Flatpack Festival
Film for all the senses

Beyond Bollywood

Monday 22nd April, 2024 Posted by Valentina Vitali

For Flatpack 2024, film historian and BCU professor Valentina Vitali has programmed a selection of award-winning short films from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Here she reflects on South Asian cinema, and why it's so crucial to programme outside of mainstream distribution and corporate streaming platforms.

As a rule when audiences think of cinema in South Asia, they think of big-budget Hindi films. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all have large film industries releasing hundreds of films every year. So did, until recently, Myanmar and Afghanistan. Birmingham Indian Film Festival, Tongues on Fire Festival and Flatpack Festival have done a lot to promote this other kind of South Asian cinema. But the power of mainstream distributors and corporate streaming platforms is such that British audiences remain largely unaware of the variety and richness of the cinema made in Pakistan or Bangladesh, let alone in smaller countries like Bhutan or Nepal. In a country like Britain, where South Asian communities are large and diverse, this is simply not acceptable.

Beyond Bollywood is an opportunity to see award-winning films by contemporary independent filmmakers based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and yes, India. With a showcase of seven short films - mostly by young directors, five of whom are women - we want to spark interest in a new kind of South Asian cinema, new, that is, to the British public. In the Global North, public opinion tends to assume that filmmakers from the Global South are ‘still catching up’, and that films made ‘there’ are of lower quality. This is ridiculous and complacent; South Asian countries have been making films since cinema began in the 1890s. Today, even in countries where independent artists are at risk, and women are constitutionally marginalised, filmmakers, including women, succeed in making films of very high quality - in fact, often of higher quality than the fare peddled by powerful distributors. It is not so much a matter of these filmmakers’ courage - although that too always leaves me open-mouthed. It is rather a question of audiences developing the awareness that these films from South Asia say something also to and about us, here, in the Global North.

That is why I research and write about cinema in South Asia, and especially about women’s cinema there. I want to see more of it and would like others to be able to do the same. Researching, writing and programming events like Beyond Bollywood are the tools at my disposal to achieve that. So far, public response to my screenings has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of the screenings and the research behind them were funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which believed in these events’ capacity to challenge facile notions of South Asian identity. Beyond Bollywood features a small selection of filmmakers whose work I have come across over the years, either in their country or at festivals. I taught film theory and history in India and Myanmar, for instance, at the Yangon Film School. I also work closely with film scholars based in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Everything I know about cinema in this region I learned from the students I taught and the scholars I met there.

Today the technology to make films has become more accessible. What is missing are venues and opportunities for independent films to be seen widely. My hope is that the more opportunities audiences are given to watch films by contemporary South Asian filmmakers, the more independent South Asian films they will want to see. The powerful players in the film industry are in the business of making money. Change will not come from them, unless they stand to make a profit. Change will have to come from audiences. As viewers, we should all feel that responsibility - let alone that we owe it to ourselves not to let algorithms chose for us. Events like Beyond Bollywood give us the chance to do just that.

Filmmakers in the UK are not going through a good time. Funding for production is difficult to come by, cinemas are booked up with bland Anglophone fare, and independent venues and festivals struggle to survive. But I believe that there is always the room for independent thought, even in times like these. Come and look at what filmmakers are doing today in Myanmar and Afghanistan, to name just two recent cases of extreme political oppression. I can’t think of one good reason why anyone would not want to find out what creatives there are making and how they do it.

Beyond Bollywood takes place on Wednesday 15 May at Mockingbird Cinema. Book your tickets here.

Further reading

Interview with Valentina Vitali - RedCut Collective

South Asian Women’s Cinema: Between Festivals & Streaming - NO NIIN magazine

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