Park City, US: It happened for Writing with Fire in 2021 when it won the Audience and Special Jury award as it did for All That Breathes last year when it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Documentary at the Sundance festival. Both Indian documentaries went on to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards the following year. This year, when the festival returned for in-person screenings, panels, parties, and workshops after a two-year pandemic gap, Against The Tide hit a Sundance hat trick for India. 

Egyptian Marquee, 2015 :copyright: 2015 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jemal Countess.

The documentary, directed by Sarvnik Kaur, bagged the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Verite Filmmaking for its realistic portrayal of the “lives of people who might be so distant from us and experience the challenges of their life circumstances first hand.” The film is an up close look at two close friends from the Koli fishermen community in Maharashtra battling the odds of climate change and the modern day struggle to sustain their traditional livelihood. For the foreign educated Ganesh, going deep sea fishing using all that technology can offer, and he can buy is the only way to survive. His friend, Rakesh, coming from a humble fisherman background, destroying the environment and straying from the century-old practices of their ancestors is non-negotiable even as he struggles to get a decent catch for the morning Mandi. 

Through intimate familial scenes and drunken banter during their nightcap sessions, the two characters share a close kinship (despite their class differences) yet principally differ in their approach to life, and the vocation that binds them, much like brothers by blood often do. The Sundance jury noted, “Their lives, hardships and humor reflect those of billions of people that are most affected by global warming and who are seeing their livelihoods being threatened in its essence.”

Sundance festival catapulting Indian documentaries to the Oscars
The cast of and crew of Against the Tide wins the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: verite Filmmaking for Against the Tide by Sarvnik Kaur at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute

A conscious documentary filmmaker whose previous film, A Ballad of Maladies was set in Kashmir that went on to win a national award, Kaur started the film in 2015 following a coastal road project that threatened to demolish local livelihoods. With Against The Tide, she took her time to follow Rakesh and Ganesh, as the two made her feel like her creativity may have been limited, but their lives were infinite, she said.  

“Very early on in the film, I’d made this connection, where I figured that what happens on the sea is what happens in their lives,” Kaur told EastMojo. “So the difficult aspect wasn’t catching the pollution on the sea, or the plastic or the lack of fish that I knew if I went often enough and if I could shoot with them on the sea often enough, I would find it that the crisis on the sea ends up becoming the prices in their lives.”

2020 Sundance Film Festival Screening Atmosphere © Sundance Institute | photo by Dan Campbell

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Audiences this year were treated to a bevy of solid fictional cinema from South Asia across genres of feature films like the Saim Sadiq-directed Joyland (shortlisted for Best International Feature by the Academy) and Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society (comedic take on British Pakistanis reminiscent of Bend It Like Beckham). The festival also saw the very first South Asian lodge (after being ensconced into the Asian American House for years) come up as a dedicated space for artists of the descent (or nationalities). Kamran Khan, co-founder of 1497, a features lab promoting South Asian storytelling in the American film and television industry, said that the increase in representation in Hollywood has come from a woefully underrepresented and misrepresented starting point, one of which is the monolith of South Asia as essentially India.

“Why try and tell a story that Hollywood is already excellent at telling?” Khan said, speaking on the space that Sundance offers ‘outsider of a corporate sanitisation process’. 

“Tell the stories they can’t/won’t tell, and that pushes the creative and political boundaries. Like many times through history, artists will take a stand against tyranny, whether through comedy, drama, horror, sci-fi, or fantasy. South Asian artists should feel they have a place to tell that story”.

From India, Richie Mehta of the Emmy-winning series, Delhi Crime, premiered three episodes of his new series on the investigative collaboration of forest officials, State police and NGO workers to stop ivory poaching in Kerala. The series imprints his familiar style of an opening from a crisis scene (a poacher surrenders to the police), weaving together a drama of several characters driven by a common purpose, both professionally urgent and personally meaningful. As a Canadian filmmaker of Indian origin based in the UK, Mehta spends several years researching and asking questions on subjects that pique his interest. 

Cast and crew attend the World Premiere of Poacher by Richie Mehta, an official selection of the Indie Episodic Program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

“I just go about my way, encountering someone very interesting and asking them questions,” he told EastMojo. “With Delhi Crime, it was the ex-police commissioner, and in the case of Poacher, it was wildlife crime fighters in Delhi. This way, I like opening up a world that no one else seems to be talking about.”

India’s entries were particularly enriched by the quality of short features that were screened this year – White Ant (directed by Shalini Adnani) and Nocturnal Burger (by director Reema Maya on her second Sundance screening).  Born and brought up in Chile, Adnani brings the increasingly common narrative of Indian families breaking away from ancestral homes and joint families in her short. Her central character is seen attempting to renovate (and reconnect with) an old family home left in disrepair for years, only to find it overrun by termites eating away at its wood and scaffolds. Her own extended family disintegration following her grandfather’s demise served as inspiration. “I also took the experience of my dad, my dad’s side of the family dealing with a termite infestation, in their house in Mumbai,” she told EastMojo. “I just thought it was a really great metaphor to encapsulate the decay of these traditional values”.

Shalini Adnani attends the Shorts Program 3 press line at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jen Fairchild.

Adnani’s directorial style is a blend of the Latin artistic magic realism she has grown up seeing and the intergenerational trauma that persons of Indian origin experience as they have moved away from a traditional homestead. While Adnani attempted to break the romanticisation of returning to the homeland, Maya’s Nocturnal Burger exposed the gritty and sordid reality of India’s urban scape in her short set in a Mumbai police station. 

Through a master script and visceral direction, Maya deftly opens up several conversations on gender, space, abuse, and power over the course of depicting one night in a lock-up, where an ad executive (powerfully portrayed by Milo Sunka of Axone) comes to file a complaint. The cosmopolitan class dynamic of the city is underscored in choosing a working girl from India’s Northeast to play the part of an English-speaking saviour, who rescues a young girl from her male teacher taking her out late at night on the pretext of treating her to a burger. 

Reema Maya attends the Shorts Program 3 press line at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jen Fairchild.

Speaking to EastMojo, Maya said she draws heavily from ‘intense life experiences’ for all her fictional films. “It’s just observation of life and experiences of life that have really struck me deeply, which I needed to get out of my system and be ready to talk about those things as a society,” said the filmmaker, whose portfolio also includes shooting commercial ad campaigns and music videos. Her last short at the 2018 Sundance, Counterfeit Kunkoo (starring Vijay Varma) – was the first Indian short film (fiction) to be selected in its 33-year history that made waves across international film festivals. 

With three other Indian (origin) filmmakers this time, Maya said the diasporic representation had undoubtedly grown this year with a strong South Asian presence at the festival. “In the last 38 years, there have been 101 projects from South Asia, not just India. It was very goosebump-inducing to see Counterfeit Kunkoo and Nocturnal Burger as a part of it,” said Maya, proud that she could help tip it over 99.  

Cast and crew attend the Shorts Program 3 press line at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. © 2023 Sundance Institute | photo by Jen Fairchild.

With Netflix and all OTTs going global, the broad realisation of Indian and South Asian storytelling crossing borders is visible through audience reactions and conversations at the festival panels, with filmmakers and industry insiders doffing a hat to it. The ecstasy over RRR making big red carpet appearances this awards season aside, little was said about artistic freedom of expression, whether Bollywood’s propaganda turn or the row over independent films like Kaali (for its poster depicting the Goddess Kali smoking a cigarette). 

Mehta is visibly and self-admittedly cautious in addressing the gap in films addressing the religiously polarising atmosphere in India right now from either side of the fence, with his own work thus far not running into any controversies. “I’m aware it is being discussed, but I haven’t read anything about it,” he said, limiting his focus to wildlife crimes, as he plans to gear his focus soon on the Northeastern corridor after navel gazing in the South.

“The next story will be on climate or a species going extinct, and that’s the world I engage in because not enough people are talking about it.”

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