How the Toronto film festival has become a welcome home for Indian filmmakers

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Take a look at the number of Indian films that went to the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals, respectively, this year: 0, 1, 3. 1, 1, 1. These are the number of Indian movies that showed at Cannes, Venice and Berlin last year.

0, 0, 1. These are the number of Indian movies that showed at Cannes, Venice and Berlin, respectively, in 2017. It must be added that no Indian film has made it to the hallowed main competition section of these big three festivals in a very long time.

Now consider these numbers for ’19, ’18 and ’17: 4, 6 and 5. These are the number of Indian films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a happy playing ground for Indian cinema. While TIFF is not a competitive festival, it is a prelude to the Oscar season — and often Oscar success.

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A bull ran through TIFF’s official selection this year, which has movies like American director Todd Phillips’ Joker — placing the Batman villain in the backdrop of the Occupy Wall Street movement — and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a takedown of fascism in the story of a German boy and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler. The bull belongs to the Malayalam filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery whose Jallikattu is one of the four Indian films at Toronto.

A couple of years ago, Pellissery knew he had a film in hand when he finished reading a short story about a bull breaking free from a butcher’s block. “Maoist”, the story by Malayalam writer S Hareesh, had a profound impact on the filmmaker, who had by then completed Angamaly Diaries (2017). Yet, there was one element that worried Pellissery: “I didn’t know how to handle the animal.”

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When Jallikattu premiered at TIFF, it was evident that Pellissery had mastered the mind of the bull. The film is a series of spectacular portraits painting the savagery of man. “It is about the disappearing space between man and beast,” says Pellissery, whose last film Ee.Ma.Yau was highly acclaimed. He turns Jallikattu into a visceral exploration of lynching and the violent streak in our society.

Three of the four Indian movies at TIFF are directed by women. The Sky is Pink by Shonali Bose is the only Asian movie in the prestigious Gala Presentations. “The badge of honour of a TIFF selection is important for an Indian filmmaker,” says Bose, whose Margarita with a Straw won the Best Asian Film NETPAC Award in Toronto in 2014. “When my first film Amu premiered at Berlin in 2005, Cameron Bailey (TIFF’s artistic director) was in the audience and brought it to Toronto,” she recalls. Bailey, who scouts for films in India every year, also discovered Assamese filmmaker Rima Das, premiering her feature film, Village Rockstars, at TIFF in 2017. After its Toronto success, it went on to win the National Award for Best Film and became India’s official entry to the Oscars.

About women directors dominating Indian cinema at TIFF this year, Bailey says, “It is not by design; they represent the best of Indian filmmaking.”

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“There is a welcome home for Indian filmmakers at TIFF,” he says. It all began in 1994 when the fest, initially called Festival of Festivals, was renamed TIFF. That year there were 26 Indian films in the official selection, including a focus on Mani Ratnam. In 2012, it screened 10 films on Mumbai, including Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, in its now-defunct City to City programme.

TIFF functions on a not-for-profit platform and dispenses with the snootiness of the big three, opening the festival to the public and instituting an audience prize called the People’s Choice Award.

Of Toronto’s population of nearly 3 million, more than half a million are South Asians. “There is a strong community of people in Toronto who have close ties to India,” says Bailey. “The audience here is informed by Indian cinema, enthusiastic about Indian cinema and is always looking forward to new films from India. It is a relationship built over the years.”

The Toronto audience this year was treated to a rare animated feature film, Bombay Rose, by Gitanjali Rao, and Moothon (The Elder One) by Geetu Mohandas. Painted frame by frame in a Mumbai animation studio, Bombay Rose mixes the nostalgia for Hindi cinema of the last century with the dreams of Mumbai’s fringe dwellers. It weaves cats, Konkani songs, Bhojpuri conversations, Adam Levine’s lyrics and even a Lincoln in the Bardo-style gathering of ghosts in a cemetery.

Moothon is an outstanding film, challenging gender and relationships, as it journeys from the calm of Lakshadweep to the clamour of Mumbai. “I wanted a remote place for my film,” says Mohandas, whose debut feature, Liar’s Dice, was a competition entry to the Sundance festival in 2013 before becoming India’s official entry to the Oscars.

Could one of the four be travelling further to the Academy Awards on the other side of the border?

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