The Mumbai Film Festival cannot be faulted at least on one very important score. Its selections are outstanding. Undoubtedly. At least they have been so since the Festival last year, when Reliance Big Entertainment took over and Srinivasan Narayanan stepped in as Director. The eight-day Festival, whose 12th edition ended last week in India’s citadel of cinema, offered about 200 movies from 60 countries.
Starting its roll with David Fincher’s acclaimed The Social Network that fictionalises the founding of Facebook, the Festival had an International Competition for first features. Obviously, festival competitions in India do not attract the best of baskets. One, there really is no market worth the name, and most big directors/producers or those with a touch of brilliance would rather go to the top European festivals, like Cannes, Venice or Berlin. If they fail to get in there, there is always Pusan that has grown unbelievably impressive in the past few years.
Yet, Mumbai Festival’s Competition did throw up a few interesting films. Sophie Deraspe’s Vital Signs from Canada tells an engaging story in 88 minutes of a handicapped girl’s fulfilling involvement in the lives of those about to die. Turkey’s Majority by Seren Yuce, which clinched the Festival’s top prize, talks about a bullying father’s relationship with his meek son (does it remind you of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan that screened at Cannes in May?). India’s entry in Competition was Aamir Bashir’s Autumn. It describes with a touch of poignancy how a camera helps a young Kashmiri militant to see hope in the bloody, strife-torn region.
Outside Competition, I saw better works. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (a trifle old, having been made in 2009) analyses a repressive German village to show how such brutality sowed the seeds for World War I. Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside of the Law, picturises another kind of seed that eventually led to the Algerian uprising, and the country’s independence from France in 1962. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, is a delightful drama that puzzles us with a simple message: copies are as invaluable as originals. So, a copy of the Mona Lisa is as precious! A writer who propagates this in a book begins a relationship in Tuscany with a character essayed by Juliette Binoche, and they pretend to be in love to create a copy of courting couples. In a stunning way, Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb shows us what cinema really ought to be. Why, visually entrancing and not verbally voracious. Beautiful silences glue together a controversial narrative about cloning and incest portrayed by beautiful men and women. In How I ended this Summer, Alexei Popogrebsky scripts what the harshness and solitude of an icy landscape can do to the human psyche.
Then there was Poetry by Lee Chang-don that disturbed you with the agony of an old woman when she finds that her grandson is a rapist. Played brilliantly by Yun Junghee (who was also on the main jury), the movie is sheer poetry all right. Mike Leigh offered a slice of British life in Another Year in a sweetly captivating manner, while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu underlines how his hero (a great performance by Javier Bardem) manages to keep his conscience afloat in the seedy world of crime. Jane Campion’s (chairperson of the main jury) take on John Keats in Bright Star must have enthralled all those who love the 19th century romantic poet.
India’s contribution to the Festival had its high moments. Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrilani about an aging actress’ emotional turmoil, Girish Kasaravalli’s Riding the Dreams on the unusual powers of a village gravedigger, who can see the future through his dreams, Murali Nair’s Virgin Goat telling the love story between a frustrated farmer and his she-goat, and Sanjay Nag’s Memories in March, which describes the emotional angst of a mother who loses her son were part of Mumbai’s gems.
This marvellous treat had its flip side, though. With such a large number of films boxed into actually seven days, the Festival was unable to hold repeat screenings. In hindsight, Narayanan told me that they would probably have fewer movies in 2011 giving screen time for repeats. This is imperative in a Festival. Also, a smaller number will ensure time for interactions with moviemakers and actors.
However, what the Festival appeared to be callous about this year was the programming. There were occasions when as many as four important films were shown at the same time slot. Here is one example: Oliver Stone’s (who was honoured with an International Lifetime Achievement Award), South of the Border, clashed with Aamir Bashir’s Autumn, Sofia Coppola’s Venice Golden Lion winner, Somewhere and Sen’s Iti Mrinalini. It was awfully frustrating for me, although I had to choose from three, having seen Somewhere at Venice.
When I asked a Festival official about such unimaginative scheduling, he callously quipped, “But you have to take your pick. As far as I am concerned, all the 200 movies in the Festival are great. Can you watch all of them?” I was appalled by this answer, and the official who had a very long stint with the Directorate of Film Festivals (a wing of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry) seemed to be carrying his bureaucratic baggage from New Delhi to Mumbai. It is no secret how the International Film Festival of India, organised by the Directorate in Panaji, has been floundering for years, primarily because of its in-house administrative inefficiency and lack of Government foresight.
I only hope that the Mumbai Film Festival will not slide down the dark chute that the Panaji event has travelled. Certainly, Reliance and Narayanan need to keep fine-tuning their Festival. It has certainly achieved one major landmark -- securing great cinema. All that it now needs to do is be a little more prudent in its selections. You have to make choices, sometimes difficult choices, if you are to ensure breathing space to savour the Festival’s offerings. This is not very difficult, is it?