The Birmingham Indian Film Festival: Interview with Dharmesh Rajput Head of Cinema

Europe’s largest Indian film festival arrived in Birmingham on 23 June, with a packed programme full of exciting new films and pre-and post-screening talks with cast and crew members of the selected movies. The Birmingham film premiere of the historical epic The Black Prince (dir. Kavi Raz), marked the beginning of the festival in Birmingham with a red-carpet event for Punjabi Sufi-singer and actor Satinder Sartaaj. One of Bollywood’s most iconic villains, Gulshan Grover was also in attendance on the weekend at the screening of his film Badman – India’s first mockumentary – a satirical look on how the Indian film industry operates in contemporary India.

The Birmingham Indian film festival (BIFF), now in its third year, is the sister festival of the London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) headed by the Bagri Foundation.  BIFF extends the cinematic festivities of new Independent Indian films to the city of Birmingham with a carefully put-together selection of movies and documentaries with media celebrities also in attendance. An excellent selection of films is being screened in three cinemas across Birmingham over a 10-day period from 23 June – 2 July.


Satinder Sartaaj on the red-carpet at the Birmingham Film Premiere of The Black Prince.

In a radio interview for BHBN Hospital Radio with the Head of Cinema for BIFF, Dharmesh Rajput discussed what the Indian Film Festival had to offer to both the South Asian, and wider community, and the expectations one may have of the Birmingham Indian Film Festival.

The basic premise of it (BIFF) is to showcase a different style of South Asian cinema, everybody knows Bollywood, the all singing, all dancing Bollywood masala, that comes out of India, but very few people know about the independent cinema which is really rich, amazing, edgy; and that’s the kind of cinema that we’re bringing to Birmingham.


Dharmesh with Bollywood actor Gulshan Grover at the Birmingham Film Premiere of Badman.

Listen back to the full interview with Dharmesh Rajput.

The launch of the festival began at the Varanasi restaurant on Broad Street; a regal Indian ambiance surrounded the evening, carrying with it the cultural sensibilities of India from the past – blending in well with the theme of the film. Invited guests mingled over drinks and appetisers, heard celebratory speeches for BIFF from Cary Sawhney, Satinder Sartaaj and Dharmesh Rajput before heading to Cineworld on Broad Street for the screening of the film. We then took photographs with Satinder, before making our way to the red carpet and Q and A session with Satinder and other crew members of the film.

The opening night was effortlessly executed by Dharmesh, who remained dedicated to the evening’s commitments around the premiere which were all done in style – a lovely host all round. The launch night was a thoroughly enjoyable evening that ran its course smoothly.

The Black Prince stars singer and Sufi poet Satinder Sartaaj, veteran actress Shabana Azmi, Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), and actress Amanda Root (The Iron Lady), The Black Prince focuses on the true but lesser known story of the last King of Punjab, Maharajah Duleep Singh and his audacious journey of self-discovery. As the film explores the relationship between Queen Victoria and Maharajah Duleep Singh, we also learn of the heart-rending struggles he experienced throughout his life resultant of abduction from his kingdom by the British Raj at just five years of age. Estranged from his birth mother he is raised and mentored by Queen Victoria as a Christian replacing his original identity with one forged by colonialism.

The spectator travels through time with The Black Prince as the life-long battle of Maharajah Duleep Singh begins in an attempt to reclaim his identity, Sikh faith, and a Kingdom that rightfully belonged to him. Duleep Singh is constantly torn between two cultures – his royal ancestry and his Christian upbringing in the U.K. where he has been exiled away from his mother. Satinder’s debut performance is praiseworthy, his acting skills progress throughout the film as the narrative of Duleep Singh unfolds; in particular the final scene where Duleep Singh passes is harrowingly notable as Satinder is strong in his delivery. The Black Prince is an enlightening tale of a man who fell prey to the corrupt intentions of the British Raj and crooked Indian politics. An interesting film, embedded with deep meaning and history worth watching – a brilliant selection for the opening night of the Birmingham Indian Film Festival.

On the same weekend the ‘Badman’ villain of Bollywood, Gulshan Grover, attended the premiere of India’s very first mockumentary called (funnily enough) Badman – a film about one of Hindi Cinema’s iconic villains from the 80s and 90s making his come-back into Bollywood as a hero. Yes, quite a storyline, expectant then of satire and mockery. Starring Chunky Pandey, ironically playing the villain instead of Grover, who causes disruption in Grover’s quest for heroic stardom, this mockumentary does make for some very odd and somewhat humorous moments. With a side-splitting cameo from Farah Khan, this mockumentary is a curious attempt in forging a new genre of film-making in Bollywood. Combined with appearances from Bollywood royalty, Jackie Shroff, Rishi Kapoor, Manisha Koirala and Mahesh Bhatt, Badman is an experimental piece of cinema which we may see more of in the future as Gulshan Grover revealed in his Q and A session in the post-screening talk.


Gulshan Grover on the poster of his movie Badman.

Grover appeared to respond honestly and concisely in his response to an array of questions asked by the host and audience. My favourite question of the evening though, came from a young boy sat in front of me, no older perhaps than 6 years of age who confidently asked the on-screen villain, ‘Can I star in your next film, because, I really want to be famous?!’. To which he got an elated response from the star, ‘Of course you can be in my next movie, I will let you know when and where.’ – of course the boys younger brother who was sat next to him could not allow for him to have all the attention, consciously jumping in with an ‘Err! (how could you forget about me big brother tone about him) AND me!!’. The star smiled warmly at the young boys, as did the rest of the auditorium. Another brilliantly put together evening at BIFF by Dharmesh and co, with an experimental screening and post-viewing talks making for an interactive cinematic experience that can only be experienced and appreciated at a film festival.

Admittedly it was refreshing to see Gulshan Grover in an easy-going, satirically positioned cinema space. Removing him from the vivid villainous images etched in the minds of those of us who grew up in filmi households. Perhaps this may be the start of a new cinema style that he will be bringing more of to the fans and admirers of Hindi films.


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Films being screened at BIFF this summer.

The festival is screening an array of films until 2 July details of which can found in the link below. If you enjoy films, like to be challenged by cinema and appreciate world cinema then the Birmingham Indian Film Festival is a fantastic opportunity for you to indulge in a new filmic experience. I myself have never really watched Indian films in a language other than Hindi, being involved in BIFF as an audience member has been a stimulating experience for me as a cinema-goer. In his interview with me Dharmesh pointed out that the diversity of the selected films is evident in their different narratives and languages which allow us to see Indian cinema as eclectic and vast, something rarely experienced outside of film festivals:

They are (films screened at BIFF) very diverse in terms of narrative, and the kind of stories they tell.  They are diverse in terms of the languages that they’re also told in, we’ve got films in Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Urdu, Hindi, Italian  – whilst it’s called the Indian film festival, it’s also the Indian sub-continent.



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