Negotiating the first day of a new film festival in a new continent, fully jetlagged, is usually a bewildering mix of sure shot screenings, a few near misses, and much hot-footing between venues. And learning that the second ‘t’ is only emphasised by newbies: it’s Toronno, okay?
Day One at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (September 6-16) was warm. The sun felt stronger than Delhi’s in some places, and it beats down on your head as you try to make sense of the dense slots in the schedule, as well as the dawning realisation that this is a big, big festival, as big as Berlin, Venice and Cannes, with about 342 films crammed into its duration, presented at red carpet galas and special categories.
This year, says Toronto resident and freelance journalist Aparita Bhandari, the festival is smaller. Bhandari, who has seen the festival grow from what she calls its “intimate slate” to the behemoth that it is now, is my companion for the opening day press screening of Nandita Das’s Manto, which enters the doomed author’s life at a turbulent personal time, intersecting with an equally tumultuous time for the subcontinent, leading up to Partition in 1947.
Manto has already had its first outing in Cannes in May. This is its North American premier — the TIFF devotes its first day to screening some of the French festival biggies. What is refreshing about Das’s second directorial feature (her first, Firaaq, was set during the Gujarat riots in 2002) is that it doesn’t have to pretend to be about anyone else, in keeping with the craven state of biopics in Bollywood.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Sadaat Hasan Manto, the immensely talented but tortured writer who spoke of, and to, his time. Siddiqui is surrounded by an enviable ensemble — Rasika Duggal as his supportive wife who is also very much her own person, Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chugtai, Tahir Bhasin as a handsome Bollywood star who died in an accident and cut short a dazzling career. The film, releasing in India later this month, names names, which is as it should be. Imagine what it would be like if it had to be called Panto, or Pinto, instead.
How do you focus on the story if the actors are as gorgeous as Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Asghar Farhadi’s much awaited Everybody Knows presents these two as former lovers and present companions, aligned, when the film opens, in both the creation of a crime, as well as in its investigation. A young girl goes missing, and that leads to the past being mined for its secrets, and getting people to make tough moral choices: this is familiar territory for Farhadi, whose previous outing The Salesman had released theatrically in India in 2017.
Farhadi knows how to tie us in knots, and ratchets up the tension as the film progresses. But it also feels much too stretched in places, with Cruz and Bardem in close contact, but not combusting. Everybody knows when a film goes on too long: you start to fidget in your seat, and not even the most gorgeous couple can save it.
But I will remember Day One for The Wild Pear Tree, the latest offering from Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It can be called, at one level, a coming of age of a young man, trying to deal with a father who doesn’t know what the meaning of responsibility is, a mother who is conflicted about the man she is married to, and the about-to-be-man that she has given birth to. But it’s also much more. It is deeply political, taking gentle but decisive swipes at a country in turmoil, and people trying to live with their conscience.
A film like this makes everything worthwhile.