A Decent Arrangement (2011, dir. Sarovar Banka)
I really wanted to love this film about a rudderless (or slacker, as the director called him) Indian-American man, Ashok (Adam Laupus), who goes to India for an arranged marriage wrangled by his aunt (Shabana Azmi). A Decent Arrangement is less the culture clash story that that description may suggest and much more Ashok's coming of age, even though he is putting a first toe in the waters of self-awareness and bravery at a more advanced age than you might suspect. I was frustrated with Ashok throughout most of the film because he refuses to say much about what's going wrong with his life. My favorite moment is when he explains to another American traveler that he is getting an arranged marriage not out of any sense of Indian cultural identity but because he has seen the contentedness of his married friends and wants a little piece of that for himself, and since his demographic identity enables him to get married quite easily, he's going to take advantage of it. I say "demographic identity" purposefully because I have more knowledge of and affiliation with Indian culture than Ashok does.
This is the first time I've seen a story about a non-white person going to India in search of happiness or to find himself, made all the more interesting when the other American character, Lori, who is white, poo-poos Eat Pray Love-type stories while she acts every bit that indulgent, wandering stereotype. The difference between Ashok and Lori is that he's in India because he was trying to head towards something, albeit something he seems to understand so little that he can't participate in it or even identify it, while Lori gives us a line about ivory towers and not knowing if she's really happy.
The film is set in Chandigarh, which is significant for its contrast of the planned city with floundering Ashok and Lori. I can't decide if I think the Indian characters are supposed to be significantly more pulled-together and organized than Ashok. Even if they are not exactly happy (at least not in the American "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" sort of way), they seem satisfied and calm, perhaps because, as the title suggests, the arrangement of their lives is decent and sufficient, providing opportunities they understand and know how to follow. They know what they're doing, unlike Ashok, who doesn't seem to know anything at all until the very end of the film.
Runaway (2012, dir. Amit Ashraf)
For reasons I will explain later, I missed the first 20 minutes or so of Runaway, so I might be missing the key to what made the central character Baba (Shahed Ali Sujon) tick in such a weird and increasingly scary way. I had absolutely no idea where this story was going or how its threads were going to tie together (an ignorance probably intensified because of what I missed), so every time I winced I could still hope that something nice was in store for these clearly messed-up and desperate people. Actually, the roots and expressions of their desperation are another strength of the script and performances, now that I think about it. In the director's Q&A after the film, there was a discussion about the film's internal and human-scale logic, and I have to agree with the general opinion of the festival audience that this film ended exactly as it had to. Given how these characters are—which is very thoroughly established by the remarkable things they do throughout the film—and the structures and flows of power, there is but one possible ending. And what an ending it is, too. I will say no more except that to warn that for me this was not an easy film to watch but its harshness is mindful in a way I very much respect.
Jalpari (2012, dir. Nila Madhab Panda)
You may think you don't really want to see a film about female foeticide that is centered on adorable moppety children from the big city who adventurously scamper through Haryana tales and games while their father also confronts some kind of specter of his dead wife and regressive village politics, but believe me, you do.
There's something about the tone of this film that establishes a comfortably fairy-tale structure despite the horrifying truth about the much-feared witch who lurks at the edge of the village. Perhaps the actual displacement of the story from their crisp urban home in modern Delhi to the crumbling ancestral home full of strangers (from the children's point of view) adds to the sense of distancing it from "now" and placing it in a less real setting. Bad things happen in this village, but nothing seems absolutely perilous.
The actors add considerably to the safety net; the three lead child actors (Lehar Khan, Krishang Trivedi [as the visiting siblings], and Harsh Mayar [the local ringleader who tuants them]) are so charming that I couldn't believe any real harm would befall them, and Parvin Dabas (as their confident and protective doctor dad) and Suhasini Mulay (their calm and wise grandmother) are people whose mere presence makes me happy. There is nothing un-real about what the protagonists experience, but the world they uncover feels removed even from their normal lives.
All of this makes it a fascinating contrast to one of the features the next day that dealt in part with the same basic issue...
Lessons in Forgetting (2012, dir. Unni Vijayan)
Gut-wrenching, unsettling, this is the grown-up response to the children-focused story of Jalpari in that the grown-up world so often has no tidy endings, no righting of the moral balance. It's not that this is more sophisticated than the other film, but it is darker, more complicated, and much more frightening. While both films touch on the rationale for female foeticide of "that's how it is in the village—we're not as modern as you city folks—so just leave it be," there is a more intense intent of using power to silence critics in this one. Again, there is an ending that I won't discuss, and it is even more harrowing than that of Runaway. I have not read the novel on which this is based, but author Anita Nair wrote the screenplay and I think she did a brilliant job at the arrangement and pacing of the stages of revealing the answers to the multiple questions that drive the principal threads of the story. Adil Hussain is wonderful as Jak, a father trying to figure out how his daughter (Maya Tideman) ended up mangled and unconscious. Like the father in Jalpari, he is a man of science, but unlike that father he is removed in time from the tragedy and can only look back, unable to observe directly. There is only what other people remember and are willing to tell him. He is desperate to know things, but the title suggests that might not be a wise or sustainable approach.
Contrasting with Jak, whose most important family member is returned to him nearly shattered, is Meera, played by a vibrant but restrained Roshni Achreja, whose family disappears throughout the film, leaving her reason and opportunity to become part of Jak's world. There is something about the quiet effort and openness of Meera that I just love. She's a little child-like, perhaps a result of one of the most adult aspects of her life being ripped away, but she is also more resilient and healthy in the face of tragedy than Jak. Together they create the sense that they will progress through their losses and confusion, holding on to what is valuable and shedding the rest. It's a powerful film with some truly brutal moments, but I was left with hope as well. Not much, but enough.