It’s too convenient to read films like tea leaves and attempt to discern what they say about the times we live in. Yet if the diverse selection of South Asian films at this year’s festival are united by anything, it’s by their nuanced engagement with the now.

From a megacity standing on an edifice of garbage to the aftershocks of the killing of a sacred cow in rural Karnataka. And from an 8-year-old Muslim child trying to breach a religious divide to a medical professor standing up for a student who has been assaulted by a teacher. The selection takes both direct and more implicit approaches to urgent issues that plague the subcontinent today.

Common to Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana, Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons, Prasun Chatterjee’s Two Friends and Natesh Hegde’s Pedro are characters who share an unease with authority and the unsaid hierarchy of society. It’s striking that all the films feature people who have a predilection for speaking uncomfortable truths.

Invisible Demons (2021)

In the case of Invisible Demons, that person is the filmmaker himself. A documentary about the environmental disaster brewing in the megacity of Delhi may appear to be the odd one out among the other fiction films in the selection. Yet Jain’s second feature, following 2016’s Machines, builds on his preferred theme of the impact (and often havoc) wreaked by industrialisation. Briefly he turns the camera on himself, acknowledging his privilege for giving him a unique vantage point to document the impending ecological implosion of a city he grew up in. In doing so, he becomes the naysayer. He’s always looking behind the development narrative that peddles instant gratification and, by implication, happiness.

The haunted faces of outsiders and the marginalised loom large across all four films. Nobody quite fits in. Across Rehana, Two Friends and Pedro, the protagonists try to deal with the ways society is almost always running in a different direction to their conscience.

In Rehana, an uncompromising assistant medical professor is continuously berated and pressured by family and the college management for accusing a professor of sexual assault. In Pedro, a drunk misfit is ostracised for killing a cow by mistake and ends up paying a heavy price for it. In Two Friends, a Muslim child and his Hindu friend try to ignore the growing cracks of religious polarisation in the wake of the nationwide 1992 riots sparked by the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque. The tumult threatens to consume them.

Skipping many of the tropes usually associated with cinema from India and Bangladesh, these films demonstrate the wide range of talent and styles coming out of the subcontinent today. More importantly, given the times we live in, they are films that don’t shy away from commenting on some of the most defining challenges facing the region.