Festival of fights... camera, action
Usually, you go to a movie theatre because you want to be entertained. During a film festival, you hope for something far more complicated.
“It’s not believable, yaar. Who does something like that?” someone said as the audience trooped towards the exit at the end of a screening of Aamis, in which courtship involves eating a variety of unusual meats, including rabbit, bat and man-flesh. (Yes, you read that right. There is indeed some cannibalism in Aamis.)
“Northeast, man. They’ll eat everything,” replied their companion, casually.
One of the more popular films at this year’s Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which ended last Thursday, was director’s Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis. For some of us, it was an unsettling exploration of sexual repression and predatory behaviour. For others, it was about people from the Northeast allegedly eating everything.
As we made our way out, I wondered what other films this duo had watched and what conclusions they’d arrived at afterwards. If they’d seen Queen of Hearts, Denmark’s Oscar entry for best international feature, did they figure all Danish women in their 40s have a weakness for young adult males?
After watching Beanpole, did they conclude all Russian women are so ruthless and desperate to have babies that they’ll let a friend get raped in the hope that she’ll get pregnant? Did Pain and Glory convince them that all Spanish men are as handsome as Antonio Banderas and Asier Etxeandia, and gay like the characters they play in the film?
The whole point of festival films is that they challenge audiences with their stories and storytelling. For the superficial and the simplistic, we have Housefull 4, which made more than ₹19 crore on its first day. Videos circulating on social media showed fans climbing over walls to enter a theatre screening the film.
Not that this is impressive to us MAMI veterans. There was a time when entering a screening was like getting on or off at Andheri station during peak hours. Stampedes were a regular affair and at least on one occasion, someone said they were having a heart attack as they got crushed by cinephiles (the chest pains disappeared after the gent got a seat). By the time the festival ended, attendees looked like war veterans returning from the front – injured, psychologically-scarred, but victorious.
Since then, we have evolved. Now, we do queues; only they’re so long that they would make the love child of a dinosaur and an anaconda feel inadequate. This year, for one show of Beanpole, the line started 150 minutes before the screening time. In one of the many queues for Marriage Story – which will be out on Netflix – three people confided that they’d killed off fictitious family members to get a day’s leave so that they could catch this particular show (and three more films).
Usually, the snaking queues are for world cinema titles, but this year, people lined up for hours to watch select Indian films. The winner of the top prize at the festival – Eeb Allay Ooo! – didn’t get much love initially from audiences even though it should have (it’s about a man hired as a “monkey-repeller”, which sounds like something out a dystopian novel but is a real profession in Delhi). As word-of-mouth reviews travelled, Eeb Allay Ooo! found more takers. However, in terms of queue length, it was way behind Aamis. The whisper network for Indian films is not as effective as it is for world cinema titles. “You can’t trust the buzz on desi films. Everyone who says it’s good knows the director or something like that,” a wild-eyed young woman told me while we waited to be let in to watch a film from Guatemala.
That festival-goers can get reliable information on a Guatemalan film but are struggling to pinpoint trustworthy recommendations for Indian titles is sad.
If negative stereotypes about the Northeast held Aamis’s audience back, Bombay Rose benefited from stereotypes about Mumbai. The animated feature teems with familiar, exotic elements – the gold-flashing pimp and the golden-hearted bar dancer; the Bandra aunty in the old bungalow and the rakish, streetside dude; the belt-jiggling film star and the chattering maushi.
Even the geography of the city is compressed so that you see only romanticised neighbourhoods – Dadar flower market, the labyrinth of lanes in Bandra villages, a sea-fringed main road reminiscent of Juhu. Mumbai in Bombay Rose is Technicolor exotica. It’s neither complex nor real, but it seems relatable because it recreates a mythical Mumbai using stock elements, rather than insight.
Usually, you go to a movie theatre because you want to be entertained. During a film festival, you hope for something far more complicated. You demand insight and inspiration, which the films frequently deliver.
What better way to prepare for the cinematic excellence of Housefull and Dabanng?