MAMI 2016 – Around The World In Seven Days

Having made it through 27 films in 7 days, Rahul Desai lists the amazing, absurd and good-but-not-great films of this year’s Mumbai Film Festival.

November brings with it a MAMI-sized void for most Indian film enthusiasts. It’s a nice kind of exhaustion though – akin to the mental aftermath of a strenuous spiritual pilgrimage.

Suddenly, waking up early in the morning loses its immediate purpose. There’s no delegate card to hang around the neck, no desperate 8 AM scrambles onto the Bookmyshow portal, no futile twitter rants about houseful screenings, no schedules to crib about, no organizers to praise and prod, no victorious outbursts on booking top-slot films, no quick-fire social media reviews, no snaking walk-in lines to gawk at, no proud strides into reserved queues, no envious snarls at gold-card holders, no friendly volunteers to harass, no “What did you watch today?” small-talk, no post-day beers, no droopy eyes and hoarse throats, no frantic food-court lunches and mid-afternoon art-film snoozes.

This year, I watched 27 films at the Mumbai Film Festival. In other words, I stood up 27 times for the national anthem – a feat that allegedly puts me in an entitled patriotic bracket at par with those who chose Shivaay over Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

TOP OF MY CLASS

  • I, Daniel Blake

When I look back, it’s always one film that becomes the face of my festival experience. 2013 was my Blue Is The Warmest Color year, 2014 the Mommy year, and 2015 the Room year. Similarly, 2016 will forever be my I, Daniel Blake year.

It’s easy to be a bit wary about the hype that precedes a Palme d’Or winner, but 80-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach’s film transcends awards and expectations. I’ve always been a sucker for bleak tales about lonely old widowers. Yet, there is something heartbreakingly upbeat about the way stand-up comedian Dave Johns essays the role of the titular working-class heart patient battling red tape to qualify for sickness benefits.

It’s easy to be a bit wary about the hype that precedes a Palme d’Or winner, but 80-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach’s film transcends awards and expectations.

The robotic machinations of the system that grinds him down seem frustratingly familiar for Indians – mildly reminiscent of the shocking 30-year-old struggle by Gandhian pensioner Gour Hari Das to prove his freedom fighter credentials.

My heart raged and broke repeatedly as I watched Blake’s face fall ever so slowly, his spirit withering even as his new friend, a struggling single mother named Katie (Hayley Squires), gives us the single-most moving scene of this year at a food bank. It’s one thing to be affected by a film; it’s another to be reduced to a sobbing, incoherent and breathless mess by the end.

That said, it became easy to identify viewers who had just watched this film – red eyes, shell-shocked faces and a newly acquired inability to process the vagaries of ‘formal’ procedures.

  • Graduation

Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is another deeply intuitive examination of a man’s reluctant tryst with the system. Mounted as a complex father-daughter portrait, Mungiu deconstructs the domino-effect aftermath of an assault well within the context of small-town Romanian culture. It becomes startling to notice how an ethically conflicted adult must underplay his daughter’s traumatic incident for her own good. Adrian Titieni’s performance is one for the ages, just like the next on this list…

  • Elle

Isabelle Huppert provides the year’s most hypnotic turn in yet another film taking forward the festival’s unofficial theme of rape/assault defining the narrative. Paul Verhoeven’s outrageously provocative French-language Elle, however, boldly subverts the theme and goes where no film has ever dared to go before. Huppert leaves us reeling with her perversely enigmatic alpha-lady act, seemingly in control of everything in her eventful life – everything, including those ghastly assaults. I found myself cringing and being repulsed by the events on screen, but just couldn’t take my eyes off it.

  • The Salesman

Shahab Hosseini plays an embattled husband who embraces a more ‘ordinary’ and primal obsession in tracking down his shaken wife’s (Taraneh Alidoosti) assailant, in Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman.

Eventually, a viewer is put in the absurd position of being morally torn between revenge and justice, between a gentle wrong and a violent right, even as we witness the changing dynamics of companionship.

Shahab Hosseini plays an embattled husband who embraces a more ‘ordinary’ and primal obsession in tracking down his shaken wife’s (Taraneh Alidoosti) assailant, in Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman.

This was easily the most popular title of the festival, owing to the director’s accomplished filmography and his consistently intricate exploration of humane deficiencies.

  • Manchester by the Sea

The closing film, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, another raging tearjerker, explores a younger language of grief. A non-road-movie version of Netflix’s The Fundamentals Of Caring, it thrives on the mindscape of its lead protagonist.

Casey Affleck destroys us with his downcast portrayal of a numb Bostonian forced to re-pluck the torn roots of his past after his older brother’s death. Unlike Daniel Blake, he inflicts loneliness upon himself.

The foul-mouthed pain-concealing banter with his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), who he has been put in custody of, is entertaining to watch. Another scene-of-the-year contender, though, is one where he runs into his ex-wife (a fleeting but stunning Michelle Williams) in a parking lot. It’s the kind of chance meeting you always prepare for, only to find yourself completely winded and dangerously unstable when it happens.  

  • After The Storm

But perhaps the broken-relationship fable that stuck with me the most is a more time-worn one, presented to us by Japanese creator Hirokazu Koreeda in his latest, After The Storm. Maybe it’s the fact that Japanese family culture shares a similar foundation to ours – a peculiar cocktail of intrusion and respectfulness.

But perhaps the broken-relationship fable that stuck with me the most is a more time-worn one, presented to us by Japanese creator Hirokazu Koreeda in his latest, After The Storm. Maybe it’s the fact that Japanese family culture shares a similar foundation to ours – a peculiar cocktail of intrusion and respectfulness.

At one point, a whimsical old woman poignantly reigns herself in as she stops short of begging her estranged daughter-in-law to reconsider her irresponsible son. Koreeda, not for the first time, leaves us with delicate, unassuming images of a life in the process of telling itself.

  • A Death in the Gunj

Out of the three Indian films I watched this time, two of them ended up being my favourites. The opening film, Konkona Sen Sharma’s uneasy 1970s family-reunion ensemble piece, A Death In The Gunj, is a superbly designed psychological portrait of a young man (Vikrant Massey) trapped by his own inadequacies. His face continues to remain a haunting image in my head, in spite of watching 23 films after this one.

A Death In The Gunj, is a superbly designed psychological portrait of a young man (Vikrant Massey) trapped by his own inadequacies. His face continues to remain a haunting image in my head, in spite of watching 23 films after this one.

  • Trapped

I don’t remember ever watching an Indian survival drama, let alone imagining such a clever, believable and genuinely feasible predicament.

Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, meanwhile, tells the 127-Hours-esque tale of a young man physically trapped within the confines of a Mumbai high-rise flat. We’ve seen humans abandoned on islands, creeks, mountains and nature, but to be undone by civilization’s own device? Rajkummar Rao’s terrific act in a situation frightening for how likely it is helps the film rise above its genre traps. I don’t remember ever watching an Indian survival drama, let alone imagining such a clever, believable and genuinely feasible predicament.

  • Clash

Another film about humans trapped in a compact space for virtually its entire duration is Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s Clash – a pulsating, nervy and spectacularly shot account of two opposing groups of protesters stuck in one police van. From within their space, we’re given a barnstorming tour of a riotous and volatile city – even as bits of fleeting humanity are snuffed out by the frailties of revolution. Chaos has rarely been depicted with such control and visual flair.

  • The Apprentice

Boo Junfeng’s atmospheric drama, The Apprentice, lends an evocative face to Singapore’s divergent relationship with capital punishment. Centered about a tough young prison guard taken under wing by a senior executioner, this carefully crafted film thrives in its somber mood, and peaks during some unforgiving early-morning sequences of the “final walk” of death-row inmates. Nerve-racking, despite the inevitability of their outcome.

 

THEATRE OF THE ABSURD

  • Wild

Throw in some alarming imagery of bestiality, graphic sex and more (and I really mean “more”), and Lilith Stangenberg’s committed performance acquires a cult-level significance, much of which will be understood down the years.

Wild, Nicolette Krebitz’s audacious German woman-meets-wolf film, is essentially about reverse metamorphosis: an unhinged introvert breaking free from the shackles of civilization. Throw in some alarming imagery of bestiality, graphic sex and more (and I really mean “more”), and Lilith Stangenberg’s committed performance acquires a cult-level significance, much of which will be understood down the years.

  • The Untamed

Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, a mesmerizing Mexican mix of social commentary and live-action tentacular eroticism, is delightfully difficult to process. Perhaps the most bizarre portrayal of feminist pop-culture in recent memory, it left me wondering what on earth was wrong with me for wanting to watch more. Allegory for addiction, did someone say?

Perhaps the most bizarre portrayal of feminist pop-culture in recent memory, it left me wondering what on earth was wrong with me for wanting to watch more.

  • Slack Bay

Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, though, will probably go down as this festival’s most absurd-for-the-sake-of-it experience. Categorized as a “cannibal comedy,” this French film is so over the top, brazen, hopelessly self-obsessed and funnily indulgent that I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or pull my hair out after watching it end with a bunch of slapstick caricatures chasing an inflated man in the sky. I think I did a bit of all. It’ll take a lot to wash out memories of Juliette Binoche’s outlandish Rajpal Yadav impersonations.

 

  • Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’ deliberately weird cocktail of genres, is impossible to understand. But there’s something mysterious and enthralling about the Kristen Stewart starrer, a film that effortlessly switches from supernatural drama to plot-driven horror to stone-cold thriller and back. Just the right pieces of its puzzle are missing. Unfortunately, word about its hostile Cannes reception seemed to have reach Mumbai folks – many of who condemned this curious film to its predetermined fate even as it unraveled on screen. I, for one, would love to watch and be stumped by it again.

 

SPECIAL MENTIONS

  • The Red Turtle

Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, the much-acclaimed Studio Ghibli animated feature film, is the kind of dreamy tale I wanted to be blown away by. But I found myself friend-zoning it instead – the ‘so sweet’ category, perhaps because it plays safe and does nothing wrong, instead of aspiring to do everything right.

  • Under the Shadow

Babak Anvari’s much-hyped Iranian horror film, Under the Shadow, is significant for its 1980s War-of-the-Cities setting – and that’s all. Either the genre has to stop using ghouls and annoying children, or I need to step back and reevaluate my affection towards its templates.

At one point, when the track-pant-wearing woman and her daughter escape the haunted flat, she is arrested for not wearing a hijab and embracing ‘western values’; the wry cultural significance of this film far outweighs its license to chill.

  • Diamond Island

Davy Chou’s Diamond Island, a smart and stylish Cambodian teen drama, went on to win Mumbai’s Golden Gateway Prize for best film in international competition. But when I watched it early on in the festival, I went in blind with no idea of what to expect.

It turned out to be one of those rare, unhurried mood pieces with a definite sense of place – fashioning a largely nocturnal and insightful twist to Asia’s transition-to-big-city obsession.

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

I regret missing a few notable titles: Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s documentary The Cinema Travellers, Ross Adam’s and Robert Cannan’s The Lovers and the Despot, Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, Claude Barras’ Life as a Courgette, Isaac Ezban’s The Similars, Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel’s Lost In Paris.

EPILOGUE

Personally, this November void is always deeper for me. My annual backpacking trips have invariably occurred in September. And a different kind of voyage occurs at the end of October.

Countless of these films invite me into their countries, and numerous faces let me watch their most intimate ways. I travel the world from a reclining seat in a cold cinema hall. This isn’t touristy globetrotting, where one simply absorbs a culture’s shiny goodness and exemplary history; these films offer uncompromising peeks into what lies beneath the surface – often, the grime and darkness, the oddities and perversions, the shady by-lanes, lost worlds and alienated spaces. Things and people you wouldn’t choose to experience on an actual trip.

As a result, this tireless weeklong MAMI journey is an all-encompassing periscopic excavation of more than just cinema. It is life, as we know it.

 

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