Egypt has since time immemorial been fascinated with all things India, and Bollywood has been an all-time favourite there with Raj Kapoor and his movies like Sangam and Mera Naam Joker still playing in people's psyche. So, it does not come as a surprise, not quite, that the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival has a basket full of Indian movies – as many as eight.
Yes, of the 175 films from 53 countries, 21 are from France, 17 from Italy, 14 from Egypt and 10 from Australia. India may come a poor fifth, but the average Egyptian's love for Indian cinema is unparalleled. I have seen this during my several trips to Cairo, and more recently to the newly launched El Gouna Film Festival on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Even stern-looking immigration officers (called police in that country) break into a smile the moment they find out that I am from India, and there to cover a movie festival They would excitedly ask me about the Kapoor clan and Shahrukh Khan, (of course) Big B and all things Bollywood.
Yet, paradoxically, it is not a Hindi film that has made it to the main competition at Cairo, but a Marathi work, Redu, helmed by first-timer, Sagar Vanjari. For Redu, Cairo will be a hattrick – having already journeyed to the Kolkata International Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India, now on in Panaji.
Redu stars Shashank Shende, Chhaya Kadam and Gauri Konge among others, and narrates a 1970s story of a middleaged man in a remote Maharashtra village whose short fuse begins to cool down after he gets hold of a small radio, which we call transistor. Certainly, the plot appears refreshingly novel.
Assamese director Rima Das's Village Rockstars – which was highly applauded at the recent Toronto International Film Festival – will be part of Cairo's Critics' Week Competition, focussing on the dream of a rebellious little girl, Dhunu (Bhanita Das), in a little village. And what is that? To own a guitar!
Outside competition, while Rahul Jain's documentary, Machines, is a compelling look at what goes on behind the closed doors of a modern textile factory (with its tendency towards exploitation in a dog-eat-dog kind of competitive world), Amit V Masurkar's Newton (India's offering for the Oscars) is all about one-man's crusade to facilitate a free and fair election in Maoist-infested Chhattisgarh. Also, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga (the original title goes outside India) is an 85-minute adventure of a young couple eloping to Chennai and who are trapped in a night of horror.
We also have a Tamil work by Amshan Kumar, Cry Humanity (Manusangada) – where it takes us only 93 minutes to understand that even 70 years into our independence Dalits continue to be battered and bruised under one pretext or the other.
Set in Ammiappan village in Tamil Nadu, the movie was shot over a period of 22 days. When director Kumar saw a news item about a horrific incident in 2016, he set aside a screenplay of a William Shakespeare adaptation he had been working on. “This story just had to be told first,” he said in a recent interview. “There is no killing on account of cow-slaughter in Tamil Nadu, but there is violence against Dalits. Also, this is a subject to which parallels can be drawn anywhere in India.”
Cry Humanity is the tragic tale of a young man who is denied permission to carry the dead body of his father to the crematorium through a proper road. Instead, he has to take a thorny and uneven path.
The desperate youth moved the Madras High Court, which said in a famous verdict: “You deny them equality when they are alive. At least give it to them after they die.” But the man Kolappan's struggle does not end there.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cairo International Film Festival)