Puducherry’s unusual film festival

The Manifest festival showcases films on dance, a genre that is slowly coming of age.

Published : Aug 25, 2023 17:31 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from Samantha Shay’s Mother Melancholia, a film showcased at the Manifest Dance-Film Festival, 2023.

A still from Samantha Shay’s Mother Melancholia, a film showcased at the Manifest Dance-Film Festival, 2023. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Held at the Alliance Française de Pondichéry from July 28 to 30, the second instalment of the Manifest Dance-Film Festival in Puducherry featured performers who danced like nobody was watching, knowing, of course, that everyone was. By showcasing films on dance, Manifest, South Asia’s only international dance-film festival, celebrated a hyphenated genre which, many feel, is yet to realise its full potential in these parts.

Curated by AuroApaar, a non-profit arts centre run by Kathak practitioner Ashavari Majumdar and her husband, filmmaker Abhyuday Khaitan, Manifest ’23 showed several films that challenged hierarchies of the gaze twice over—first when being shot and next when being viewed. In 2022, the festival had received 100 submissions, but this year, it selected 60 films from over 250 submissions.

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Khaitan hit upon the idea for Manifest after watching several dance-films with Majumdar during the Covid lockdowns. Though Khaitan felt he was watching the birth of a genre, he wanted to curate a dance-film festival so he could see more such work. As someone who thinks of films as lyric, Khaitan wanted to fill a gap in the Indian film ecology. Majumdar and Khaitan have been regular collaborators for 20 years. She says that at its core, Manifest wants to address the lack of support given to Indian filmmakers who think of cinema as art, even while the ecosystem thrives for “film as entertainment and film as documentation”.

More than documentary

With Manifest, Majumdar and Khaitan hope to build on the critical discourse around the form. Majumdar, for instance, speaks of gender. She believes that the new role of “dance-filmmaker” indicates a radical shift in the gender politics of both dance and film. She says traditional gender dynamics would earlier play out in two ways when a dance performance was being filmed. Either female dancers were rid of their agency by male cinematographers, “or a female dancer dictated terms to a largely male film crew, whose role was to submit to the dancer’s vision. This relationship of dominance was prevalent when dance was mainly filmed as documentation.” A dance-film, however, is much more than documentary.

Theatre director Anmol Vellani was a member of Manfiest’s international jury.

Theatre director Anmol Vellani was a member of Manfiest’s international jury. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Chairperson of the India Foundation for the Arts, theatre director Anmol Vellani told Frontline that dance-films can be identified by a simple criterion: “What we see of the moving body in a dance-film cannot be repeated on stage.” Vellani insists that dance-films cannot all be categorised as documentaries because many of them exceed the documentary format. As a member of Manifest’s international jury, Vellani saw many of the films screened at the festival, but of these, he recommends two: Fu Le’s Urban Genesis that was awarded the Manifest 2023 Audience Connect prize, and the Chinese film To the Moon which won a special mention by the jury. “Urban Genesis is striking in the manner it looks at dance and film as an inextricable partnership, while To the Moon relies on the visual connection the camera makes with the clay figure of a jade rabbit and a group of young dancing girls.”

Dancer Puneet Jewandah specialises in street jazz and contemporary dance. Jewandah believes that even while the internet affords more access, it divorces us from physical movement. “Even in today’s mainstream cinema, words are the primary means of expression. Physical movement, especially non-verbal movement, is less explored and, consequently, less understood. Smaller audiences are a challenge when you want to convey a message.”

“Manifest ’23 showed several films that challenged hierarchies of the gaze twice over—first when being shot and next when being viewed. ”

Screened at Manifest, Jewandah’s 13-minute film, Plastis, is a meditation on how non-living entities like scraps of plastic are closer to life forces than we think. “The film begins with a plastic object entering existence. It basks in glory and applause, symbolising society’s initial fascination with plastic’s versatility.” This object, though, soon loses its socio-cultural relevance and is discarded in a landfill. Here it eventually melts into the earth and is reborn as a plastic flower. The film’s choreography brings to life the animate soul of an inanimate object. Jewandah says “not all dance films have to be documentarian in nature,” but adds that Plastis should be looked at as documentary because it sheds light on “a real-world crisis”.

  • In July this year, the Manifest Dance Film-Festival showcased 60 films from 22 countries.
  • Manifest, South Asia’s only international dance-film festival, celebrates a genre which is coming into its own.
  • The screening of some dance-films was followed by a live performance of the same piece on stage.
  • The curators want to push the creative envelope beyond known definitions of dance-films next year.

The best of all worlds

For French-Israeli flamenco dancer Naya Binghi, making a dance-film feels like translating a story from one language into another. Not only did Binghi perform a solo at the event, but her film, Hisin 15, was also screened here. Her dance-film embodies the paradox of new beginnings that simultaneously mark an end of the old and familiar. “A dance movie can be very interesting. I can film it in Spain, but it can seem like it was filmed in Israel. You have absolute freedom. You decide where to look with the camera, and what you see in the frame.” Binghi adds that dance-films transcend the sociocultural specificities of a performance.

Though still fledgling, the dance-film has already garnered a dedicated audience. This is why Majumdar and Khaitan decided on expanding the horizons of Manifest in its second edition. In the “Manifest Hybrid Cinema” series introduced this year, the screening of a dance-film was followed by a live performance of the same piece on stage, giving audiences the opportunity to analyse the differences between the two media.

A still from Sugandh Lamba’s I am Paper

A still from Sugandh Lamba’s I am Paper | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

One example of this reel-to-real transference was seen after the screening of Roohi Dixit and Ziba Bhagwagar’s Spiralling into Desire, a film for which they had collaborated with movement artist Brinda Jacob-Janvrin. Inspired by The Descent of Inanna, an epic poem where the Mesopotamian goddess of Heaven and Earth journeys to the Underworld, the 15-minute Spiralling into Desire traces a woman’s submersion “into her body to access and retrieve her true autonomy”. Dixit says, “At every stage, the film shaped itself organically”.

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Kathak dancer Sugandh Lamba also dabbles in filmmaking, theatre, and photography. She feels that dance-films also help safeguard dance forms that suffer the threat of extinction. “Manifest not only preserves and documents diverse dance styles but also promotes dance as an art form, uniting artists and audiences through filmmaking. The festival also facilitates cultural exchange and raises awareness about pressing issues.” Screened at the festival this year, the Mumbai-based dancer’s film I am Paper uses kathak to talk about the lifecycle of a piece of paper, which after being discarded, is given a new lease of life through recycling.

For the festival’s third edition, Majumdar and Khaitan want to widen the scope. They want to push the creative envelope beyond known definitions of dance-films. Majumdar says, “As someone who is deeply invested in the heritage movement arts, I feel digital media can transform Indian art, birthing new forms for the future.”

Arshia Dhar is an arts and culture journalist.

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