As a film festival venue, it would be hard to beat the ancient palace of Pingyao. It looks straight out of a Chinese period film, with its winding lanes dotted with heritage hotels, built around historic courtyards, decorated by the distinctive red lanterns that glow in the dark. The set could well belong to Zhang Yimou’s colourful epic Raise The Red Lantern (1991), and he’s right here at the festival.
It’s all so brilliantly atmospheric that you almost don’t feel like being inside dark theatres, but that’s what I’m here for, at the third edition of the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Festival. I spend much of my time shuttling between the screens where the public and press screenings take place, and the events on the sidelines.
It is a boutique festival, with multiple screenings of about 56 films spread over nine days so that everyone, international delegates as well as local film enthusiasts from nearby towns (the nearest big city is Taiyuan), has a chance to catch everything. This year, I’m told, the crowds are more, and the public screenings are mostly sold out.
Why Pingyao? In a brief interaction, festival director Jia Zhanke, whose films have fans worldwide, says, the area had nothing for movie lovers, all other festivals take place in far-away big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. He has roots here and wanted to give back by creating something special. The festival does have a strong curatorial voice in artistic director Marco Mueller, and it is evident in the list of international titles, the slate of up-and-coming young Chinese first- and second-time directors, and this year’s special — a terrific package of films from the New Indian Cinema of the late ’50s-70s, from such filmmakers as Ritwik Ghatak, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishanan, John Abraham, Shyam Benegal, G Aravindan, Mrinal Sen, and Mani Kaul.
I revisit, in the three days I’m here, some of the most celebrated films from the period: Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958) and Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey In A Brahmin Village, 1977), Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969). It is a pleasure to watch these classics in their restored form. The one I’m sad at missing out is Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), but the director, who is present at the festival, tells me “not to bother” because the print is “not good enough”.
I make up for it by attending a conversation between Shahani and film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha, who is here with a Chinese version of his essential handbook on Indian cinema. Mueller, who has done a stellar job of creating awareness of Indian cinema in major film-festival circuits, is at hand as moderator. Shahani, whose best work (Maya Darpan; Tarang, 1984), joyously and uniquely celebrates form and colour and sound, is in top form recalling his days at the FTII under the tutelage of Ghatak, in Paris when he assisted Robert Bresson, how Satyajit Ray’s less-than-appreciative stance towards him slowed his much-needed access to filmmaking funds, and how music, bhakti (devotion) and form are inextricably intertwined in his work. Just these two hours of an erudite, learned conversation is worth making the long-winded trip from India to this small town in China, which is a Unesco heritage site with its beautifully preserved old Buddhist temples, one of which we did manage to get ourselves to visit on a quick break from the movies.
It’s always fascinating to experience a very-specific cultural film in another part of the planet. The mostly Chinese audience is bowled over by Meghe Dhaka Tara: Tracy, a teacher from Taiyuan, wipes away tears after the screening and tells me that she is both “sad and happy”. A couple of people do leave midway from Abraham’s acerbic classic Donkey In a Brahmin Village, but the rest stay to savour its acerbic commentary so relevant in today’s world: more donkeys are needed to crash through many more Brahmanical barriers, and all-round bigotry.
Sometimes you can spot a common thread between the classic and the contemporary. Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo!, a biting satire on how monkeys and humans are same-same but different, is a sharp comment on societal injustices. And sometimes we need a film festival in a foreign land to shine a light on the difficult truths we have stopped seeing.