Passion, color and conflict

The Walker Art Center celebrates the diversity and depth of Indian film.

by Gabriel Shapiro

How much do you know about the world’s largest democracy? What can you say about the second most populous country in the world? Which nation is a nuclear power, the birthplace of ancient religions and the world’s leading producer of movies in a dizzying variety of languages and genres?

India, a country most of us could do with knowing something more about, is about to light up the screen here at home, so get ready to study up.

Throughout September the Walker Art Center will bring vastly different films from India to the Twin Cities. The new film series “Inside India: Bollywood and Beyond” was largely curated by filmmaker and scholar Radha Vatsal, who has curated a number of similar series for the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

“Inside India” brings together films from different regions and different genres. The selections represent just a small slice of the more than 800 films produced annually in India. The series will serve either as a great primer for those new to Indian cinema, or as an update for those already in the know. Either way, the films shown offer a look into an incredibly vibrant and exciting world cinema under-exposed to many in the West.

From the grandeur and spectacle of Bollywood to heartfelt and probing independent documentaries, the movies being made in India are as diverse as India’s people and its geography. Often, when Indian movies are mentioned, images of gyrating heroes and sari-clad beauties are conjured along with pulsing beats, strains of the sitar and improbably high-pitched singing. While this is not inaccurate, it is incomplete.

For most folks, Bollywood stands for all-Indian cinema. This isn’t surprising when one considers that most Indian movies screened in the United States fall squarely under that banner. If you drive past the Oak Street Cinema or the Brookdale 8 some weekend and see a large group of people from South Asia milling around outside, chances are it’s a Bollywood film being shown. The term “Bollywood” tends to refer to movies that feature very formulaic stories of love found, love lost and love regained. Such films typically feature a wedding, some fighting, teary monologues and a lot of songs, dancing and fluorescent colors.

While this predictability is often discussed as a negative, there are enough variations that can incorporate these hallmark elements so that freshness is not out of the question. Also, many directors working in mainstream Bollywood have begun to stretch the genre, including some overt cultural critique along with the schmaltz and glitz.

As the title of the series suggests, Bollywood is only one aspect of the massive and manifold cinemas of India. One feature that divides up the world of cinema is language. Most Bollywood films are Hindi-language films. Hindi, a kind of lingua franca in India, is widely spoken, but most Indians do not identify Hindi as their first language. The Indian government officially recognizes 18 languages, including English, which is widely spoken in government, higher education and commerce. Some of the languages other than Hindi represented in the series are Tamil and Bengali.

There’s a wide sampling from Indian cinema in the series and each film hails from a unique, specific background within the larger context of India and its films. This is a great opportunity to begin to appreciate the variety and quality of Indian movies and to catch up with recent developments from the world’s leading film producer.

“A Peck on the Cheek” (Kannathil Muthamittal), 7:30 p.m. Friday, $7, Tamil with subtitles

Director Mani Ratnam is one of the biggest names in Indian cinema. He’s been nominated for two Academy Awards, for “Nayakan” (1987) and “Anjali” (1991), and has directed several other extremely successful films, including “Dil Se,” starring one of India’s leading box office magnets, the ever-popular Shah Rukh Khan, “Alai Payuthey,” filmed in Tamil and later remade in Hindi as “Saathiya” and “Bombay,” a terrifying depiction of the Hindu-Muslim riots that exploded in that city in December 1992.

Ratnam’s films often feature deep explorations of India’s political problems, and often put a human face on terrorism, war and the ruination both bring to everyday people. In this, his latest release, Ratnam is back at it in fine form with the story of Amudha, a nine-year-old girl who is coming to terms with the fact that she is adopted. This drastically alters her perception of who she is and her relationship with her family. The news also draws her to Sri Lanka on a quest to find her biological mother, dragging her reluctant but supportive adoptive family with her. As Amudha’s path is revealed, so is a long and twisting trail of suffering and hard choices that has been trod both by her adoptive parents and by the mystery woman she is pursuing.

Beautifully shot with tasteful musical scenes that serve to advance the story through dream sequence-like revelations, this is Ratnam at his finest; deeply moving and profoundly human, portraying Amudha as a sad, confused little girl and the lost child that is too often the forgotten legacy of war.

“Devdas,” 7 p.m. Sept. 10, $7, Hindi with subtitles

This movie shattered all the spending records in the history of Indian movies, and every last rupee is splashed on the screen in glorious color and splendid sound. The latest rendition of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s famous novel of the same name, this is a spectacle of massive proportions.

Devdas Mukherjee is the son of a prominent Calcutta family. After returning from an extended period abroad he is reunited with his childhood love, the beautiful, but lower caste Parvati. The couple is doomed from the outset, and Devdas is cast into alcoholism and despair. His only companion besides the drink is a prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, Chandramukhi.

Prior to the release of this update of the classic, the acclaim for the most famous staging of “Devdas” had belonged to Bimal Roy, one of India’s cinematic masters. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali draws heavily from Roy’s version, but also adds some new dialogue and lots and lots of color.

This is the most “Bollywood” of all the films being screened, but it, too, diverges from the standard. The music is less pop and more classically-tinged, as is the dancing. Huge star power is provided by three of Mumbai’s true heavies, the aforementioned Khan, Madhuri Dixit and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai. Rai also appears in another film in the series, “I Have Found It.” The lush sets and lavish costumes are at times overpowering, but the acting still shines through. Great performances all around and some of the most amazing musical numbers ever staged update this classic tale of impossible love and self-destruction in grand style.

“A Tale of a Naughty Girl” (Manda Meyer Upakkhyan), 7 p.m. Sept. 24, $7, Bengali with subtitles

Another Bengali story adapted for the screen, this time left in its native tongue. Set in the weeks leading up to the first moon landing, this is the story of Lati. The best student in her class, she is imaginative, mischievous and the daughter of a prostitute who has grown up in a popular and terrifically seedy brothel with nasty clientele. Lati’s opportunity to avoid entering the family business comes at the price of being sold to a wealthy older man, an equally distasteful outcome as far as Lati is concerned. There are other stories that pop up around Lati’s, including a chauffer who, in trying to do a good deed, ends up carting an elderly couple all over the place. Lati becomes fascinated by the upcoming lunar landing and spends free time staring at the night sky, convinced she can see and hear the astronauts floating around in space above her.

“A Tale of a Naughty Girl” is neither overly moralistic nor unreasonably sanguine. The movie deals delicately but unflinchingly with the difficult situation of a little girl living in a brothel.

The structure of the movie as it cuts between stories works very well. The plot unfolds rapidly and simultaneous actions connect characters before their developing relationships are fully elaborated. The escape metaphor of landing on the moon is also used to the fullest. That trope allows Lati to be more than a simple potential runaway. She is an irrepressible dreamer who also knows a good opportunity when she sees one.

At a trim 90 minutes, this is the shortest film in the series by well over half an hour. In this case what they say is true: Even the lightest Indian films tend to run long by American standards.

“War and Peace” (Jang aur Aman), 7 p.m. Sept. 25, free, Hindi, Japanese and English with subtitles

We often quote politicians and generals when talking about war, but perhaps Elvis Costello said it best when he asked: “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?” According to documentarian Anand Patwardhan: nothing. In one of the most incredible opening sequences in recent memory, Patwardhan loads the mental gun with things you most likely already know, puts them all very eloquently and frames them in a personal narrative, then pulls the trigger. The result is that Gandhi, Hiroshima, the nuclear arms race and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (an “untouchable” who fought for social reform) and the Dalit rights movement are all lodged in your brain for the remainder of this documentary, which is nothing short of amazing.

“War and Peace” gets to the origin of India’s nuclear program, its many costs and the political power struggle that keeps it going in several chapters. The whole world is simultaneously fueling the nuclear fire and a victim of its burns. Patwardhan spares no one as he points the finger. Not all blame, gloom and doom, “War and Peace” also goes far in showing the relations of regular people to one another. People drawn in the political rhetoric as “natural enemies,” born hating one another, are shown in friendly exchanges and debates over who benefits from a climate of hate and fear.

Closing the movie is a quote from the Mahatma Gandhi himself that plays over a series of disturbing images from one of the darkest days in the United States, Sept. 11, 2001. “It may be long before the law of love is recognized in international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the hearts of one people from those of another. One thing is certain: If the mad race for armaments continues, it is bound to result in a slaughter, such as has never occurred in history. If there is a victor left, the very victory will be a living death for the nation that emerges victorious. There is no escape for the impending doom, save through a bold and unconditional acceptance of the nonviolent method, with all its glorious implications.”

“I Have Found It” (Kandukondain Kandu-kondain), 7 p.m. Sept. 26, $7, Tamil with subtitles

Closing the series is a fairly typical Bollywood-style movie, only it’s not in Hindi. The second movie starring Rai is also the second to feature music by film song hit-maker A.R. Rahman. This is essentially Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” set in modern-day southern India. A family of women lose their home when the patriarch dies. They wind up just barely scraping by in the hustle and bustle of Chennai. “I Have Found It” focuses on two of the daughters. The elder is an unlucky and very disciplined woman who spends most of her time working and the younger is a free spirit and incurable romantic who spends all of her time daydreaming. The sisters both fall in love, but through bad luck and a series of setbacks, things never seem to work out right.

Rahman’s music is stirring, if perhaps a bit on the pop side of the spectrum. The song and dance numbers take cast members around the world in typical Bollywood style. (Wait, how did they get to Egypt? Bollywood magic, of course!) Tamil actress Tabu stars in a light role, in contrast to her portrayal of an eternally tortured bar girl in the powerful film “Chandni Bar.”

The story is engaging, as is the acting, and the whole thing will have you dancing in your seat and humming the songs on the impossible-to-find soundtrack. It’s a fun movie, but also offers a look into the harsh world of women forced to start over when they’re left with nothing, due to a corrupt system of inheritance.