If there’s one thing about major film festivals that is both a joy and a curse, it is the sheer panoply of cinematic choices laid before the viewer.
Lining up for the Jio MAMI 19th Mumbai Film Festival I was torn between excitement at the variety of global and Indian cinema on offer, and disappointment at having to miss so much no matter how well I arranged my schedule.
After all, the festival had over 235 films in 51 languages, gathered from 40 countries around the world, being shown in seven venues in the city from October 12 to 18.
Perhaps the only workable strategy is to rely on serendipity. And so, I walked into all the films I saw blind. I refused to read about any of them, and did not even peruse the catalogue. This immensely aided in my process of discovery, especially of the lesser known films.
The first film I saw was Wajib, Annemarie Jacir’s simple, well-played drama involving a father-son duo set in Nazareth. With rather simple camerawork from Antoine Heberle, the film follows the father and son (who share this relationship in real life too), as they go around town distributing invitations for a marriage in the family. Along the way film flows through a discussion of the meaning of Wajib, which translates into duty. The highlight of the film is the wonderful depiction of Nazareth and its residents.
I followed this up with I Am Not A Witch from director Rungano Nyoni (her first feature) and starring Maggie Mulubwa as nine-year-old Shula. Set in Zambia, the movie that earlier showed at Cannes, tells the story of a young child accused of being a witch, taken into state custody and exiled to a witch camp. Though the film came from “a place of anger” – as Nyoni calls it – it turns to humour to perfectly capture the sexism and misogyny behind the witch camps that exist in Zambia and Ghana to this day.
On the second day, I managed to watch Vazante, a period piece about slavery in Brazil in the 1800s. With lush, lyrical black-and-white cinematography by Inti Briones, the film is Daniela Thomas’ directorial debut. The often-meandering narrative is filled densely with events and subplots, including Antonio’s marriage to 12-year-old Beatriz (Luana Nastas) and a revolt by the black slaves.
This was followed up with a discussion between film critic and festival director Anupama Chopra and Erik Barmack, Vice-President for International Originals at Netflix. The engaging conversation revolved around the future of Netflix, and dwelt on the runaway hit original series Narcos.
I then caught series of four large, short films – Anukul (based on a Satyajit Ray short story), Chhuri, Death of a Father and Juice. This was followed up by a frank, animated and sometimes, self-indulgent, discussion featuring Tisca Chopra, Anurag Kashyap, Saurabh Shukla, Surveen Chawla and some of the directors of the films. The discussion flowed well thanks to Kashyap’s observations that ranged from laugh-out-loud funny to soberly insightful.
On Sunday, I landed at Regal and caught The Hungry and The Square. The Hungry by Bornila Chatterjee is inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus and features Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra in starring roles. Violent to a fault, The Hungry is a dark tale of corporate greed and gory murder, with powerful performances from the cast.
Stepping out of The Hungry, I was surprised to see a crowd winding a long way up for The Square. This is a satirical drama starring Claes Bang, with a host of American actors including Elisabeth Moss (TV show Mad Men’s Peggy Olson), Dominic West (from The Wire) and Terry Notary, who hogs the movie’s funniest minutes. Though a bit too long at two hours and forty-five minutes, the film was engaging, funny and poignant, and had a delicious take on what passes for art today.
Next on the list was Chavela, a riveting and thoroughly enjoyable documentary on singer Chavela Vargas, who was born in Costa Rica but grew famous singing in Mexico and lived there till her death in 2012. A love letter from the filmmakers Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, the centrepiece of the film is the interview of Chavela shot by Gund in 1991. The film also features several interviews from people who played an important role in the singer’s life, including director Pedro Almodovar, who befriended her in her later years.
The Party featured an ensemble cast dominated by famous British actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Timothy Spall. Directed with an even hand by Sally Porter, the film is about a newly appointed secretary of health (Thomas) who throws a party for her elite friends. The party goes horribly wrong when her husband (Spall) reveals that he is dying and also that he has had a recent affair.
The Georgian film Scary Mother was another revelation. Directed by Ana Urushadze, the Georgian film stars Nato Murvanidze, who delivers a powerhouse performance as Manana, a middle-aged woman who chooses to follow her passion of writing much to the dismay of her family. The only one who believes in her is her publisher, who has no means to publish her novel. The film ends with a powerful climax involving a confrontation between Manana and her translator-father.
The follow-up course to this was the outright entertainer 68 Kill, accompanied by the short film Death Metal, with which it shares a sensibility and a soul. Directed by Trent Haaga, 68 Kill is a treatise on gender and masculinity, and the robbery of 68,000 dollars that unhinges the movie and sends it on a path of destruction and gory violence.
That day’s films ended with Killing Ground, an Australian entry about a couple whose camping trip turns bloody when they stumble into an injured toddler and suspect that a horrifying crime has been committed. Directed by Damien Power, the grim, intense movie stars Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows.
The last day of the festival, began for me with the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman from Chile that explores the questions of sexuality faced by a trans-woman, Marina Vidal (a truly awesome Daniela Vega), after the sudden, shocking death of her boyfriend.
After that sensitive and powerful film, Blade Of The Immortal felt pointlessly violent. Based on the manga series of the same name, the Japanese film directed by Takashi Miike stars Takuya Kimura as the immortal samurai Manji and Hana Sugisaki as Rin Asano. Manji, who is also known as ‘Hundred Killer’, and kills just as many people in the movie, becomes Rin’s bodyguard and takes revenge on her parents’ murderers. Featuring many fast cuts and much chopping of humans, the film was a crowd-pleasing entertainer, which had earlier premiered in Cannes out of competition.
The dessert for the day was the much-hyped Mother! Featuring an all-star cast of Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film is a biblical allegory, continuing director Aronofsky’s scriptural obsession post Noah (2014).
No festival is without its complaints, and the JIO MAMI festival too had its fair share of quibbles from movie-goers. For one, the process of screening movies across different theatres could have been managed better, especially considering Mumbai’s frustrating traffic. Passes for the event also ran on the expensive side, with weekend passes costing Rs 1,200 and day passes costing Rs 500.
And there were festival attendees who felt the festival had done a “cut and paste job” from better-known international festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin. But many also felt that, at least to a certain extent, the festival had helped audiences discover films, and had not resorted only to screening previous festival hits.
For me, the MAMI festival was a celebration of the human spirit and a riveting study of the human condition, hitting the notes that one looks for in every rewarding film festival.