In the month of September 19 years ago, Mira Nair travelled from Italy to Canada to present her film Monsoon Wedding at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film had just won the Golden Lion, the Venice festival’s top prize, and the Indian-American director was eager to showcase her movie at one of the biggest festivals happening next to Hollywood.
Then on September 11, terrorists struck in America, bringing down the twin towers and plunging the world into panic. Nair was among those filmmakers who sat anxiously in their hotel rooms, waiting for news from their families in New York, as the Toronto festival cancelled screenings on the day. Nearly two decades later, another new film by Nair is part of the TIFF lineup. But this time, a global pandemic has kept filmmakers away, prompting festival organisers to adopt a hybrid avatar, with physical and digital screenings, and virtual red carpet events.
Nair’s new production is a six-episode TV series based on Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy, considered one of the longest novels in English literature with 1,349 pages. Part of the Primetime programme for TV shows at the Toronto festival, A Suitable Boy follows the director’s last film Queen of Katwe, which premiered at TIFF four years ago.
The novel, inspired by a conversation between a mother and daughter about arranged marriages that the author overheard in a bus, is set in 1951 at a time when India is preparing for its first general elections. The wounds from a bloody Partition that divided and uprooted families are still fresh. Many of the old are stuck in the past, while the young are eager to move on. The hopes of an entire country for a better tomorrow are portrayed through the life of a young woman who treads precariously between her aspirations and her family, weighed down by its prejudices.
The nearly six-hour-long TV series, entirely shot in India at locations like Lucknow, Kolkata and Varanasi, starts with a wedding. “Anyone familiar with Nair’s work knows that this is not her first cinematic treatment of nuptials. Her modern masterpiece Monsoon Wedding was inspired in part by her favourite novel A Suitable Boy,” says Geoff Macnaughton, lead programmer, TIFF.
Though the backdrop is the almost immediate aftermath of Partition, the series resonates with contemporary India. Nair, who won the Cannes festival’s prestigious Camera d’Or for Best First Film for Salaam Bombay! in 1988, skillfully weaves the doubts and dislikes in a fragmented society without needing to spell out the period and politics. “Not only does the story resonate today, but the production process and decisions made throughout the development of the project are vital,” says Macnaughton, who is also TIFF’s senior director, industry and theatrical. “As Mira has said many times, if filmmakers from India are unable to tell their own country’s history then the cycle of reductive representation continues. This is one of the many reasons that this series is important, and will resonate with contemporary audiences globally,” he adds.
In episode one, an erstwhile king is orchestrating the construction of a temple near a mosque. Police soon open fire on protesters. Meanwhile, the home minister declares, “When the election comes, it is the Hindu majority we must carry with us. I told you, it is a Hindu country.”
Caught in the middle of hate and suspicion is Lata Mehra (played by newcomer Tanya Maniktala), the central character, an undergraduate student of English literature in the local university in the fictional town of Brahmpur. Lata’s mother Mrs Rupa Mehra (Mahira Kakkar), a widow, is looking for a suitable boy for her younger daughter. “You will marry a boy I will choose,” she tells Lata. When she hears that Lata is dating a college boy (called Kabir Durrani played by Danesh Razvi), Mrs Mehra asks, “What is his surname?”
In a fiercely patriarchal setting, Nair builds her story through powerful female characters like Lata and Saeeda Bai, a singer and courtesan (played by Tabu). Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khattar), the son of revenue minister Mahesh Kapoor (Ram Kapoor), falls in love with Saeeda Bai, leading to disastrous consequences for both. Minister Kapoor also finds himself in trouble with feudal landlords after he pilots a controversial land reforms bill. As the series progresses, Lata comes across poet Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen) and shoemaker Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), making it difficult for her to settle on a suitable boy.
The series carries along the stories of its many characters and the communal tensions in the slick writing by British playwright and author Andrew Davies (War and Peace, House of Cards, Pride and Prejudice), with soulful music by British composer Alex Heffes and Anoushka Shankar. Saeeda Bai’s haveli resonates with the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib and Daagh Dehlvi. There is Ghalib’s Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai/Aakhir is dard ki dava kya hai (O! innocent heart, what has happened to you/What is the medicine for this pain) and Dehlvi’s Na-rawa kahiye na-saza kahiye/Kahiye kahiye mujhe bura kahiye (Don’t tell me it is lawful, don’t pass a sentence/Call me, call me, yes, call me bad).
Nair, among the winners of the TIFF Tribute Awards this year with celebrated film personalities like Kate Winslet, Chloe Zhao and Anthony Hopkins, has screened nearly all her films at the Toronto festival. “Mira reached out to us in the summer and let us know that she was completing her adaptation of Vikram Seth’s sweeping novel,” says Macnaughton. “The idea of the project excited us for so many reasons, including the source material, the production team, the cast and the challenge they set for themselves in adapting an expansive story across six episodes. Once we were able to take a look, we all agreed that Mira and the entire production team accomplished something very special, and we invited it for Official Selection,” he adds.
Organised in the middle of a global pandemic, the Toronto film festival has reduced the scale of its programming to 50 feature films and 35 short films. There are only two physical venues along with two drive-in venues and an open-air cinema. With the world witnessing demands for racial justice, the festival focuses on diversity this year. Here are four such films which are part of the festival.
One Night in Miami
The directorial debut of Oscar-winning African-American actor Regina King, One Night in Miami symbolises the Toronto festival’s emphasis on inclusiveness in the film industry. The film, which has set off the Oscar buzz, is about a fictionalised meeting between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X after Ali wins his first world heavyweight boxing title at the age of 22. The meeting, also joined by Ali and Malcolm’s friends pop star Sam Cooke and actor-footballer Jim Brown, takes place in a motel in Miami on the night of Ali’s victory against Sonny Liston in February 1964. The friends debate how Black celebrities can serve their community.
Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco’s new film New Order couldn’t have been better timed. Beginning with hugs and drinking at a marriage in an affluent Mexico City neighbourhood, the film soon descends into street violence and looting by the have-nots. It soon emerges that the attacks on the affluent are backed by a new militarised regime where the politicians have joined hands with the security forces. The dystopian drama traces its roots to the Occupy Wall Street and the French Yellow Vest movements and last year’s anti-government protests across the world.
A new documentary about the coronavirus spread in Wuhan could provide a rare insight into the early stages of the pandemic. Directed by Chinese-American filmmaker Hao Wu in collaboration with two Chinese journalists, 76 Days shows how the city’s frontline workers faced the crisis during the same number of days of lockdown. Rare footage from hospital wards reveals the heroic work by medical staff who struggle to handle never-ending admissions. Wuhan, where it all began, was under lockdown from January 3 to April 8.
I Am Greta
Teenager climate activist Greta Thunberg now has a documentary film on her journey from being a high school student to an environmental warrior. I Am Greta by Swedish filmmaker Nathan Grossman shows how Thunberg went from a lone protester in front of the Swedish parliament to a global icon. “Today Greta is famous for her viral videos, but this film offers a unique view of her personal journey,” says TIFF programmer Thom Powers. The 97-minute film carries Thunberg’s inspirational speeches and messages.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer