The renowned Iranian master, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s riveting political satire, The President, will open the 45th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa on Thursday evening.
A great story told grippingly, The President would please Makhmalbaf fans – of whom there are plenty in India. Mohsen, who wrote the script along with his partner, Marziyeh Meshkiny - an established director herself – has created a bold parable of a drama that might, as The Guardian critic averred, could have been directed by Mils Foreman 40 years ago. But "it feels contemporary and as sharp as a tack".
But more importantly, the movie would seem apt given the kind of political turbulence much of the world is passing through today. The anger against dictatorial regimes, the disdain for dynastic rule and the crave for democratic movement are what we have been seeing in the recent past – in India and elsewhere.
And Makhmalbaf laces his creation with his own personal experiences – anger and angst injected into the narrative. Which, though, is not allowed to sink into sorrow and despair. On the contrary, the auteur uses a tongue-in-cheek approach, and what a delight this is.
Hounded out of his own country by an autocratic regime and exiled in London, Makhmalbaf arrives with a parable on violence. The President, which clearly indicates that it was inspired by the Arab Spring, is a mighty powerful and poignant look at the brutality and bestiality of dictators.
One of the first scenes in The President, shot in Georgia, shows the ruler in military uniform showing his little grandson (also in uniform) what power is all about. Sitting on a high balcony overlooking his city, the President orders the city lights to be switched off. The moment he barks his diktat into the telephone, the whole place, except for the palace, plunges into darkness. A few moments later, when he commands that the lights be switched on, they begin to glow.
This little game, much to the awe and amazement of the lad (and to our humour), goes on for a while, till the lights do not come on at all. What follows is the sound of gunfire, and, well, a coup breaks out. The President and his grandson have to run and hide from a murderous mob baying for their blood. They disguise themselves first as shepherds and later as musicians and keep hopping from place to place, and there is no single man or woman who has a kind word for the dictator. So bloody cruel was his reign.
It was during a trip to Afghanistan eight years ago that Makhmalbaf thought of The President. Looking at the rubble that was Kabul from atop the destroyed Darul Aman Palace, he wondered about a king and his tendency to show off his total power. Could there be anybody better than a child to whom he could display his unchallenged skills?
This evening Makhmalbaf would be there at the opening ceremony to present his work. Anupam Kher and Raveena Tandon will compare the ceremony that will be attended by Amitabh Bachchan as the chief guest, and Rajnikanth as the guest of honour. He will be given the special cinema centenary award.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the International Film Festival of India for Hindustan Times)