Mumbai Film Festival 2023: Seven Must-Watch South Asian Films That Tackle Urgent Themes


Mumbai Film Festival 2023: Seven Must-Watch South Asian Films That Tackle Urgent Themes

A still from Daayam.

The Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is back after a three-year hiatus with a new and pronounced South Asian accent. A spread of films from the subcontinent in the festival selection – divided into three separate sections, Competition, Focus and Icons – provides proof of the sheer variety of the cinematic voices active in the region’s cinema. Among these is a sprinkling of films that play out in rarely-seen locations or are set in marginalized communities. These tales zero in on individuals, groups and cultures struggling for survival in a world overrun by greed, intolerance and lopsided development models.

Our pick of seven such powerful, must-watch South Asian films that address thorny themes and bring to the screen areas of beauty engulfed in darkness:


Director: Rajesh S. Jala

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The first narrative feature by award-winning documentary filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala, Chingari (The Spark) is a searing and stark exploration of life, death, trauma and vengeance in Banaras, an eternal city where time stands still. A man with a camera shoots a young boy who cremates dead bodies at the Manikarnika burning ghat and an old woman who is waiting to die in the holy city. As his project progresses, disturbing realities and psychological scars begin to emerge. Returning to the space where, more than 15 years ago, he filmed Children of the Pyre, which won awards at festivals in Montreal and Sao Paulo, Jala uses a subtle mix of sound and image, fire and crackle, words and silences, and veiled suggestions and pronounced revelations to capture the reality of a world spiralling into an abyss of hate and violence.


Director: Prasanth Vijay

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In his sophomore outing, director Prasanth Vijay, working with a script by Indu Lakshmi, crafts a sensitive and moving portrait of a high school girl coming to terms with the premature death of her mother, the pressures she faces from her family and the slow unravelling of a father she admires for his progressive ideals. The film probes the secrets that men nurture and the masks they wear and juxtaposes them with the quiet inner world of a teenager trying to make sense of what is going on around her. The Malayalam-language Daayam (Inheritance) is a worthy follow-up to the self-made Prasanth Vijay’s debut, The Summer of Miracles. The 2017 film was about a nine-year-old boy obsessed with becoming invisible; Daayam homes in on an older girl in the process of finding herself.


Director: Saurav Rai

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SRFTI-trained filmmaker Saurav Rai’s Guras (Rhododendron) skilfully and seamlessly combines fantasy and reality in a story that depicts the hardships of life in a mountain village of Darjeeling and the innocence and hope that reside in the heart of a nine-year-old girl whose dog – a pet that she describes as a member of the family – goes missing. The evocative and emotionally engaging Nepali-language film, Rai’s second (his maiden venture Nimtoh won the Grand Jury Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019), views the world through the eyes of the child. It is as much about the ordinariness and materiality of daily existence as it is about the magical and the miasmal that seep into – and flow out of – the girl’s imagination pretty much like the mist that floats around the village that she and her father, a cardamom farmer, and mother live in.


Director: Nabin Subba

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Another remote village, this one in eastern Nepal, is at the heart of prolific Nepalese filmmaker Nabin Subba’s community-funded A Road to a Village, a lively and profoundly moving tale of a family confronted with the challenges that the advent of modernity poses. A new road links the region to the outside world. A basket weaver, his wife and their school-going son, all of seven, discover that the lure of aerated drinks, television sets and mobile phones conceals the dangers that lie ahead for the family whose simple existence is now upended by their own changing demands and aspirations and the complications that arise within the village as a once closely-knit community faces disintegration.


Director: Nishtha Jain

A documentary feature that journeys into the heart of the fast-declining jute industry in Bengal’s Hooghly district, The Golden Thread (Hindi title: PaatKatha) is Nishtha Jain’s paean to workers staring down the barrel. They are weighed down by uncertainty as industrial plans around “the fibre of the future” seem averse to making room for them, the people who have for generations laboured hard to keep the machines running. With no voiceover, minimal music and moving images that speak a thousand words, the film examines the dire straits the workforce finds itself in. The workers throw light on their plight, a new generation seeks escape from the cul-de-sac, mills are shut down, and the machines that have fed thousands of families for a over a century are cleared out for disposal. A world is crumbling and those that helped build it can only watch with a sense of helpless inertia.


Director: Diwa Shah

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The film delves into a reality in which poverty is worse than a deadly virus. Nepalese migrant workers in the popular hill town of Nainital are inevitably at the receiving end as a lockdown is clamped and the border is sealed. First-time director Diwa Shah, winner of San Sebastian Film Festival’s New Directors Award, trains her camera on a man and his brother-in-law who work as porters on Mall Road and its surrounding areas. They stay back during the Covid-19 pandemic in the hope of making some extra money. Their family wants them back in Nepal alive and safe, but they cannot go back empty-handed. The Nepali-language film (which has dialogues in Kumaoni and Hindi as well) tells a tale filled with humanity and empathy as it dives deep into the lives of men that tourists (and, of course, locals) often do not care to pay attention to as they drive in and out of the hill station. Bahadur – The Brave does and presents a vivid portrait of privation.


Director: Shishir Jha

Set in a village of East Singhbhum, Jharkhand, Shishir Jha’s Santhali film, Tortoise Under the Earth (Original title: Dharti Latar Re Horo), is a lament for a land denuded and tribals uprooted from their homes to serve a skewed model of development. The film revolves around an old tribal couple (played by two amateur actors) who hold out against the inevitable as their identity, culture, community and village are close to annihilation under the onslaught of a proposed uranium mining project. As they come to grips with the loss of their daughter, they face displacement as trucks roll into the village, kick up dust and unload stones for a road that is to be built. Of course, the road leads nowhere for the couple. Can they stand their ground and the world around them collapses?


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