Between October 25th and November 1st, the only Indian festival that turns me into a religious nut will be celebrated in multiplexes across the city. It's the one week every year that I surrender to the communality of a higher cause. I exhibit symptoms of many a hardcore devotee – I wake up early, stand in queues, obsess about admissions, find joy in collective gasps, look at stages adoringly, consume food as an afterthought, help fellow worshippers and repeat the routine for seven days of this holy pilgrimage. And I pray, too – at 8 AM every morning during the online ticket-booking window.
This year's Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star is the 20th edition. Which means it is the younger (and more talented) sibling I never had. The lavish mix of titles is both exciting and depressing. Exciting, because of the opportunity to catch unfiltered cinema on the big screen in the best conditions possible. Depressing, because there's not enough time to catch them all.
Let's start with the circuit giants – the much-anticipated titles that have been making waves at Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Venice, Locarno and other festivals I'm not cool enough to attend. These are the films that will give you sleepless nights and social rejection if you miss them.
Spike Lee's Cannes Grand Prix winner, BlacKkKlansman; Alfonso Cuarón's Venice Golden Lion winner, Roma; Cannes Best Director winner Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War; Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest, The Wild Pear Tree; Japanese genius Hirokazu Kore-eda's Palme d'Or winner, Shoplifters; The Coen Brothers' Coen-Brothers-ish anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Iranian master Jafar Panahi's Cannes Best Screenplay winner, 3 Faces; Gus Van Sant's comedy Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot; Actor Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wildlife; Gaspar Noé's French hallucinatory musical, Climax; Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier's gruesomely divisive The House That Jack Built; Prolific South Korean storyteller Hong Sang-soo's Grass; Chinese legend Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White; Veteran American critic-filmmaker Paul Schrader's First Reformed; former Oscar and Palme d'Or winner Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 11/9; Versatile Olivier Assayas' latest, a Binoche-starring comedy called Non-Fiction; French visionary Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book; 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen's Widows; Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai's A Tramway in Jerusalem; Toronto People's Choice Award for Midnight Madness winner, Vasan Bala's Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota; Rima Das' Bulbul Can Sing; Panos Cosmatos action-horror Nicholas Cage starrer, Mandy; and finally, radical American filmmaker Josephine Decker's experimental Sundance darling, Madeline's Madeline.
Now that we're done with the high-pressure (mainstream) list, let's look at the lesser-hyped films that – like the lovely Summer 1993 in MAMI 2017 – have the potential to be the fest's word-of-mouth sleeper hits. You know, the kind of titles that start as schedule fillers but end up as personal victories that make us feel like Columbus did when he discovered America.
Here are 8 such hidden gems:
Director: Debra Granik
A PTSD-afflicted US army veteran and his teenaged daughter are moved from their home – an Oregonian forest – to the kind of urban setting he had set out to protect her from. The unusual father-daughter story – which, from the trailer, looks like a thematic update of Captain Fantastic – seems to have hit the sweet spot in a nation divided by its concepts of civilization. Universal praise for young debutant Thomasin McKenzie's performance marks this out as an affecting coming-of-age snapshot from a filmmaker known to explore the contrasts of middle America through human conditions/addictions, and for her discovery of female talent – Vera Farmiga (Down To The Bone) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) starred in her first two feature-length films.
Director: Joel Edgerton
If his directorial debut The Gift is anything to go by, actor Joel Edgerton's latest might be of considerable interest to Indian viewers in light of the Supreme Court's recent legalization of homosexuality. Starring the supremely talented Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea) as a gay college boy forced into a conversion therapy program by his Baptist parents (Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman), Boy Erased – on the back of a strong all-Australian supporting cast (Edgerton plays the head therapist) – looks like a hard-hitting examination of orthodox Christianity and small-town morality. Interestingly, every small-minded adult in the film is driven by noble intentions – a duality lending credence to the fact that parenthood is perhaps the world's most abused religion.
Director: Christian Petzold
A French man flees the Nazi invasion and falls in love with the wife of the man whose identity he has stolen. On paper, the German auteur's "holocaust story" sounds formal and…routine. But the clincher: Transit is literally timeless. It is not a period drama. It's a modern-day film based in an unspecified period – a contextual 'remix' of history, if you may. This brave leap of conceptual faith is what makes Transit such an alluring title – a reflection of a cyclic world rife with refugees, illegal immigration, human separation and veiled neo-Nazism.
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Many believe that this Kenyan lesbian love story between two teenagers has been elevated by the politics marking its existence. The film was banned by the Kenya Film Certification Board (sound familiar?). A brave Kahiu sued the government so that it could release in screens for a week to qualify for the country's Oscar submission guidelines. Despite her victory, Rafiki lost out to tender terminal drama Supa Modo (also at MAMI) as Kenya's foreign-film entry. Yet, despite its simplistic rival-family posturing, the Afropop-heavy soundscape and visually vibrant chemistry between two promising actresses make Rafiki more than just a 'defiant and necessary' film. It comes across as a feeling – flawed and full, and one that not only the queer circuits may embrace.
Director: Babis Makridis
The latest entry into the Greek Weird Wave movement, Pity, written by Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), is an eccentric black comedy with a winning one-liner: A lawyer is happy only when he is sad. Suffering is his favourite sport. The possibilities for sly, dry satirical commentary on the contradictions of human expression are endless here. Add to this a deliberate art-house robotic-ness and strange narrative swishes, and Pity might be that wicked and self-aware dose of emotional deconstruction every festival needs. Also, I hear that the man's dog is an important character. I'm sold.
Director: Mohamed Siam
The opening documentary of last year's IDFA, the biggest non-fiction festival on the planet, has been recognized as a raw, intense and personal look at Egypt's turbulent political revolution through the eyes of a quixotic teenage girl over five years. A hypnotic mix of old home footage, archival pulls and shadowy portraiture, Amal fixes its gaze on an arresting protagonist whose complex transformation – starting with the death of her father – alternates between foreground and background for her country's volatile surroundings. To provide context of its significance: 41 logos (of funders, grants) appear in the closing slates.
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
The part-playful-vigilante, part-activist Icelandic fable, about a 50-something woman who secretly sabotages the aluminum industry to save the environment, sounds surreally funny. Erlingsson, like in his acclaimed first film Of Horses And Men, seems to have understood that positioning nature in a naturally rich nation, as the damsel in distress makes for dreamy yet rooted cinema. An identical twin sister, an adoption program and background musicians appearing within the frames – you get the gist. I can't help but imagine the famous footballing Viking Chant scoring the lady's obsessive David-v/s-Goliath battle.
Director: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
Perhaps the most evocative in-competition title this year, the humanist drama is based on the psychological hues of a friendship between a mute (political translation: voiceless) Rohingya refugee and his rescuer, a guilt-ridden Thai fisherman. The film seems to switch genres mid-way, and comes across as a crafty visual address to our times, centered on themes of displacement, loneliness and closure. It has played at Venice, Toronto, Busan and San Sebastian – proof enough that there is nothing louder than a human heart beating in a political body.
Boots Riley's SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (World Cinema)
Devashish Makhija's BHONSLE (India Story)
Yann Gonzalez's KNIFE+HEART (Rendezvous with French Cinema)
Małgorzata Szumowska's MUG (World Cinema)
Karan Asnani's SHEHER YA TUM (Dimensions)