What to Look For at This Year's MAMI – Big Names, Classics and a Bit of Serendipity

In terms of being a distraction from the hyper-nationalism going around, the Mumbai Film Festival couldn't come at a better time. And there's plenty to look forward to.

Mumbai: On the evening of October 20, the Royal Opera House, a century old performing arts space reopening after two decades, will open its doors for one of the biggest cultural events in the city, the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Exactly two days ago, on the evening of October 18, I found myself on the Royal Opera House’s first floor, about to be turned into a café, sitting in on a press conference, listening to its owners, Jyotendrasinhji and Gondal Maharani Kumud Kumari, the conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah and the curator Asad Lalljee talk about the Royal Opera House’s restoration project with considerable pride. The ambience was quiet and dignified, even frothy, with some casual jokes tossed around. But, as I looked out on the road, through a glass wall, I saw familiar chaos: buses, taxis and cars locked together in a traffic jam, a city standing still for a moment and yet itching to burst out – a mass of sweat and noise and confusion. And inside, we were talking about baroque architecture.

MAMI logoBut it’s this contradiction, this sense of absolute discordance that truly marks the 18th Mumbai Film Festival. For, on the one hand, we have more than 180 films from more than 50 countries playing at the festival, and yet we’ve managed to find a problem with a Pakistani film. The 1959 release Jaago Hua Savera won’t screen at the festival, in the wake of a complaint lodged against the film. Two days before the festival, one of its trustees, Karan Johar, released a video effectively apologising for casting a Pakistani actor (Fawad Khan) in his upcoming release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. “The circumstances were completely different,” Johar said. “There were efforts made by our government for peaceful relationships with the neighbouring country and I respected those endeavours then, those efforts then. And I respect the sentiment today.”

Let’s just pause here for a second. Johar is essentially apologising for not being able to time travel. Shameful doesn’t even begin to cut it. But that’s not it, in the theatre of the absurd that India has slowly begun to become, there’s more: Zindagi dropping Pakistani serials from its programming, a complaint lodged against Om Puri for his comments against Indian soldiers, the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India boycotting the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. If nationalism were a drug, then India should go to a rehab. Because, honestly, enough already. It’s slowly becoming painful to live in this country, where, it seems, you don’t live with people but mobs, where there’s no space for dialogue and empathy, where the promise of violence and threats is one click, one unpopular sentiment away.

But discomfort also demands distraction. And the Mumbai Film Festival couldn’t have come at a better time. At the moment, though, it’s not exactly a picture of defiance, but in the light of recent events – where the film industry and its professionals have been viciously targeted, where they’ve been singled out, their pockets scoured for badges of patriotism – films, by themselves, have come to represent something bigger. It’s also oddly fitting that the festival kicks off at the Royal Opera House, a place that has been under renovation for the last seven years, trying its best to infuse some past –when this city was more plural and more inclusive – into the present, where if you don’t agree with the populist national mood, and respectfully disagree and assert your opinion, you’ll be stripped off your humanity and reduced to a word: “anti-national”.

The interior of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai, before and after restoration. Credit: Special arrangement

The interior of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai, before and after restoration. Credit: Special arrangement

For seven days, from October 21, tens of hundreds of cinephiles will be spread across different parts of the city – Andheri, Mulund, Bandra, Kurla, Lower Parel and Colaba – watching, discussing and losing their minds over movies. And with a stellar line-up this year, the festival will give them few reasons to complain. If you love films, film festivals can feel like being a kid in a candy store; you never run out of options. And for the same reason film festivals can also feel overwhelming. Because, despite your efforts, reading up on all the films, watching their trailers, preparing your schedule with utmost precision, you’re going to end up missing a few films, a few panels, a few events. There’s no such thing as a perfect film festival experience. And that’s fine. But a more important question: What films should you watch at the festival? This, too, despite recommendations by multitude of listicles, has no easy answer – simply because watching films is intensely personal. So no list or recommendation can be perfect or should be taken as the final word; they all result from personal biases. What works for someone else may not work for you. And this point can’t be emphasised more, what doesn’t work for you, doesn’t work for you. Even if the film in question is “important”, made by a veteran director, has won the Palme d’Or, Golden Bear, Golden Lion, Golden Leopard – the top prize at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Locarno film festivals. These are not, by any means, questionable yardsticks, but they can’t be the ultimate word, too. Because, often, a lot of conversations around the films playing at the festival, quite simply, centres on name-dropping: It ultimately ends up being less about the film and more about the filmmaker’s pedigree. Which is slightly troubling, because names and labels, often, drown out our own feelings and expectations, revolving around something that’s not personal.

The bigwigs

Having said that, some films – because of their plots, themes, directors’ past works and even awards – select themselves. This year’s festival, too, comprise quite a few such films. For instance, there’s Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper, a psychological thriller starring Kristen Stewart, which won the Best Director Award at Cannes International Film Festival this year. Assayas, in fact, shared that award with the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu for his family drama Graduation, which also screens at MAMI. Besides Assayas and Mungiu, globally renowned filmmakers, this edition of the festival features films by other bigwigs, too. There’s Salesman by Asgar Farhadi (whose 2012 movie, A Separation, won the Best Foreign Language Academy Award); The Unknown Girl by Dardenne Brothers (one of the only eight filmmakers in the world to have won the Palme d’Or twice); Elle, France’s entry to the Oscars by the renowned provocateur Paul Verhoeven. Pablo Larraín returns to MAMI with Neruda, a drama on the life of the famous Chilean poet becoming a fugitive in his own country for his communist leanings. (Larraín’s previous, The Club, was one of the more sought out films at the festival last year.) Similarly, the veteran Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, after his widely acclaimed Our Little Sister in 2015, is also back with a film this year: After the Storm, a family drama centered on a famous author turned detective. Then, there’s Endless Poetry, an autobiographical movie on the childhood of Alejandaro Jodorowsky, a filmmaker known for making films that both obfuscate and delight the audience. Thomas Vinterberg, who, along with Lars von Trier, founded the avant-garde filmmaking movement Dogme 95, comes to MAMI with a Danish drama called The Commune.

The award winners

Like its previous editions, the Mumbai Film Festival this year too has managed to get a host of award winning films. There’s I, Daniel Blake, a British drama about a man’s run-in with the state, which won the Palme d’Or this year; the Golden Leopard winner, the Bulgarian drama Godless; Daniel Radcliffe-starrer Swiss Army Man, which won the Directing Award: Dramatic at Sundance; Things to Come that won its director, Mia Hansen-Løve, the Silver Bear (the best director award) at Berlin; The Untamed, which won the award for best director at Venice.

Promising Indian films

But given that MAMI is primarily an Indian film festival and has in the past introduced young upcoming filmmakers (Anand Gandhi, Chaitanya Tamhane, Avinash Arun), the prospect of finding a new Indian voice from the festival is quite high. This year, the festival opens with an Indian film, A Death in the Gunj, a thriller directed by Konkona Sen Sharma. Sudhanshu Saria’s Loev, a relationship drama about gay men, which premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) earlier this year, looks promising, so does Mostly Sunny, a documentary on Sunny Leone. But I’m really looking forward to two Indian films more than anything else at the festival: the documentary Cinema Travellers, based on patrons of travelling cinema, a form of film exhibition facing imminent extinction; and the mockumentary Autohead, which dives deep into the troubled mind of an auto driver, a drama that looks as much an exercise in film form as in examining urban alienation and masculinity.

Restored classics and nostalgia  

This year’s festival also offers a bunch of restored classics, both Indian and international, including the mind-bending Polish drama The Saragossa Manuscript, whose restoration was financed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola; the 1929 experimental documentary Man With a Movie Camera; Mani Kaul’s television mini-series, Ahamaq, starring Shahrukh Khan; Agraharathil Kazhutai, by celebrated Malayalam filmmaker John Abraham, a satire on Brahamanical bigotry, a film that, even four decades later, still remains relevant. There’s some straightforward nostalgia, too, in Teesri Manzil, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and the films of Sai Paranjype (who will be will be honoured with Indian Excellence in Cinema Award), Katha, Chashme Budoor and Sparsh.    

There’s more to a film festival than films

Any film festival, though, and MAMI is no exception, isn’t just about watching films but also freewheeling conversations on them, by directors, writers and film technicians, sharing insight not only on their art, but also what informs it. At times, these panel discussions are as (sometimes even more) rewarding than watching an acclaimed film. For instance, in 2015 MAMI, Christopher Doyle’s masterclass was an experience in itself: entertaining, insightful, provocative. This year, too, a few panel discussions look promising. Tamhane, the director of Court, would be in conversation with Jia Zhangke, one of the most prominent filmmakers in world cinema. It’s quite fitting that Tamhane, whose debut, Court, which was a searing indictment of Indian society, would be speaking to Zhangke, another director whose films have consistently probed his own country’s society. Then, there’s Zoya Akhtar in conversation with Cary Fukunaga (director of such acclaimed films as Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and Beasts of No Nation) – a combination that, at least on surface, looks odd, but may end up being rewarding, given that these two are accomplished filmmakers. Karan Johar, Prabal Gurung and Christian Louboutin would talk about fashion in films, while Aamir Khan and Mansoor Khan will discuss Nasir Hussain’s cinema with the authors Akshay Manwani and Nasreen Munni Kabir.

But, to be honest, the best film festival experiences are unplanned. When you, for instance, find yourself wondering what to do with a two-hour slot in the afternoon because the screening of a film got cancelled last moment, and then walking into a random screening and discovering a wonderful film you’d have ordinarily never thought about, much less seen. Or walking into a panel discussion to kill time and finding yourself pleasantly surprised. Or striking a great conversation with another festival attendee while standing in a particularly long queue. Lists, plans and schedules are great. But a bit of serendipity isn’t bad, either. That’s what I wish for myself. And that’s what I wish for you: To find one film among the noise and crowd and hype – one film that truly surprises you, one film that you can truly call your own.

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