Cinema and OTT shows are now routinely and faithfully channelling the sights, sounds, smells, and cadences of India’s small towns and villages. Be it the dimly lit hills, tea stalls and deodar groves of Simla in ‘Music Teacher’ or the unique dialect and topography of Chhatisgarh in ‘Chaman Bahaar’ or the dusty playgrounds, bazaars, mohallas, and terraces of Haryana, Punjab, and UP, the charm of an India that had all but disappeared from our narratives, has resurfaced and how. We all seem to be rediscovering the warmth of hand-knitted cardigans and the taste of extra spicy bhel, samosas with chutney and spicy local dialects. Here is an overview of some films of this genre, that really stood out.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s powerful film about life, death, love and loss captures Varanasi like never before. We see the stirrings of first love around a chaat stall and in a ‘mela’ strewn with red balloons, the first date over a “pizza with sauce”, poetic phone sessions on a terrace, a birthday celebration on a bike with an 80s love song playing in the backdrop. And then we see ghats aflame with pyres where love ends, grief begins and then the Ganges where lost things including hope are found again. One of the finest stories in recent times, ‘Masaan’ got the small town ethos just right, without romanticising it too much.
The Shoojit Sircar film worked despite Amitabh Bachchan’s prosthetic nose because it got the old-world charm and nostalgia swirling around Lucknow right. This was however not the Lucknow we saw in films like ‘Mere Huzoor’ and ‘Mere Mehboob’ in the sixties. That was the town of glittering Havelis, mushairas, romantic ghazals and pristine Urdu. This Lucknow had crumbling Havelis and a Chunnan ‘Mirza’ Nawab who like the walls around him, was worn out. His spats with his crafty tenant and the constant machinations they both indulge in to gain control over a heritage structure were both poignant and funny.
If ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ took us all on a trip around the streets of Kanpur, Ashish Aryan’s Kanpuriye delves even deeper into the aspirations, conflicts and struggles of its residents as they strain against the restrictions imposed upon them by their families and societal expectations. Termed as “sarphiro ka shehar,” (the town of the reckless), Kanpur is a compelling protagonist in this Yoodlee production with its bustling bazaars, riverside proposals, cluttered ‘aangans’ awash with family disputes and street squabbles with policemen.
This Apurva Dhar Badgaiyann film set in Lormi in Mungeli district of Chhatisgarh, not only captures the distinctness of the geography and the culture of the region, it also shows us what happens when gender roles remain static and male entitlement becomes a natural aspect of real and imagined relationships. The film with its true-to-life locations and unvarnished ambience is a disturbing comment on sexism and toxic masculinity and its rootedness and relatability make it even harder to forget.
Bahut Hua Samman:
When a braggart says, “plan to hamare pass sarkar giraane ka bhi hai,’ (I can even overturn the government) and a small time criminal calls himself, ‘Pablo Yadav’, we instantly get an insight into the milieu of this Ashish R Shukla film. In this slice of small-town living in UP, unemployment is rampant, dreams are big, mouths even bigger but reality always seems to be anti-climactic. Just the glimpse of a bank heist gone wrong and an earful of Nazia Hassan’s 80s hit, “Boom Boom” in the trailer was enough to make viewers tune in to this dark comedy which made them laugh and also feel sorry for the clueless heroes, Bony and Fundoo.