timeless themes

Indeed, regeneration, spiritual and otherwise, seems to be the new buzzword driving the Western gaze on India.

Film on Kiran Bedi
Yes, Madam Sir, is a film on India's first woman officer

While films like Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet, being presented by Danny Boyle, and Paul Schrader's Extreme City, to be produced by Bollywood director Anubhav Sinha, inspired no doubt by Slumdog Millionaire, are reportedly in the works, the focus has shifted to more timeless aspects of India.

Last year, an Australian documentary filmmaker made Yes, Madam Sir, a film about India's first woman police officer Kiran Bedi and her eventful career.

In 2005, Dutch-born French filmmaker Jan Kounen came up with Darshan - The Embrace, which extolled the healing power of touch as demonstrated by Kerala-based spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, known to her followers around the world as Amma.

In 2006, veteran French director Benoit Jacquot's L'Untouchable told the fictional story of a young Paris actress who learns that her father is a low-caste Hindu.

She travels to India in quest of her identity. Jacquot imparts an edgy, docu-style frisson to the narrative that records the girl's life-altering encounters with the teeming country.

Twenty years ago, French filmmaker Alain Corneau, a life-long Indophile, had made Nocturne Indien, the story of a man who comes to India ostensibly in search of a lost friend.

But his quest and the outcome of his voyage assume dimensions well beyond the mere personal and physical.

These films, as well as those that are on the way, owe much of their inspiration to masters like Roberto Rossellini ('India: Matri Bhumi', 1959) and Louis Malle ('Phantom India' and 'Calcutta', 1969) whose long documentaries about India rank among the greatest films ever made.

With the culturally condescending, poverty-fixated, cliché-ridden Western vision of a populous nation of a million contradictions undergoing marked dilution, a new India is beginning to emerge in the cinema of the world.

Saibal Chatterjee is a film critic and writer of Echoes And Eloquences: The Life And Cinema Of Gulzar



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