5 short stories

Top Five Short Story Reads from November-December 2016

Due to travel, I am late with the last couple of instalments of this series. So, here’s November and December together.

In the medium of film, I am drawn to the short film for the same primary reason that I am drawn to the short story: the ability to say so much with so little. So, this time, I’m focusing on short films written/directed by Indians or people of Indian origin. Of course, there are many amazing award-winning short films from countries all over.  We’ll definitely get to those another time. Just as we’ll get to documentaries some other month too.

Indian short films get, well, more short shrift in India and among the Indian diaspora the world over because Bollywood masala reigns supreme. Still, I am finding this to be a fascinatingly growing, evolving genre. The storytelling is not always the best — for example, far too many stories with O Henry twists or clumsy moral agendas. And the performances are sometimes below par even with popular Bollywood talent — like Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tisca Chopra, Konkana Sen Sharma, et al. I am also disappointed at how hard it is to find women — Indian or of Indian origin — writing/directing short films. Let’s hope that will change too.

All that said, there are some absolute gems to be found if you know where to look. Here are some of them, ranging from 8-30 minutes each, and written by Ritesh Batra, Rashida Mustafa and Suketu Mehta, Kaushal Oza, Leena Pandharkar, and Anand Gandhi. We have a street-dwelling shoeshine boy who wants to be a masterchef on TV, a woman who leaves her husband and child to be another man’s second wife, a Parsi widow trying to deal with well-meaning relatives, a 65-year-old Indian immigrant in the US trying to cope with early retirement, a cast of 15 characters connected across a single day by 2 sets of causal events that come full circle for the one who started it all off. Enjoy. I think all have English subtitles too.

1/ Masterchef by Ritesh Batra

Batra is famous for ‘The Lunchbox‘ — good movie and many wanted it to be India’s Oscar selection for that year. But, this short gives more feels, I think.

It is an 8-minute short drama with a rather abrupt ending. Still, as I’ve said elsewhere before: for me, endings are really about beginnings. I like stories that end with the promise of some new beginning, which this one kinda does. What I also like about it is that Batra has not sentimentalized the story. This could have gone, so easily, the way of Slumdog Millionaire or suchlike. I’m glad it did not.

From Short of the Week’s website:

1 of 5 films created for an innovative awareness campaign put together by the Sundance Institute in conjunction with the Gates Foundation, Masterchef is a simple but elegant story of poverty, gumption and the power of dreams.

Poor and living out on the streets, young Akhil is a primary earner for his family, spending his days as a shoeshine boy. The director, Ritesh Batra, recently celebrated for his feature film The Lunchbox, does not linger on the poverty or play it up for pathos, but instead celebrates the young character’s fortitude.

. . .

The project, the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge, is a mixture of commissioned work and a film contest, dedicated to “inspire discussion, shift perception and dismiss stereotypes of poverty and hunger.” The only narrative work in this initial batch of 5, Batra’s work accomplishes this mission quite well in its depiction of Akhil, but also cleverly comments on the transformative power of media in general. Akhil’s access to TV, his ability to see the Masterchef in the storefront window, serves as an animating force for his dream, and thus the film serves as a powerful confirmation of the entire project’s mission in crafting media to address these subjects.

2/ How Can It Be by Rashida Mustafa and Suketu Mehta (writers) and Mira Nair (director)

Suketu Mehta is most well-known for his book about Bombay, Maximum City. Mira Nair is known to many due to her award-winning movies like Salaam Bombay! and, most recently, Queen of Katwe.

This work is part of an anthology of 8 short films made in 2008 on the 8 millenium development goals and focuses on the 3rd goal of “Promote gender equality and empower women.”

It’s an interesting interpretation of the goal because it shows a mother leaving her husband and son to go be the second wife of her married lover — subversive and not at all what we might think of as gender equality or women’s empowerment. Yet, that subversiveness itself is the message, right? That a woman has that power to choose to leave, just as a man might do so easily. And that this protagonist would choose to do this, knowing all that it would entail for her, is where her empowerment lies.

It’s unsettling, though, to talk about women’s empowerment in such terms. And that’s what this moviemaking team wanted, I suppose, to open up exactly that dialogue.

3/ Afterglow by Kaushal Oza (writer and director)

One of my favorites from the time I watched it years ago, when it won the 2012 National Award for the “Best Short Film on Family Values.”

A bit disconcerting that they hand out awards for “family values” films. Because, really, why does the Indian government get to decide what these family values might be?

That aside, this is a wonderfully written, directed, and acted film. It balances the tragedy and the comedy of a time in a Parsi widow’s life right after the death of her long-time spouse, when friends and family members show up with their various tics and well-meant advice. If anything, Oza, to me, is thumbing his nose at the perceptions of “family values” that these visitors seem to be demonstrating.

I love, also, the actress who plays the widow — her facial expressions are perfectly timed so that she doesn’t really have to say much in the present-time scenes. Most of her talking is reserved for the flashback scenes.

4/ Dandekar Makes A Sandwich by Leena Pandharkar (writer and director)

Leena Pendharkar is among the new breed of Indian-American film-makers in the US.

So, what I like about this one is that, firstly, we have a rare kind of protagonist — the “65-year-old Indian immigrant who built his American dream.” Then, we get to see him doing something you are not likely to see Indian immigrants of that generation do — being a royal pain in a supermarket with the deli lady. And, finally, we get to see him doing something even more unexpected. These are all the things I liked about the short film. I have yet to watch the full-length feature but the synopsis below is definitely interesting.

Also, in case the actor appears familiar to you as he did to me, here’s some background about him: “Brian George, Actor, Was born in Israel, the youngest of four children. His parents were Middle-eastern Jews who, until their early 30s, lived in India and spoke only English (but with really good Indian accents)… In 1986, Brian moved to Los Angeles and since then has worked non-stop, in sit-coms Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory, dramas Star Trek, Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland film Austin Powers, Keeping the Faith, Horrible Bosses, cartoons Animaniacs, Batman, Star Wars Clone Wars, the web Burning Love and on stage, Stuff Happens, Yes, Prime Minister.”

Armed with plenty of time on his hands, RK Dandekar, a curmudgeonly retiree with a picky palate, will stop at nothing to find just the right ingredients for the perfect sandwich. A heartfelt, offbeat tale about the perks of aging.

 

This short film is the prequel to a longer, feature-length movie, ‘Days With Dandekar.’ It depicts the emotional journey of a lonely man seeking deeper meaning, purpose, and connection in his life. RK Dandekar is a 65-year-old Indian immigrant who built his American dream from the ground up, yielding the comfortable life he always wanted – a job he enjoys, successful daughters, and a wife he admires.

 

But when his company suddenly forces him into early retirement, he must confront a frightening question: what do I do now? RK turns to his family, wanting to be close, to find a connection, only to find that they don’t have time for him. So he wanders around town in his beloved Volvo, getting free samples at the local stores. Thinking a new car will cheer up their father, RK’s daughters trade in his cherished Volvo. RK is devastated, and rushes to the used car salesman to get it back, only to find that it’s been sold.

 

Panicked, RK races all over town searching for the car, posting flyers, trying to find any leads he can, determined to get it back. As he searches, he is confronted by moments from his past where he wasn’t always the kind, jolly man he sees himself as today, especially to his wife. Through his journey, he comes to realize that he can’t relive the past, he can only move forward. Days with Dandekar is a story of redemption and hope, and redefining one’s self when all seems lost.

5/ Right Here Right Now by Anand Gandhi (writer and director)

This is the longest short film on this list. It is also one of the best despite its age — 2003. The above video is for Part 1. Part 2 is below.

Anand Gandhi won the National Film Award for Ship of Theseus, which I have mentioned before as a must-watch.

This short was his directorial debut and won many awards. Mainly the story shows a causality of events through 2 cyclical chains — one of sorrow/anger and the other of joy. Both sets of events are set into motion by a single individual who, in the end, is affected both negatively and positively when things come together.

It’s fast-moving, with about 15 characters (my favorite is that Gujju grandma with the great big bindi on her forehead) and 17 locations, all in the span of 30 minutes. The tight narrative and the skilled direction prevent this one from falling apart or coming off as too pat and unbelievable. I also want to know more about each mini-story that we glimpse so quickly but vividly.

More Resources

I’ve only scratched the surface with this storytelling form. Some resources I intend to look into deeper:

Large Short Films

HumaraMovie (more about them here)

Indian Short Movies

Short Film Window (created by a team of Indians; filter for Genre “Indian”)

National Film Award for Best Short Film

There are the usual lists of “best Indian short films” out there but I find them to be mostly a mixed bag of hit-or-miss. Still, here they are:

ScoopWhoop’s List

IndiaToday.in’s List

Indiatimes.com’s List

Times of India’s List

Polkacafe’s List

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