I'm going to hope that the 19th edition of the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star, from October 12th to 18th, feels 19 years long. Our annual pilgrimage is here – and with it comes a bleary-eyed kid-in-candy-shop week, quick food-court lunches, out-of-town buddies shacking up together in the humid suburbs, townies swearing by the spacious regality of Regal Cinemas, aggressive bolts to three corners of Andheri and Juhu, long "booked" lines and longer "walk-in" queues, coffee marathons, day-wise note comparisons, last-moment impulsive dashes, desperate 8 AM internet scrambles to snap up the next day's big tickets, sleep-deprived late-night beers…I forgot why I started this article.
Yes, the films. 223 of them. Those are a lot of options – even if it's across seven locations in the city. So let's make this a little easier.
First, there are the "biggies": the films that have already made headlines at all the well-known international film festivals. These are the ones that can cause a stampede at the Andheri multiplex venues, and the ones most of us will blindly book because how else can we boast about an immersive silver-screen experience of a Cannes or Sundance darling?
Ruben Ostlund's Palme d'Or winner The Square, Darren Aronofsky's shockingly divisive Mother!, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Cannes Jury winner Loveless, Tangerine director Sean Baker's critically acclaimed The Florida Project, Luca Guadagniono's homosexual love story and 2017 festival favourite Call Me By Your Name, Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, Carol director Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, Ben and Josh Safdie's heist thriller Good Time, Hong Sang-soo's existentially melancholic South Korean drama On The Beach at Night Alone, Matthew Heineman's groundbreaking Syrian activist-following documentary City of Ghosts, Argentinian comeback kid Lucrecia Martel's vast colonial epic Zama, The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius' Redoubtable, Japanese auteur Hirokazy Kore-eda's mixed-reviewed The Third Murder, Trey Edward Shults' apocalyptic psychological thriller It Comes At Night, Julian Rosefeldt's Cate Blanchett-starring multi-screen installation Manifesto, Anurag Kashyap's MAMI-opening sports drama Mukkabaaz, Shlok Sharma's iPhone-shot multi-narrative Zoo, Qissa director Anup Singh's twisted love ballad Song of Scorpions, Rima Das' TIFF-dazzling Village Rockstars, Devashish Makhija's bleak rape-revenge saga Ajji and Rungano Nyoni's Zambian witchcraft satire I Am Not A Witch.
But it's the little surprises that define a film festival experience. It's the "fillers" and hidden gems that often end up being the snapshot of these weeklong memories. These titles, without inbuilt hype machines, are impossible to predict before we make our own personal schedules. It's usually during the week that word spreads and they become not-so-hidden sleeper hits.
Here are EIGHT such films that I believe could be those warm bolts out of the blue:
ASK THE SEXPERT (India Story; 83 minutes)
Director: Vaishali Sinha
Dr. Mahinder Watsa is a name etched in print immortality. The iconic 92-year-old sexologist has been regaling the country's curious readers with his inimitable Mumbai Mirror column since 2005 – a space where he sardonically and informatively answers (circus-level bizarre) "adult" queries from faceless (and comically adventurous) Indian citizens without ever losing his sense of humour. I once remember wondering if perhaps the publication had just concocted this column out of thin air to provide some light (fictitious) respite from bleak city stories. More than the glaring lack of sex education, this space is now an insight into the populous nation's incredulous dichotomy of physical desire: ignorance and obsession. A documentary chronicling the world-famous-in-India sexpert's life can't be anything but fascinating. After all, how many of you know what he looks like?
LOVING PIA (World Cinema; 100 minutes)
Director: Daniel Borgman
A semi-documentary fact-meets-fiction 16mm film by the Danish filmmaker explores the quiet caveats of mortality by delving into the gentle lives of a 60-year-old mentally disabled lady named Pia and her fast-fading 84-year-old mother (both "playing" themselves). Much of the film is improvised, even though a story is being told. I'm an emotionally invested wreck when I read about old people and their missions to reinvent themselves – and Pia seems like the kind of winsome underdog that might just be the plaintive meditation a quick-firing festival needs.
SIGNATURE MOVE (World Cinema; 82 minutes)
Director: Jennifer Reeder
A Chicago-based lesbian romance between a Pakistani (immigration) lawyer and a Mexican wrestler? Colour me ethnically intrigued. Shabana Azmi plays the Pakistani mother, and her tumultuous relationship with her daughter forms the crux of this sweetly conceived American indie. Maybe it's timely, maybe it's light, maybe it's predictable and maybe it's a bit of everything – but there's always space in my heart for a quiet, reluctant and challenging love story in today's USA
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND (International Competition; 80 minutes)
Director: Ana Asensio
Winner of the narrative prize at the SXSW film festival, Spanish actress Asensio's Manhattan-spanning directorial debut has been reviewed as a suspenseful, strong-willed and desperate thriller about one dangerous day in the life of an undocumented, broke, but fatally beautiful, immigrant. Her attributes, of course, are inexplicably linked to each other. Based on Asensio's own early experiences as an illegal outsider in New York accepting degrading jobs for cash, the ironically titled film sounds like the perfectly grimy low-budget feature we might appreciate on an edgy, humid night.
Director: Samir Oliveros
The Bogota-based director's debut, a "road" movie rich with Columbian surrealism and Caribbean flavour, is a whimsical comedy about two prickly teenaged siblings scrambling to fix up their father's dented pickup truck after unintentionally running over an unfortunate bearded goat. So far, so goat. Though the plot is defined by the generic meet-colourful-characters-on-journey template, it's perhaps the untrained leads' natural performances, local nuances and their rustic Port Paradise surroundings that might lend our eyes and ears a much-needed break from our typically artful European-American-Asian film schedule.
A SUITABLE GIRL (World Cinema; 97 minutes)
Directors: Sarita Khurana, Smriti Mundhra
This could just be the documentary of this year's festival. "Arranged Marriage" might sound like an age-old, tired and cinematically overstretched concept to most of us by now. But the winner of Tribeca's prestigious New Documentary Director award seems to be a rare, nuanced and time-respecting look into a broadly misunderstood institution. The film painstakingly follows the lives of three separate Indian women for four years – each with different approaches, social statuses and interpretations – to offer us a trusting and intimate portrait of the contrasts of modern womanhood. That the subjects shed their "chronicling formality" to trust the makers during their life's most transformative period is, in itself, a testament to the exhaustive ambitions of more than just another commentative exercise.
Director: Dan Sickles, Antonio Santini
Sickles' father dies, and the filmmakers move to Philadelphia to make it easier for him to work on a project. But there they find Dina, one of the father's vivacious autistic students – who immediately becomes the subject of their new documentary project. Part unscripted "real-life" rom-com (48-year-old Dina is about to get engaged) and part mental-health humanization exercise, Dina frames its candid protagonist in a quasi-fictitious narrative without mandatory voiceovers and interviews. It shows Dina as is – repeating, interacting, emoting and getting bored. The result might be a poignant, morally ambiguous and awkwardly engaging love story – replete with the knowledge that this is just another brave month in her life.
Director: Carla Simon
My odds are on this one – already a Berlinale debut feature winner – to win the top prize at the Mumbai Film Festival. The Catalan director's moving memoir-style film is said to have sidestepped the traps of sentimentality and nostalgia while framing the quiet story of a six-year-old orphan forced to live with her uncle's family after her parents die of aids. New, troubled relationships – especially with a cousin and their rustic environment – are explored through the vulnerable eyes of a city child, and take the form of cinematic catharsis while clearly drawing on the filmmaker's own early experiences. Simon's ability to direct her young actors in what is a personal, minimally detailed account of a period she might have craved to forget is an admirable one. And this "advantage" usually makes for the most unnerving and spontaneous explorations of grief.
UP DOWN & SIDEWAYS (Documentary): a musical portrait of a community of rice farmers who sing evocative songs while they work on the slopes of Nagaland's hills.
BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN: French auteur Claire Denis' surprising foray into "comedy" stars the resplendent Juliette Binoche as a volatile artist and divorced mother struggling to make sense of her complicated life.
BRIGSBY BEAR: A highly original 1980s-VHS-style Michel Gondry-ish indie drama about a 20-something man who has been raised in a bunker with limited exposure to educational pop culture. Its semi-solitary, semi-fantastical, dysfunctional motif has a bit of Room, Be Kind Rewind, Lars and the Real Girl and The Truman Show.
THELMA: Joachim's Trier's slow-burning psychological thriller – Norway's official entry to the 2018 Oscars – is about a shy, religious young girl who moves to college and discovers that she has dangerous supernatural powers while falling in love with another girl.