Indian Filmmaker Shines at Jeonju Festival

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Indian Filmmaker Shines at Jeonju Festival

Despite its problems, the Jeonju International Film Festival will complete its run as the curtain falls tomorrow night for the final time. After nearly being cancelled due to a sudden change of organizers of the festival in mid-January, and despite complaints by visitors and guests about poor administrative arrangements during the first few days of the festival, the second Jeonju festival's radical selection of films was enough to brighten up discerning film buffs and quench filmmakers' thirst for communication.

The most talked-about section in the festival was the "Asian Independent Cinema Forum," the official competition section at the JIFF. This section differentiates Jeonju from the two other international film festivals held in Korea, the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) and the Puchon International Fantastic Festival (PIFAN). The movie "Deveeri," beautifully filmed by an Indian filmmaker, Kavitha Lankesh, was featured in this section. It tells the absorbing story of a 12-year-old boy from an urban slum and his sister, Deveeri, who prostitutes herself to send her little brother to school.

Based on the novel "Akka," by the filmmaker's late father, P. Lankesh, the film traces the life of a boy named Kyatya, who roams barefoot in the alleys of Bangalore. The walkways are so narrow that they could be straight out of a claustrophobic nightmare. The film stars an orphan from a Bangalore slum, Manja, whom Ms. Lankesh spotted on a street. His sister in this poetic indictment of Indian society is played by Nandita Das, an actor from Deepa Mehta's "Fire."

In a conversation with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition after the screening of the film on Saturday, filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh said that she felt like Robin Hood when she was running around trying to scrape up funding for "Deveeri," which was her first feature film.

"The distributor walked out half away through the film," she said. He was disappointed that there was no actual depiction of prostitution in the film as he had expected before coming to the screening. "I told him, you know she's a prostitute, why would want me to make a flagrant show of it and present what a cheap audience wants to look at." He decided against taking the film and "Deveeri" ended up being produced by four of the filmmaker's friends as a form of investment.

"It's crazy. Every time a woman wants to make a statement, the statement is nullified," she said. Ms. Lankesh added that she experiences frequent difficulty in fighting against audience conservatism.

This struggle over funding is not a new subject to a filmmaker who had been making documentaries for the previous seven years. She worked in an audio-visual production company and produced films for corporations to keep her finances balanced.

"I hate to sound so caught up with money, but it does boils down to money and who's providing it. Because if nobody's funding the film, I have to think, 'Can I afford to do this?'"

Often referred to as "Bollywood," the Indian film industry has the highest production output in the world. The market, however, is strictly divided into the so-called "sensible" films that are mostly seen by "balcony audiences," the intellectual community in India, and the popular films for the masses, which are based on simple, melodramatic plots.

"Deveeri" is one of the few films in India which managed to blur this separation and played in mainstream theaters.

"Personally, I think you should make films for the masses," she said, adding that "Deveeri" had mixed audiences and that people understood it on a variety of levels. When it opened, Ms. Lankesh took Manja's entire orphanage, almost 400 kids, to see "Deveeri" and their reaction was enthusiastic.

The film is filled with poetic metaphors throughout. An example of this is the frequent references to food. Whether it's through the sister Deveeri feeding her little brother Kyatya or the boy's rejection of food after finding out his sister is a prostitute, the film constantly relates the siblings' relationship to notions of food.

"When you are living in a slum where there is hardly any food, the difference between your hunger for food and the hunger in your soul becomes indistinguishable," she noted.

The film also offers a critique of the prevalent corruption in Indian society. Kyatya steals money from a politician's pocket and justifies it on the basis of the man's acceptance of bribes from civilians.

"Bribery is more blatant than ever in India. Just because you give bribes doesn't mean you are a bad person. People would rather give money to get the job done because it's faster that way and much less of a headache. Nobody feels bad about giving or accepting bribes anymore," she said.

Towards the end of the film, Deveeri leaves her little brother and the boy ends up in an orphanage. Despite this, the film presents rather a hopeful ending. The author of "Akka," P. Lankesh noted that the story was based on the tale of a young boy whom he had met in a slum.

The boy he met complained to the author with an angry face that his sister hadn't come home for four days. The child's anger and frustration is apparent in the film and it passes onto the viewers as they leave the theater.

"Deveeri" has been presented in film festivals all over the world, including Rotterdam, London and Cairo and received enthusiastic responses. Although Ms. Lankesh's film carries cross-cultural interests, she seems to be more interested in working in India and in her own language for the time being.

"It's more important to be myself first and then move outwards," she says. Ms. Lankesh is currently working on a film called "Alemaari," which tells the story of two women from the Lambani tribe.

by Park Soo-mee

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