From the Bake Off to Benares…
Channel 4 streams its Indian film season for the first time. Plus, more Indian picks from Amazon and Festival Scope
All 4, Channel 4’s streaming and catch-up service, is not a resource I use as often as I should, at least when it comes to sourcing highlights for this column. That’s partly because some of their most surprising offerings are rather obscurely folded into the more typical fabric of the brand: people are largely heading to All 4 for last week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off, after all, rather than anything more specialist in nature.
But film buffs have a reason to go digging there this month, as for the first time, Channel 4 is including the selections from its annual Indian film season on the service for catch-up viewing – a mercy for viewers not inclined to start watching movies, however worthwhile they may be, at 1:30 on a weekday morning. It gives clearer access to a collection that provides, as in years past, a pleasingly rounded sample of modern Indian cinema, from Bollywood to its more independent reaches.
On the fresher end of the spectrum, and probably the pick of this year’s programme, is Masaan, a class-conscious ensemble romance that won first-time director Neeraj Ghaywan a new generation award at 2015’s Cannes film festival. A more sober spin on a traditional Bollywood melodrama, the film’s script entwines the crises of two pairs of young lovers whose romance is thwarted by social pressures and caste difference. Vividly set in the holy city of Benares, it uses somewhat conservative storytelling to advance more liberal millennial values, earnestly reflecting a society in flux.
Two more selections from the past couple of years, Rajat Kapoor’s comedy Ankhon Dekhi and Nagraj Manjule’s caste system critique Sairat, further prove the stylistic range and social conscientiousness of contemporary Indian filmmaking. Channel 4 balances the scales with an iridescent classic: available to stream from tomorrow, Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players is a glorious period wallow set on the eve of the 1857 Indian rebellion, weaving chess strategy into its tangle of political manoeuvrings between the ruling nabob and a British colonist in the kingdom of Awadh. Far from the earthy realism of his Apu trilogy, it’s perhaps Ray’s lushest, most atmospheric achievement.
Sticking with the theme of political process – but moving back to the present day, and switching channels to Amazon Prime – we have Newton, India’s charming submission for last year’s best foreign language film Oscar. It’s more a gently needling comedy than the pungent satire it would seemingly like to be, but there’s plenty to enjoy in its tale of a sweetly naive government official struggling to engineer a democratic election in a remote, insurgency-raddled jungle town with other matters on its mind. It’s hopeful and fretful at the some time, with a slight streak of Preston Sturges in its makeup.
Finally, while you’re on an Indian cinematic bent, you still have a few days left to stream a diverse selection of highlights from the recent Venice film festival programme on Festival Scope – among the most essential of which is Soni, a terrific feminist drama tackling the subject of sexual violence against women with candour and care. Following two Delhi policewomen facing thorny professional obstacles as they form an alliance on the issue, it’s hardedged, distinctly non-Bollywood cinema for the #MeToo era. Seek it out this week.
Shweta Tripathi and Vicky Kaushal in Masaan. Channel 4