Late last Saturday night, Mira Nair, resplendent in an ankle-length kurta, stood on stage in the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto.
The gigantic, 2,630 seat theater was packed for the North American premiere of Nair’s latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Joined by her A-list cast — Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed — Nair spoke eloquently of the joy of being in ‘Toronto’s embrace.’
The film, about a young Pakistani who becomes disillusioned with the great American Dream, was rewarded with sustained applause.
Nair isn’t the only filmmaker enthralled by ‘Toronto’s embrace.’ Over the last decade, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has grown into one of the biggest and most significant film gatherings.
Each year, over 250, 000 people gather to watch over 350 films. What makes TIFF special is that it’s a public festival.
Tickets are sold for each show and the biggest prize here is the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award, decided upon by popular vote. Unlike the Cannes Film Festival, where only industry and media participate, TIFF is a movie feast, open to all.
Over the last decade, TIFF has also become the unofficial kick-off to Oscar. More than two dozen TIFF winners have gone on to win Academy Award nominations.
Films like Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech, started their march to the best picture Oscar at TIFF.
Which makes Toronto a Hollywood hotspot — plane loads of actors, directors, agents, distributors — descend on the city.
This year, every A-list star from Bruce Willis to Robert Redford to Ryan Gosling, presented their films and signed autographs at the red carpet.
Jackie Chan also stopped by to participate in the Asian Film Summit, a confab on the state of cinema in Asia.
This year also saw the biggest Indian presence in the history of TIFF. Among the festival’s programs is one called City to City, which focuses on a different city each year. For 2012, the city was Mumbai.
Ten films, made by filmmakers who live in Mumbai, were screened in the program — these ranged from mainstream fare like Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade to more arthouse material like debutant director Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, a philosophical examination of three lives.
Apart from these films, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish premiered in the prestigious Gala section as did Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Deepa Mehta’s new movie, Midnight’s Children.
The latter, a sprawling adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s best-selling novel, had almost its entire cast walking the red carpet, including Satya Bhabha, Anupam Kher, Shriya Saran, Seema Biswas, Shahana Goswami, Siddharth, Ronit Roy and Rahul Bose. Mehta jokingly, called it her ‘tabar.’
“This is a watershed moment for Indian cinema,” said Cameron Bailey, festival’s artistic director. Bailey, who has championed Hindi cinema, added: If bringing these films to Toronto does only one thing, I want it to show that India’s filmmakers can do a lot more than make formula musicals. We don’t have to renounce our love for Bollywood’s best but we should feel free to take on a new lover: Indian independent cinema.
The makers of Indian independent cinema couldn’t have asked for a better audience. Director Hansal Mehta who premiered his film Shahid, said that he was moved by the response.
“The applause and the fact that Shahid is provoking debate is the real objective behind its making,” he said, For Anand Gandhi, the cinephiles of Toronto set ‘a benchmark for audience response.’
This is the magic of TIFF — that it combines great films and filmmakers with a passionate audience. Despite the crowds and logistical hassles, there was minimal aggression and heartache.
Approximately 2,300 volunteers manned the various theaters and patiently, smilingly answered every query.
For a festival-goer, functioning on little sleep, lesser food and an over-stimulated brain, this was as good as it gets.
(The writer is HT’s film critic)