Crime and Civilisation As Seen at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival

Indian films approach some hard topics, ranging from criminogenesis to human trafficking, through documentary-style films.


This year’s Mumbai Film Festival has brought together over 175 films from 54 countries for a seven-day gala that has been calling out to film aficionados from across the city like bees to a hive. But besides a brimming stock of world cinema, there is an equally eye-opening diaspora of Indian films that has been curated – that powerfully blurs the boundary between ‘reel and real’, as they say, creating cinema that stays with you long after the sojourn to the theatre.

The genesis of crime: improv cinema

Prime amongst these is Deepa Mehta’s ‘Anatomy of Violence’, a film that takes the horrific Delhi gang rape as its basis, fictionalising the life stories of all the characters involved in this incident through some powerful improvisational acting. Actor Vansh Bhardwaj, in conversation, recounts that Mehta’s idea was to reveal how society is invariably complicit in any such act of crime, as no person exists in isolation. Much of the film depicts the fictional lives of each of the six men, as also the girl – here named Janki. We witness worlds and families living with destitution, sexual abuse and domestic violence – with these men emerging, in many ways, to be victims of the society that they have been born into. To create these narratives the team had consulted with psychologists who could lend insight into criminal mindsets. “I often asked Mehta whether I, as an actor, was trying to justify the behaviour of the culprit,” says Bhardwaj. “But the film is not about raising sympathy. It’s about lending an understanding of ‘why’ such crimes happen.”

Vansh Bhardwaj in ‘Anatomy of Violence’
Vansh Bhardwaj in ‘Anatomy of Violence’

Most of the final film footage is taken from a 15-day improvisational acting workshop that was held by Mehta for the actors, as a means to formulate the script and scenes. “When she went through the many hours of footage, she saw how raw and genuine it was,” he says. This prompted her to keep the footage as it was for the final film, instead of re-shooting it. The end product is extremely experimental cinema – with handheld cameras navigating through the scenes, the adult actors enacting the roles of their childhood selves, settings being re-used, and people on the streets gawking at the camera in curiosity. “Mehta wanted it to be about the actors, minus any background score or music or lighting – she wanted it to be about life as is,” explains Bhardwaj. Though attempting to bring out the oft-undiscussed back story of a heinous crime like this, the film does not show the incident itself. Instead, a scene showing the culprits distributing Janki’s belongings amongst themselves afterwards is horrific enough. And subsequent scenes build up to a grim climax where all-too-familiar victim-bashing ensues, revealing the deep-seated societal malaise that breeds such violence against women.

Madness and repression: a mockumentary quandary

Another Indian film that appears to have created quite a buzz this Festival is ‘Autohead’, directed by Rohit Mittal, a documentary that begins on fairly sane ground with a three-person crew tailing an auto-driver across Mumbai to chronicle his life. The rickshaw driver’s unrequited love for an escort slowly plays on his mental stability and his daily frustrations in dealing with passengers escalates into frightening behaviour. We soon realise that this is a parody not only on a repressed society at large but also on the filmmaking process itself and on mainstream cinema. The mockumentary genre is a welcome foray for Indian cinema, showing how the troop of on-screen filmmakers is equally complicit in the crimes by virtue of their silence and profit-seeking motivations.  A stellar performance by Deepak Sampat, the rickshaw-driver, makes him in equal parts endearing as well as fearsome – earning him the best actor award at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival.

Still from 'Autohead'
Still from ‘Autohead’

The human trafficking belt: an impromptu documentary

One more eye-opener in the documentary genre is ‘Cecilia’ – a film that begins as an informal series of recordings until it becomes evident that a film ought to be made. When Delhi-based director Pankaj Johar’s maid Cecilia receives a phone call about the death of her daughter in Delhi, a series of events unfold. Disturbed that her underage daughter had not been in her village studying, as she had thought her to be, Cecilia and the Johars begin to probe the case. What follows is a series of revelations about an elaborate network of human trafficking that begins in the villages of the North-Eastern tribal areas and lands up in middle-class households in Delhi. The Johars, realising that they have in the past been guilty of partaking of such a network unwittingly, embark on a journey to find the truth behind Cecilia’s daughter’s death.

The documentary traces the unfolding events as they occur – interviews with child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi who advises the Johars to travel to Cecilia’s village, threats from traffickers, the disappearance of Cecilia’s husband, hostile responses from Cecilia’s villagers, and offers of monetary compensation that test Cecilia’s faith. In terms of filmmaking, ‘Cecilia’ is a revelation – with the impromptu manner of investigation reflected in the camera work and spoken narrative.

Still from ‘Cecilia’
Still from ‘Cecilia’

The Mumbai Film Festival has curated a veritable range of explorations in Indian cinema through themes such as ‘Spotlight’, ‘India Gold’ and ‘Discovering India’, worthy of many a visit – and is open till 27th October across theatres in the city.


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