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Mumbai’s Salute to Cinema

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Disconcerting films that stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre is what MAMI had to offer this year

I recently met 65-year-old retired banker Shyam Kulkarni at the coffee corner of a movie hall. He was staring into a brochure full of film names and was having trouble choosing between two. “The one with homosexual lovers or the documentary about arranged marriages? Which one should I watch?” he casually asked me adjusting his glasses. He’d taken the rush hour morning train from Dadar to Andheri for the past five days to be able to grab a seat for the films he wanted to watch. It was his fifth year at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI ) and he had already managed to catch three films that day. “May be I’ll go for the gay love story; arranged marriage ki umar nahi rahi (I’m too old for arranged marriages),” he jokes before disappearing into the long winding queue for the Italian film Call Me By Your Name (2017).

I need to catch up, I thought to that man who was pretty much the face of the cinema lovers in the city. Cinema lovers who cut down on sleep, took off from work, cancelled important appointments and ignored their non-filmy partners to throng movie halls in Mumbai for the past seven days. They came from all walks of life. Be it two system analysts discussing their company turnover before the opening credits of a film or a young documentary filmmaker taking notes in the middle of the movie. They were almost like devotees from a religious cult, all under one roof.

What was being offered to them was a little bigger and better than last year- over 200 films from 51 countries in cinema halls across Mumbai. In a city where hardcore Bollywood fare survives purely because of its takers, one would wonder if a little Iranian film about a father and son or a Mexican documentary about deadly drug cartels would really interest the audience. But anyone who has maneuvered the crowds at MAMI this year would see that here were a group of watchers who were willing to grab at any film that wasn’t easily accessible to them. “I used to be an engineering student. Last year I watched a film called Tithi at the festival and decided I want to be a filmmaker,” another nameless film buff standing in queue said to me.

There was a time, till just a few years back the MAMI festival was struggling to keep up its walls to bring world cinema to the city folk. But 19 years since, the festival has gradually become a ghetto for good cinema in India. “I don’t know where to begin because there is so much to watch. I saw a film called The Wound yesterday which was about a group of African tribals and issues that their youth dealt with. It’s opened up a whole new world of characters in front of me,” says director Ram Madhvani who remembers the festival when it had no more than a few hundred patrons and a bunch of good films.

These are good films, but not your typical feel good fare. Most of them are trying to make a strong statement, and prefer to be direct- be it about sexuality, gender, relationships, country, body or even beliefs. It’s not just a wake-up call for majority of our cinema watching audience that is used to fairy tales and happy endings, but also are case studies for new-age, aspiring filmmakers of our country.

In fact almost all the films that I managed to watch at the festival this time made me uncomfortable in some way. It began with Hungarian drama On Body and Soul (2017) that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a love story set in a slaughterhouse where the filmmaker chooses to show you an animal being dismembered bit by bit, and draws parallels with the stark human mind. At one point the protagonist takes a knife and cuts deep into her wrist because she feels unloved, and the camera stays with her, for a long time. “We’ve all thought about it and they are showing it. That’s the only difference. At least they are being honest,” says Ravi Kumar, recent pass out from a film school in Paris, now trying to understand the ways of the industry in Mumbai.

Here are characters extremely removed from our immediate environment, landscapes that we would only come across in a travel brochure and plots that exposes us to cultures that we’ve never lived in. The films not just display unpredictable story lines, but are also shot in a way that makes you believe you are part of the journey. Many of the Scandinavian and Russian films at the festival were driven by broken relationships, and the coldness they come with. The popular ones are not easy to watch unless you wake up early and book your spot online, which gets house-full in exactly four minutes once the bookings open. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless that won the jury prize at Cannes 2017 was a festival favourite and saw people wait in line for over two and a half hours so they could catch it. “If I don’t watch this film, MAMI would just be incomplete for me,” says a 20-something who has been skipping college to attend the festival.

Here was a film so breathtaking in its visualization of a broken home and a dejected child trying to deal with his parents’ separation, that you almost forget their pain. The mother in Loveless is brutal and selfish, much unlike another Mother that broke hearts at MAMI. Jennifer Lawrence in her portrayal of a young mom in Darren Aronofsky surreal masterpiece managed to move people to an extent that the festival had to organize extra screenings to accommodate people. The film is set for a release worldwide very soon, but at MAMI no one was ready to miss it. “Funny thing is once these films release, the percentage of people who buy tickets and watch them will be far lesser. There’s something about the vibe of a festival that draws crowds,” says actor Rajkummar Rao who is on the jury of the children’s film section at MAMI.

Among all the world cinema that one can pack in within a week, what India had to offer was beyond impressive. There were films that spoke about everything from gender equality, to child abuse to just how we deal with sex and youth in our country. Rima Das’s Village Rockstars that premiered at Toronto picked up three awards at the festival making it the most popular Indian film at MAMI. Here was a one woman army who took a camera one day and decided to shoot the story of her village Chhaygaon in Assam. She was director, cinematographer, editor, producer and production designer on this film. It is a a simple yet powerful portrayal of little dreams coming to life through the eyes of a 10-year old girl who wishes to own a guitar.

“It took me four years to make this film and people said I was mad to do it because there was a point when it felt like the film was going nowhere. But now it all seems worth it. What a festival space does is lets people know a film like this exists, because in the real world nobody would really care about a film like this. The children in the film who are all non-actors stepped out of Assam for the first time to come to MAMI and it’s an experience they will cherish all their lives,” says Rima.

Both within documentaries and feature films, independent Indian cinema really seems to have come of age this time at MAMI. On one hand there was Devashish Makhija’s Ajji which is perhaps the most powerful story of avengement (where a grandmother stands up against the rape of her 10-year-old granddaughter) in recent times, and on the other there was Sanal Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga which was a crisp and layered portrayal of how women are treated in today’s day and age. By juxtaposing the sacrifices men make during the puja for goddess Durga to a real life scenario (where a group of men harass a woman and her partner), this film is slap on our society’s hypocritical ways and raises all the relevant questions that need to.

These films not just make you think, but force you to question years of conditioning that one has grown up with. Sexy Durga that has already seen the light of over 50 different festivals and is edited in a way to keep you right at the edge of your seat, was my favourite of the lot. “We talk about women’s safety and celebrating our durgas, but we do the exact opposite in real life. This was a film made for India, but it seems to have resonated with people across the globe,” says lead actor Kannan Nayar of the film which also picked up a special jury prize at the festival. There was also Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron as a tribute to late Kundan Shah adding a life to the retrospective section at the festival.

When a platform brings big names like Aamir Khan and novices Sanal Sasidharan or Rima Das under one roof, you feel like there’s some hope left. When Spanish director Carla Simons on her first visit to India wishes she could stay and experience a film shoot in Mumbai, you know that cinema can really build bridges. “There’s no other country where I would get to see people of such different cultures. Your cinema reflects that magic, and I will definitely come back to make a movie here in India,” says Simons whose film Summer 1993 was another of the laurel winners at MAMI.

Of course there was chaos, mismanagement, cancellation of events and all of that too. But if you look at the larger picture you see films here that really bring meaning into your lives. The festival surprise was the closing film Omertà which none of us expected to see before next year. Rajkummar Rao was inimitable in his performance of dreaded Britian based terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh. The film which took years to make, is primarily a marriage of real footage and fiction, and can be deemed as Hansal's best work to date.

All in all for anyone who is hungry for films, MAMI was like Disneyland! When the end credits for Italian romance drama film You call me by your name (2017) name rolled, I was sniffing hard, holding onto a bunch of tear soaked tissues. That films portrayal of the summer romance between two boys reminds you of the first time you were in love. When the lights came on, another girl, 30-smething to my left looked at me and smiled. Her eyes were moist as well. In that one moment, without words, we communicated our experience of the film to each other. She was a complete stranger, and yet I felt connected. That’s the power of cinema and here’s to many more at festivals as this.