Seasoned cinematic idiom
From politically charged moments and paternal grief to geniality and witty humour the just concluded MAMI International Film Festival had fine variety, feels GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
JUST 75 films and three theatres. But what a feast for cineastes in the city! The Mumbai Academy of Moving Images presented a fine international film festival this year (November 21-28). No clogging with old classics or padding with new kitsch. In fact, the reduced budget has been a boon the selectors have focussed on quality. The festival certainly scored with its opening and closing features.
If eminent Hungarian filmmaker, Istvan Szabo's new work "Taking Sides" was a disturbing parable for our troubled times, "Nishalkuthu" (Shadow Kill) proved that Adoor Gopalakrishnan remains as uncompromising as he has always been in the lonesome field of serious Indian cinema. This is the tale of the fevered hangman who hallucinates in drunken bouts, preyed by guilt and remorse. However, "Shadow Kill" is bare, somewhat emotion-sapped, and not vintage Adoor. But the image of the rope had eerie echoes, starting with weaving and twisting, to hanging in the hangman's puja room, suffused with incense smoke, or burnt to be applied as a remedy for ailments from fever to frenzy. The Gandhian son's spinning wheel and khadi yarn stand against the noose.
Flaws? The schedule came in piecemeal announcements which made advance viewing plans impossible. Some films on the list were not screened at all. The opening ceremony dragged on, with Astad Deboo's overlong dance numbers. Hungarian maestro Istvan Szabo's pithy, moving speech was killed by Aamir Khan's badly timed late arrival; the photographers created mayhem by turning their backs to Szabo on the stage and converged on the "Lagaan" man.
The closing ceremony lacked punch, though no one, including the Minister, was guilty of rhetoric. It was good to see veteran Om Puri getting an award for Significant Contribution to cinema, not so good to hear the Fipresci award of film critics going to "Titli".
Mother and daughter (Aparna Sen and Konkona Sen Sharma) from a Darjeeling tea estate are on their way to the airport when they give a lift to a man whose car has stalled midway: none other than daughter Titli's Bollywood hero. He also turns out to be the mother's first love. The journey ends in revelations and attitudinal changes for all three. "Titli" had the kind of banality that is sometimes mistaken for simplicity. It's subtle moments came with Aparna Sen's muted expressiveness and nuances. After "Bariwali" this film is a comedown for director Rituparno Ghosh.
The festival had variety. On some days, you could not skip even a single film out of the six slots. Take the day which had two features by Andreas Dresen (Germany). His "Silent Country" assembles a rundown theatre company in East Germany, playing to empty halls at a time when all the drama is taking place in the real world: the Berlin wall is coming down. The cast struggles with "Waiting for Godot" and trying to get West German news bulletins on their TVs. They cannot go to Berlin their old bus cannot be yanked to life. A sleek West German lands up to promise nationwide publicity, press and TV coverage. His sound and fury peter out in the same empty hall and everyone continues to wait for Godot even after the play is taken off the schedule.
"Night Shapes" intertwined three stories at a politically charged moment. The Pope arrives in the city as waifs and innocents abroad get into jams in the seedier haunts where hookers and thugs steal, burn and loot the night away. A businessman struggles to restore a lost Black boy to his friend, a village farmer tries to find romance with a whore, and a destitute couple to fulfil a dream of spending one night off the streets in a hotel room.
Still on the same day (!) the festival re-confirmed our conviction that what a film needs is not lavish funds but an idea, and a creative mind that can see that idea from a fresh perspective. The outstanding Oscar-nominated "Elling" (Petter Naess, Norway) showed you pals Elling and Bjarne from a psychiatric clinic, relocating themselves into "normalcy" in an Oslo flat. At first, streets spell trauma, crossing a restaurant floor is a polar expedition. Soon they find their old enemies dizziness and anxiety vanishing, as they make friends with an old poet, repair his ancient car, rush a pregnant neighbour to the hospital. Bjarne marries the new mother while Elling becomes an anonymous "Underground Poet".
The film upset all your notions of a runaway hit (which it was). None of the characters is smart or good looking, the protagonists are mentally challenged, their friends oddballs. Out of this unprepossessing material the director shapes something so charming that you get out of the theatre with a heart full of smiles. This is no farce; the situational humour is warm, witty, wry, and ever human. Elling gives you hope for life, and for cinema.
Poland grabbed everybody's mind with "Keep away from the Window" (Jan Jakub Kolski). A Jewish woman is hidden in the wardrobe through Nazi occupation by a childless couple in a small town. The husband gets her pregnant. The child is taken over by the wife. The mother disappears. The father reveals the truth to his daughter on his sickbed and the girl goes to find her real mother, who does not want to be reminded anymore of the trauma and humiliation through the living testimony of her daughter. Told through a commanding lens, this "Window" opened dark rooms we would have liked to keep shut.
"Stumble", one of the increasing number of Indian films made in English, rounded off that same day. Prakash Belawadi had a good theme in his expose of the entrepreneurs of modern India, colluding with politicians and fly-by-night swindlers from the West, and their exploitation of the unwary public. He contrasts the middle class toilers with the nouveau riche crooks to highlight competition and undercutting. There is a feminist angle in the daughter's scoring over the other tech boys in developing software.
However, Belawadi's treatment is heavy handed. Everything is underlined even the humour. But this first feature does take a step in a new direction where you hope he will find a subtler and more seasoned cinematic language.
As usual, the most interesting films came from the smaller, deprived nations like the slice of life from grim Croatia in a "Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside". Barica works in a Zagreb supermarket. Her tyrant boss breaks his promise of giving her a holiday when a slinky co-worker worms her way in. Barica's little child has bronchitis and must go to the seaside. In an unexpected moment of poetic justice, the woman locks the `enemies' into the deep freeze. Next we see a windblown mother and daughter beside the waves. The quiet humour made a telling contrast to the appalling life in the bleak city. The director makes body language tell you much more than words ever can.
At rare moments, without losing its own strengths, cinema comes close to poetry. Polish auteur Andre Wajda's "The Promised Land" was an epic, somewhat discontinuous, not always convincing, but still a historical pageant of 19th century textile town Lodz. A Pole, German and Jew build a factory, not without desperate setbacks, despair and personal sacrifice of values and ideals. The huge factory halls with rows of old looms was a breathtaking setting for capitalism, more ruthless than agrarian feudalism.
The lyric came from Nanni Moretti's celebrated "The Son's Room". A psychiatrist father with a happy family life of secure bonding suddenly loses his son in an accident. Parents and sister try to grapple with the shock. The film is about little things, tiny details, wisps of memory and self blame. Could death have been averted if the father had not broken his tryst with the son in order to answer a patient's call? There is a reconciliation of sorts when the dead son's girlfriend comes to visit. But what lingers in your mind is the visual of the mother's hand passing over the shirts hanging in the dead son's wardrobe; the father's hands reflecting despair as he resumes his clinic routine; and anguished eyes, looking into past or future. Watch them and grief will never be the same for you again.
At the end you thought of the beginning. Of Szabo's saga "Taking Sides". New meanings came up in looking back at Wilhelm Furtwangler, going through the inquisition of the American "de-nazification" committee after world war II. He had chosen to stay back in his fatherland and practise his art during the Hitler regime rather than emigrate. We are up against the tantalising question of the validity and the value of art in the light of human suffering.
The film is a brilliant study of situations where both action and inaction can bear dreadful consequences. No easy routes here. Szabo confronts ambiguities unflinchingly, and in the process, forces the viewer to face his darkest self. The American is no different from the Gestapo human rights are violated without physical torture in the name of justice. The film raises a gut-wrenching issue: can evil be forgiven? The answers, if any, are more urgent for us on this planet today, and Szabo insists that the audience must be adult enough to discover them for themselves, both inside and outside the theatre.
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