Volume 4 : Miscellaneous Column (1)




Magic and Realism in Goa

Anindya Sengupta

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Problems are plenty and they are quite well known. But when at the beginning, the festival director pointed it out that at its 35th edition, the festival is looking for a new identity then it was more than the usual niceties. After all IFFI is a significant event for all of us in spite of its obvious shortcomings. Physical changes were all too apparent. The previous central government announced that Goa would henceforth be the permanent venue for IFFI. But the change of regime made it uncertain and finally when Goa was cleared as this year’s venue there was no commitment that it would still be accepted as the permanent venue. Despite relentless pressure from the state government and hype created by the local media, it was announced at the closing ceremony that the festival would return to Panaji next year as well but the candidature of Goa as the permanent venue is still under consideration. This debate is interesting to follow as it has been argued for long that moving the venue of the festival away from New Delhi would almost automatically free it from bureaucratic mentality and also instead of shifting the venue every year, a permanent venue would give the festival a more recognizable character and stability.

Perhaps no other place in India has done so much to improve physical infrastructures of a city for a film festival as Panaji has done in just six months. Goa thrives on tourism and the government spared no effort to provide great hospitality to everyone. But more than that, they built bridges, constructed roads and sidewalks, beautified almost the entire city, erected a swank multiplex and completely overhauled the main entertainment hub of the city – all just for IFFI. But however commendable it sounds this was just one side of the coin. Apart from the official organizers of the festival (Directorate of Film Festival and the government of Goa, represented through the Entertainment Society of Goa), an event management company was engaged to provide wholesome entertainment to the crowd. So there was everything, from jazz to ghazal, mehendi to kite flying and fancy dress – and all in the name of cinema! For ten days, every evening we saw carnival-type atmosphere with huge participation of local people on the riverside promenade, all the way from the heart of the city to Miramar beach, where a giant screen used to show Hollywood and Bollywood potboilers, of course when they were not hosting international kite players or Goa’s famous homegrown music bands. People did everything; they even came in droves to see the new Inox multiplex but just that they did not bother to see any movie. For a two-minute news capsule or for a glossy Sunday supplement IFFI at Goa was a great success but inside the empty theatres the most obvious question you were tempted to ask was what sort of identity the festival was looking for?

The festival films

The major sections of the festival were Cinema of the World, Asian Competition (the only competitive section) and of course Indian Panorama. Apart from these, the festival paid tributes to both Indian and international cinema personalities in the Homage and Retrospective section, which included among others Nargis Dutt, Yash Johar, Mehmod, Vijay Anand and David Lean and the popular Italian actor-director Vittorio Gossman, who passed away in 2000. There were premieres and special screenings, not to mention the opening and closing films - Meera Nair’s ‘Vanity Fair’ and Oliver Stone’s opulent ‘Alexander’, respectively. The festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of ‘Pather Panchali’ and 75th anniversary of Prabhat Theatre by screening ‘Sant Tukaram’. There were sections focused on cinema of a particular country or a region like ‘Canadian Showcase’ or the section on ‘German Cinema Made in Bavaria’. Packages of Egyptian and Portuguese films broadened the horizon but did not receive much attention. Perhaps for the first time a bunch of Taiwanese cinema was presented in an Indian film festival and they, on the other hand, were quite well received. Taiwan, in terms of cinematic creativity as in terms of its geographic spread is a very small country. But the diversity of themes along with a very refreshing approach to issues facing younger generations of what clearly comes out as a distinctly Asian society was quite fascinating. For many of us Taiwanese cinema meant an isolated ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ but this package helped to change that notion significantly. This year’s Kolkata Film Festival had a package of Canadian cinema, Canadian presence in the IFFI was also substantial and that included, to the delight of many animation movie-lovers, a bunch of award winning animation films from National Film Board of Canada.

If there was one film, where it was not possible to complain about an enthusiastic audience response then it was a seemingly unlikely Marathi movie. The language factor obviously helped and also the hype created by news of spontaneous donations pouring in from ordinary people to state governments and celebrities. But beyond all these, ‘Shwaas’ – this year’s Indian entry to Oscar (best foreign language film section) – is a very different and engaging experiment in filmmaking. ‘Shwaas’ is the first feature film of Sandeep Sawant, a Marathi theatre personality and based on a real life incident and supported by meticulous research. It is the story of an old man, who brings his seven-year-old grandson Parasuram from a picturesque village in Konkan coast to a city to consult Dr. Sane. The grandson, who is having trouble with his eyes, goes through a series of medical investigations and the grandfather endures a rather difficult brush with apathetical public health system as well as exploiting private facilities. The boy is detected with retino-blastoma and the Doctor opines that the only way to save his life is to remove both his eyes. Faced with this terrible prospect, the old man refuses to accept the truth. But even when he comes around and agrees for an immediate surgery nobody could have the heart to tell the boy about his fate. But he realizes the terrible destiny awaiting him. The fear of impending darkness makes the bubbly child unbearable. When an emergency forces the doctor to postpone the operation by 24 hours, suddenly the child, who by now becomes uncontrollable, vanishes along with his grandfather. Police, media everyone makes Dr. Sane’s life miserable. But as he steps out of the hospital, bitter and helpless, he suddenly discovers a rejoicing Parasuram and his grandfather. The doctor blasts out, the grandfather explains how he filled up the senses of the little boy with the colourful vision of all he wanted to see in his life - ‘mandirs’, zoo, the sights and sounds of the great metropolis, which will remain forever out of reach for him. At the end, Parashuram, eyes covered in big black-goggles returns to his village on a small boat, feeling the water with his hand, his face lit up with an innocent smile.

The production is smart; acting, particularly of the three main actors – Arun Nalawade, Sandeep Kulkarni and Aswin Chitale – is good but the real attraction of the film lies somewhere else. This is a storyline, which one would normally expect to move rather slowly with sad background music. But the camera of Sanjay Memane moves extremely fast and the editor Neeraj Voralia juxtaposes contrasting images as a matter of normal stylistic expression. And it is this dichotomy between the speed of changing images and the story that unfolds, engrosses the audience almost completely. If someone has not seen the movie, then it would be difficult to convince him/her that a movie based on the above story can be built up and sustain real tension. The tension is entirely a human drama devoid of any externalities and it holds out till the end. If ‘Shwaas’ is a sincere effort in all other departments, it is this vision to create this dichotomy between the theme and the treatment that makes the film a special one.

There were 20 more films in the Indian Panorama (Feature Films) section and the quality was quite uneven. If films like ‘Not Only Mrs. Rout’ (Marathi – a single mother fighting sexual discrimination) and ‘Sancharam’ (Malayalam – on lesbian relationship in Kerala) distinguished themselves on the choice of themes, Anjan Dutt’s celebration of undying spirit of a decaying Anglo-Indian tenement at the heart of Calcutta – ‘Bow Barracks Forever’ – captured the imagination of a wider audience. On the Non-Fiction subsection of the Panorama there were 20 films on a wide range of subjects and a number of them were very disappointing in quality.

Indian Panorama, significantly, opened with the screening of films made by two young directors – Anup Kurien’s ‘Manasarovar’ (English – feature film) and Jasmine Kaur’s graduation film from FTII ‘Saanjh’ (Hindi – non-feature). This year’s festival stood out because of this emphasis on young talents - among the total number of films screened (more than 200), nearly half of them were the first ventures of young directors. But the maximum one can say about the quality is that some of them are promising and not beyond that. A very interesting beginning was made by hosting a film-making workshop – 24 x 7 - for young people with cinematic vision. The workshop, curated by Dev Benegal, Anuradha Parikh and Sopan Muller provided a platform for creative youths (under 24 years of age) to make a film in just 24 hours (including shooting and post-production work). The response across the country, for this initiative, which was first done in India during last year’s Kalaghoda Film Festival of Mumbai, was fabulous. Response from the audience was also very positive and at the end of the festival, Dev Bengal informed that one of the short films has been selected for Cannes Film Festival but he did not give the details about it.

In the Asian Competition section, 15 films were competing for the Golden Peacock, including two Indian entries – ‘Shwaas’ and ‘Bow Barracks Forever’. As the most promising young director, Thailand’s Ekachai Uekrongtham bagged the Silver Peacock for his ‘Beautiful Boxer’. Ekachai, a Singaporebased award-winning theatre director made his feature film debut through this film. ‘Beautiful Boxer’ is the true story of Thai kickboxing champion Nong Toom, who believes that he is a girl trapped in a boy’s body and achieves his ultimate goal of total femininity through the most masculine of sports. After he conquers the kickboxing world of Thailand and Japan, Nong undergoes a sex-change operation in 1999 and is now a model and actress as girls are not permitted to fight as professional kick-boxers in Thailand. But again much more than the story, the visual treatment, the breath-taking sequences of kickboxing and within that, portrayal of sexual identities and dilemmas distinguish the film.

But eventually the Golden Peacock went to the lone Iranian entry – ‘Beautiful City (Shahre Ziba)’, a stunning portrayal of life and death on the margins of Iranian society. Akbar has been held in a rehabilitation centre for two years after being sentenced to death. But the sentence could not be carried out as he has to reach the age of 18 to be hanged. The film opens when the celebrations by his fellow inmates reminds him of his cruel fate. The only hope for Akbar is the plaintiff, who can grant him pardon but not ready to yield. As Akbar’s friend and his sister tried their best to persuade the old and bitter man - the killing of his daughter removed the only sign of his late first wife – they also discover new facades in themselves. Even for the old man the meaning of life and religion and almost everything changes as he sits over the fate of Akbar. The discontinuities of a society bound in tradition as well as a discriminatory legal framework are highlighted through the film in a subtle way. The old man learns that Akbar will be hanged but only when he pays the blood money. Puzzled, he asked why and gets the reply - a girl’s life is worth only half of a boy’s life! Young director Asghar Farhadi’s this beautiful and often almost lyrical second film represents in a way the second generation of Iranian cinematic creativity. Not only the Golden Peacock, the film also got the special jury award for acting - Faramarz Gharibian, the actor, who portrayed the old man was the unanimous choice for the acting award.

One of the most enduring complaints about the IFFI over the years is about the selection of foreign films. The Cinema Of the World section presented films made within last two years, which have won awards and critical acclaim around the world. The quality of selected films and also this rather vague criterion for selection kept alive the debate this year also. It is difficult to summarize this section in a few words as there were almost every shade of creativity and talents from across the world.

‘Cuba Libra’ is the first feature film of Juan Gerard, who is otherwise the director of Puerto Rico International Film Festival. At his introduction he told the audience that the film is largely autobiographical and is a tribute to great filmmakers of the world, who helped to shape his life and creativity through difficult times. The film, shot in mostly long shots captured the turbulent times in the history of Cuba, when the revolution was coming. But this is shown through the eyes of a Hollywood-obsessed young boy and reflected in the lives of ordinary people around him. Che here is his grandfather and the bombs and dislocation inform him about the other Che and Fidel. It is a coming-of-the-age movie but more than that a typical Latin American movie – a poignant story wrapped in magic-realism. Here it is the cinematic imagination that is the hallmark of this film. The camera stays faithful despite long shots, which are at times a bit repetitive. A period piece above all has to capture the essence of time it documents and Juan ran the additional risk of carried over by his vivid memories of first a prized childhood then of shattering of an entire world order. But he maintains the balance and weaves a magic, which encompasses even those in the audience, who cannot immediately relate to any image of Cuba in the last year of Batista rule.

It is not only that the lurking shadow of Che in ‘Cuba Libre’ comes into life in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ but the poignancy, lyricism and the magic realism of ‘Cuba Libre’ is expanded in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. But more than that the story, familiar to a global readership and the cinematic magic created by director Walter Sales merges into a seamless piece of artistic documentation. It is a documentation of a turbulent period of Latin America’s history and reconstruction of one of the most inspiring heroes of contemporary world history. Based on the actual written words of both Che and his buddy for 10000 kilometers motorcycle adventure through Latin America, Alberto Granado, the film captures the heart and soul of two honest youth hungry for life and education. The journey, shot through an incredibly beautiful South American landscape is about the roads, the elements, the downtrodden and ultimately the leper colony, where both worked as volunteers, only to be rewarded with a vision of life even they could not imagine. It is a journey of self-discovery as well as a saga of awakening of a revolutionary heart. It unveils the beauty of South American topography and along with the complex patterns of history of exploitation. The camera stays low, always very close to the ground. It moves fast, catches up easily with the thrill of adventure. The economy of word is unbelievable. And the history is captured as the context, it never intrudes. When at the end, they identify the real life Granado, how he still remains faithful to Che in his Havana clinic and the background voice narrates, just in a few sparse words, the life and death and of course of enduring legacy of Che Guevara , the audience is reminded of history, history that is brutal and awe-inspiring. If a great film, like a great novel supposed to unveil a life previously unknown to the audience (or reader), then this was it. No words can suffice the visual extravaganza, no description for the sense of journey the audience experiences.

Ending Notes

On one side of the sprawling Kala Academy complex was an open-air restaurant, normally crowded. And on the other side was a normally desolate enclosure. It housed the Film Bazaar, where no one saw any activity for ten long days. The situation, in a way symbolized the pathetic disjunction between the festival and the industry, including the so-called parallel cinema. And if that was the divide within it then Remo Fernandez, probably the best-known Goan face in Indian entertainment helped to focus on the other side. He said what is the point spending more than 100 crores for improving infrastructure for film festival in a state where basic facilities of life like drinking water and primary healthcare are lacking. Perhaps a film magazine is not the place to discuss this in detail, perhaps it is not fair to look at everything in terms of investment and immediate return. But as pointed out at the beginning, the empty theatres every time pricked the conscience - more than 100 crores for 2000 well-heeled delegates, is it worth it? Perhaps for a cinema lover after a ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ or a ‘Shwaas’ it is the film which gives him pleasure but after a while the questions can not be brushed aside – about the identity, about funding and above all about the prospect of a truly successful international film festival in India.


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