Why do I, or others like me, travel miles to attend a film festival when I have a perfectly serviceable neighbourhood multiplex, or a large TV screen that I can use at my own time and convenience? Because being at a film festival is a very special thing. Lining up hours ahead of that unmissable film which may never release in India, or just milling around, waiting for the next to start, bumping into festival familiars, exchanging feverish notes, is all part of it. It is a heady rush, that feeling of being with your people. I come home when I go to a film festival.
I could attend the latest edition of the JioMAMIWithStar film festival in Mumbai for only four days out of eight, but I’m still buzzed, high on cinema and conversation, which starts and never ends. This was its 20th edition, and it felt like a going, growing concern. This edition of the Mumbai Film Festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI), had a fraught start, because of the ferocious intensity of the #MeToo movement, which roiled up at its doorstep, demanding Board member Anurag Kashyap stepped down. A few films were dropped amid the growing din of sexual harassment charges levelled at people associated with the project, leading to, expectedly, much consternation and some amount of discord among the organisers and filmmakers who found themselves out of the festival they considered their own. “We fully support the movement,” MAMI Chairperson Kiran Rao told me, “When there is a tsunami, things get blown away, but this is a storm whose time has come.” Rao’s compatriots are Festival Director Anupama Chopra and Artistic Director Smriti Kiran; the trio stepped up and took over the reins three years ago when the festival was about to collapse due to a lack of funds.
This edition will be remembered as the one which was buffeted by the #MeToo movement, and in which some excellent films became “collateral damage”. Ironically, it is also the one which showed solid programming across all sections, from the cream of independent Indian cinema, and much-feted international titles, and in the choice of the masterclasses.
The sessions with Netflix Content Chief Ted Sarandos, MUBI CEO and founder Efe Cakarel, fiercely arthouse Argentinian filmmaker Lucresia Martel and independent-spirited Hollywood director Sean Baker, were good add-ons.
Some of the Indian entries were stand-outs. Rima Das, who is gearing up for the Oscars with her utterly charming Village Rockstars, was at hand to present Bulbul Can Sing, an apt companion piece. It is her third feature, and shows Das maturing as a filmmaker, in this coming-of-age tale told with a mixture of sharpness and sensitivity. (It won the Best Film in the India Gold section.)
Aadish Kelsukar’s Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil is an intriguing anti-romance that explores desire and nakedness and power between a pair of lovers. Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Jonaki has to be the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen in a long while. Each frame in this filmmaker’s ode to a fading era in Calcutta (never Kolkata) is a painting. Mehsampur, Kabir Chowdhry’s film-in-search-of-a-character (agent provocateur folk-singer Chamkila, who was shot dead in the ’80s in terrorism-ridden Punjab), needed to be more of a film, but is interesting nevertheless.
Ivan Ayr’s Soni, which trains its lens on the unsafe lanes in Delhi, especially when women have to traverse them, even if they happen to be cops, muddles its class and tone, but has power, and terrific performances from both female leads. Balekempa, Ere Gowda’s astonishingly accomplished portrait of a village, its people and mores, was dropped because the director is embroiled in a sexual harassment case. The producers did the right thing by pulling it out, but even without it, this India Gold section shone.
From world cinema, my top picks were everyone’s picks too. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a marvelous portrait of a certain section of Mexican society as well as a country in turmoil. Cold War, by Pawel Pawlikowski, gives us a pair of unlikely lovers in the grip of passion which waxes and wanes as the countries and the people who live behind the Iron Curtain learn how to deal with constant constriction and deprivation. Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces is a road trip with a difference; Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning is a romance with a difference; Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters is a social, and all three give you what you’re looking for: something to see, think, and most importantly, feel.
There were a bunch of others I caught, including the Coens Brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scraggs, a hugely enjoyable ramble through the West at a time when the native braves were scalping the pale-faced intruders (there are no other kind of Indians; you get the feeling that the Coens are not interested in any other kinds), craggy panhandlers were looking for gold, and cowboys were smokin’ their shooters, and tootin’ their tooters. It is a Netflix production, and will be on the streaming platform soon, but oh the joy of watching big pictures on big screens, back-to-back, several days in a row.
That’s true festivity.