Monday, February 02, 2015

Poetry and truth at the Mumbai Film Festival

Any piece of art should aim to live up to the two ideals that German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe preferred: Dichtung und Wahrheit (poetry and truth). At the just-concluded Mumbai Film Festival there were quite a few movies that showed these traits in spades.

The gold standard was set by Chaitanya Tamhane's Marathi movie Court, which won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival. Court is a critique of India's arcane laws that continue to be "relevant" much to the dismay of the affected parties. It tells the story of a reactionary Mumbai folk singer being brought to his knees in a court of law - because, allegedly, the words that he used were taken to heart by a sewage cleaner who ended up killing himself. The singer is pushed further and further down the abyss that is the Indian judicial system. Mr Tamhane's biggest triumph is that the laugh-out-loud moments - for example, a scene where the judge refuses to hear a case because the defendant is wearing a sleeveless dress - are both side-splittingly funny, and created with an intimate knowledge of how ordinary people think. The pitch-perfect casting, the lingering close-ups and the seamless narrative make Court one of the best movies of 2014. This movie ought to be a constant reminder to our new prime minister who has promised to cut the flab out of Indian laws.

Another potent amalgam of poetry and truth was the Malayalam movie Perariyathavar (Names Unknown). Directed by Bijukumar Damodaran (commonly called "Dr Biju"), it is a deeply affecting story about a road sweeper who is a mute spectator to how modern-day Kerala is battling the twin forces of capitalism and communism. The lead actor, Suraj Venjaramoodu, won the National Award for Best Actor this year for his outing in a deglamourised role that's a radical departure from what is usually his bread and butter: comic roles where pratfalls are written with him in mind.

Another movie that I loved is Benjamín Naishtat's Argentinean film History of Fear, a take on constant gentrification, and how it could lead only to more paranoia. Set in a near-future Buenos Aires, this stripped-down dystopian drama is about a bunch of vaguely interconnected characters who keep coming across their fears in the unlikeliest of situations. Some of the film's images are quite hallucinogenic; they continue to be embedded in my brain. The best part about History of Fear is that it's not a childish rant against the bourgeoisie - it actually delves deeper, in an effort to make sense of society's demands for increased surveillance and security.

One of my most satisfying movie-watching experiences also turned out to be a disappointment turnout wise. Only nine people landed up for the French movie Girlhood, directed by Celine Sciamma. It's about a group of four inseparable black girls in a banlieue in Paris who come to terms with the harsh realities of life and dead-end prospects that it has to offer. Most of the story revolves around Marieme (played by a magnetic Karidja Toure) who is the most distraught of the lot, as she fears settling down, getting married and managing kids for the rest of her life. The earlier parts of the movie move along in an admirably frenetic manner - especially one sequence, where the girls dance to Rihanna's Diamonds in a neon-lit room.

By the near end of the festival I was in a bind: whether to watch the Brad Pitt-starrer Fury or '71, a British historical action movie set in Northern Ireland. I chose the latter and it turned out to be a wonderful gamble. This 90-minute nail-biting thriller about a missing British soldier amid "The Troubles", as Northern Ireland prefers to refer to its bloody past, left me hooked. Director Yann Demange walked the tightrope really well and never passed judgement; instead, he concentrated on delivering the maximum chills when least expected. The background score deserves special mention.

The only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth during an otherwise insuperably satisfying festival was when Bollywood actor Imran Khan was booed off stage by an audience who thought he was taking too much time to introduce Two Days, One Night. In the heat of the moment people forgot that Bollywood had an active role in funding the festival, which was in doldrums after its main sponsor pulled out. In Toronto, a movie festival pass costs around Rs 20,000; here it was Rs 1,500. The least people could have done was listen to whatever he had to say, interesting or boring notwithstanding. But then, unlike art, life rarely pays much heed to either poetry or truth.


At 3:50 AM, Anonymous said...

I wonder whether you chose nail-biting trailer&)) It entered my mind - the Pitt's starring there was hilariously unpredictable!

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