Mumbai looms large on Toronto festival screens

The festival, which opens today, showcases an impressive line-up of Indian feature films that break new ground with previously taboo subjects.

A scene from the Indian movie 'Miss Lovely'. Courtesy TIFF
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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), beginning today and running until September 16, makes film fans act like children in a sweet store, with its enticing spread of hotly anticipated world premieres, including the best from Cannes and Venice, plus entire sections dedicated to hard-hitting documentaries and children's films.

It's a Herculean task deciding what to see. The section that clearly stands out is this year's "City to City" programme, which will focus on Mumbai.

Announcing Mumbai as the showcase city, Cameron Bailey, the festival's co-director, stated: "Mumbai's cinema today is entirely different from what it was even a few years ago. The rise of independent cinema has shifted the terrain, probing into previously taboo subjects and adopting styles that were earlier unpalatable to the Indian audience."

Of the 10 films selected for the section, four are world premieres (Ship of Theseus, Shahid, Mumbai's King and The Bright Day), while four others (Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 and 2, Peddlers and Miss Lovely) are making their North American debuts, following premieres at the Cannes International Film Festival back in May.

Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely, about two brothers working in a 1970s underground cinema showing illicit films, could almost be considered a world premiere because it has been re-edited since it was shown as a work-in-progress at Cannes.

Rounding off the selection are Dibakar Banerjee's political drama Shanghai, headlined by Abhay Deol, and Ishaqzaade, Habib Faisal's love story set amid political violence in northern India.

The hype surrounding Ship of Theseus, the debut film by the celebrated Indian playwright Anand Gandhi, has already reached fever pitch. The Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap recently posted on Twitter: "Just saw an extraordinary film by Anand Gandhi. Probably the most brilliant film to have been made in India in decades … puts us all to shame."

This sentiment was echoed by the filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who tweeted, "Finally a brilliant new filmmaker emerges in Anand Gandhi with Ship of Theseus."

The film promises to take audiences on a cosmic journey inspired by the Greek philosopher Plato's Allegory of the Cave, examining the meaning of identity through three interconnected stories of a blind photographer (played by the actress and Egyptian activist Aida Elakshef), a dying animal-activist monk (the acclaimed stage actor Neeraj Kabi), and a determined stockbroker (Sohum Shah).

Another new talent making his directorial debut is the Pune-based theatre director Mohit Takalkar. His film, The Bright Day, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about Shiv, a young man who leaves his secure middle-class family life to set out on a journey of discovery. Using tiny consumer cameras, Takalkar's road movie takes the protagonist across a wide variety of landscapes as he tries to work out what exactly he wants in life.

And then there is Manjeet Singh's Mumbai's King. Slumdog Millionaire had its world premiere in Toronto in 2008, so it is some claim when Bailey writes in his programme notes: "In this unassuming debut, the director Manjeet Singh captures the reality, the drama, the complexity and the beauty of life in Mumbai. While there are certain stylistic nods to Slumdog's indelible images, Singh's eye pursues different details, and his story allows for a richer observation of life."

Hansal Mehta's film Shahid tells the true story of the slain human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi, killed in 2010 by unidentified assailants in his office. The movie stars Raj Kumar and Prabhleen Sandhu.

Films set in India are not only limited to TIFF's "City to City" section. Another anticipated event is the gala screening of the Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Metha's adaptation of the popular novel Midnight's Children. Shot on location in Sri Lanka last year, the film chronicles the epic story of two babies, born in the same hospital on the day that India became independent, who end up being sent home with the wrong families.

With such a strong line-up, it is likely that the screenings at TIFF will finally put paid to the belief that Indian cinema is all just song and dance.

The Middle East makes it mark

Those on the lookout for new films about the region will be delighted with the premieres on offer in Toronto.

With The Patience Stone, the French-­Afghan author Atiq Rahimi adapts his own novel about a mother of two whose husband is in a coma, set in an unnamed, war-torn Arab country. The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani stars.

Ben Affleck seems an unusual name to appear in a section on the Middle East, but in addition to starring in To the Wonder by Terrence Malick (whose parents are Lebanese immigrants), the actor directs and stars in Argo, a film about a CIA official who concocts an outlandish plan to get six stranded Americans out of Tehran after the 1979 invasion of the US embassy, by having them masquerade as a Hollywood film crew.

There also are several of documentaries bound to provoke debate. As If We Were Catching a Cobra is the Syrian filmmaker Hala Al Abdallah's documentary about cartoonists in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Palestine. She narrates how their work has become a vehicle for dissent and a voice for freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Fidai is a documentary from the first-time ­Algerian filmmaker Damien Ounouri, about a 70-year-old veteran of the Algerian War of Independence who speaks out about his years of struggle as an underground soldier for the National Liberation Front.

The Israeli intelligence service is the focus of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh's documentary based on a series of candid interviews with six former heads of the Israel Security Agency.

The Lebanese Rocket Society, a new documentary from Joana Hadji Thomas and Khalil Joreige, is about Lebanon's brief flirtation with space travel in the 1960s. Another documentary focusing on Lebanon is A World Not Ours, in which the filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel travels to the largest Lebanese refugee camp, Ain Hilweh.

Lebanon is also the location for Eran ­Riklis' gritty drama Zaytoun, about an Israeli fighter pilot (played by the American actor Stephen Dorff) shot down over Lebanon and who must make his way across the war-torn country with the aid of an angry young ­Palestinian boy.

A refugee camp is also the focus of the Palestinian-American ­Annamarie Jacir's sophomore film When I Saw You. Set in Jordan in 1967, it features a mother and her 11-year-old son displaced from their home in the West Bank.

Inch'Allah, directed by the ­Quebec-born Anaïs Barbeau-­Lavalette and produced by the same team behind the 2010 Oscar-nominated Incendies, is a politically charged drama that explores the ramifications of Israel's separation barrier on the divided populations of the West Bank.

The Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, best known for his award-winning 1998 film West Beirut, will unveil his new film, The Attack, adapted from Yasmina Khadra's novel about an Arab surgeon living in Tel Aviv who discovers a dark secret about his wife following a ­suicide bombing.

In Ruba Nadda's Inescapable, Alexander Siddig stars as a Toronto-based Syrian businessman forced to return to the country he left three decades ago after his daughter disappears in Damascus. The film co-stars Joshua Jackson and Marisa Tomei.

The Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, who won a Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes film festival, returns with Rhino Season, a dreamy love story spanning three decades in Iran, starring Monica Bellucci and the Iranian superstar Behrouz Vossoughi.

Don't miss

• They said it could never be made into a film, but the Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy and the German director Tom Tykwer have united to film the adaptation of David Mitchell's acclaimed time-travelling novel Cloud Atlas. It stars Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Halle Berry.

• The last time Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling got together, they made the heartbreaking Blue Valentine. Their new collaboration is the crime thriller The Place Beyond the Pines, about a motorcycle stuntman who moonlights as a bank robber. Is this Drive on two wheels?

Venus and Serena is a documentary on the Williams sisters, focusing on the year the tennis champions spent trying to come back from injury.