Ten days, six venues and 36 films — that’s my Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival report card. A film festival is not a competition, but after a few days, Jio MAMI definitely starts to feel like one. Like most competitions, no one feels like a winner because no matter how many films you’ve seen, there’ll be the ones that others gush about but you couldn’t catch for a variety of reasons. (My list of misses includes The Old Oak, Animal Kingdom, Stolen and Indi(r)a’s Emergency. Sniff.)
Yet the fact is, whatever you get to watch at the festival is a bonus because we don’t get to see titles like these in our cinemas. For 10 days, screens that are usually reserved for mainstream fare open up to restored classics, indie movies made on shoestring budgets, and prize-winning titles from all over the world. Whether you see two films or 20, it’s a treat and the schedule that’s been your North Star during the days of the festival becomes a wish list of films that you hope to see in the future.
So here are the briefest screening notes of all the films I watched at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this year, as well as the Indian films that I’d seen earlier and were part of the festival lineup (I made the most of my fancy Gold Pass and popped in to rewatch parts of them). The titles have been arranged in alphabetical order. The ones with asterisks are my favourites.
Hauntingly beautiful documentary that remembers student protests in Indian universities, using a lyrical blend of fiction and fact to show the incidents as well as the emotional landscape of those years.
Brilliant drama about what happens when lone woman actor in a theatre group is sexually harassed. When the men who have been her friends and colleagues have to choose between their values, friendship and personal ambitions, what will they pick? The film is particularly effective in the way it shows how different people try to use the MeToo allegations to their own advantage.
What’s it like to be a Koli fisherman in Mumbai? Kaur follows two men, both Kolis, but one is poor and the other is wealthy, to show the beauty and hardships of living off the sea. Startlingly intimate in parts and deeply informative, the documentary takes you into the fisherfolks’ world.
Writers are terrible grumps, and this is patently evident in this story of an author who takes up his friend’s invitation to go on a work trip. Petzold sneaks in a painful cut when you least expect it, but despite moments of heaviness, this is light and easy watch. The ease with which Petzold shows friendships unfold is a joy.
The film’s portrait of a sexually-frustrated and deeply troubled young man tries to be provocative and thought-provoking through ugliness. There’s a lot that’s off-putting about the film, but what is most difficult to wrap one’s head around is the way sex appears to be the one-stop shop of solutions for all mental health issues.
Perhaps the best courtroom drama that we’ve had in years and a masterclass is how to tease an audience with information. A German author who lives in France with her husband and son is accused of murdering her husband. The evidence is inconclusive, which means all those involved in the case must duke it out in court. The case is as much about the crime as it is about marriage and social norms. Sandra Huller and Milo Machado Graner as mother and son are outstanding.
Anchored by two fantastic acting performances in the lead roles, the film follows the life of two labourers during the lockdown. It feels a little romanticised in parts, particularly the portrayals of the wealthy people who don’t bother to know the person behind the moniker of ‘bahadur’.
It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but twisted and with multiple timelines. This mindbender of a plot about two people who keep slipping past one another includes (among other things) Lea Seydoux doing an eerie doll face and George MacKay as an incel. The last 30 minutes are an incredible example of how to weave technology and technique into a narrative. Tense and thought-provoking.
Hilarious in parts and a fantastic example of how to use a voiceover effectively, this is sadly not the best example of Gondry’s filmmaking. Despite some charming characters and clever moments, the film meanders into blandness.
It’s impossible to watch this documentary about four generations of Palestinian women, and not feel devastated. Actor Hiam Abbas (you’ve seen her in Succession) left her family in Palestine as a young woman, reuniting with her mother, grandmother and sisters years later. Through the memories of women who have survived terrible tragedies and still retained the strength to laugh and celebrate life, we get a portrait of both a family and a people.
The story of a teenaged shaman who falls in love with a cynic who thinks he’s a con job should have been far more gripping than this film ends up to be. There’s too little chemistry between the lead couple and too much hesitancy to embrace the supernatural.
The subject of this documentary is the man whose experiences in the early days of reality TV led to possibly the first use of the eggplant emoji to suggest (and disguise) a penis. Actor and comedian Nasubi’s time as a reality tv star is fascinating and horrifying. However, the documentary doesn’t explore the more interesting facets of this story and ultimately feels incomplete.
Admittedly, the story feels a little underdone, but the idea of bringing together elements of ancient performance traditions like Theyyam into a modern teen love story set in a boarding school, makes for stunning images.
The world is black and white, turning to colour only when seen through the filter of either memory or social media. Set in the “martyred city” of Bucharest, the film is mostly seen through the eyes of a sleep-deprived woman who works for a film production company. Haphazard but energetic, and filled with quips and jabs, it’s one helluva ride. Great fun.
Slow but taut thriller that shows how easily good can shape-shift into evil, and vice versa. The idyll of a remote village in Japan is threatened with disruption when a firm from Tokyo proposes to set up a high-end tourist camp in the area. The negotiation between the villagers and the firm is polite and unpleasant, setting off a chain of events that leads up to a delicious, open-to-interpretation ending.
In Budapest, a group of people are moving through life like players in a pinball machine. When a young man flounders at his school examinations, he says he was targeted because he wore a pin that is a nationalist symbol. In no time, a Right-leaning newspaper picks up this ‘story’ and all hell breaks loose. One of my favourites at this year’s festival.
The world is going to hell in a handbasket, but somehow, in the middle of all its awfulness, there’s space for love. Kaurismaki is in form with this sweet and simple love story, featuring two working class protagonists who are unremarkable and yet extraordinary. One of the cutest moments in the film is a throwaway scene, in which two random people come out of a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die (2019) discussing how the film has traces of Bresson and Godard in it.
An exquisitely shot documentary about workers in jute mills on the outskirts of Kolkata. Never has a factory floor looked as enchanted as it does in this film, which also has one of the most inventive sound designs I’ve experienced.
A simple but beautiful almost-love story between a construction worker and a bryologist (someone who studies moss). The moss becomes a metaphor for what their relationship is like: A microcosm that is contained in itself and able to flourish despite being surrounded by darkness and decay.
A lawyer finds herself stretched to breaking point when she has to defend a client in a difficult case while at the same time, some tough decisions need to be taken about mother who is lying in coma. Fantastic acting performances, particularly Tulin Ozen in the lead.
Slow, meditative portrait of a young man whose life is turned upside down when an accident makes him his nephew’s guardian. It’s also a look at being a modern postcolonial and would be a fascinating companion piece to Rapture, because of the contrasting way the two films view the Church. Another example of gorgeous cinematography. Rarely has a camera moved as slowly and smoothly, almost mirroring time itself.
One of my favourite Indian films of the year, this debut film is a slow, beautiful and moving portrait of a neighbourhood in Ahmedabad that is known for being a Muslim ghetto. There’s so much woven into the everyday life that unravels with the camera as witness.
Kashyap’s return to form. This is Mumbai noir and it’s gory, wicked, and great fun (especially if you’re the sort who keeps up with current affairs news from India). While it is ostensibly the story of a cop turned assassin, the film is also feels like a deeply personal portrait of a middle-aged man’s existential crisis and imposter syndrome.
Sure there’s a plot somewhere in there about city life, loneliness, companionship and self-sabotage, but who has time for such details when there’s imagery as beautiful as what we get in this film? Distractingly gorgeous.
Schanelec takes pride in her impenetrable plots and in comparison to her previous work, this is almost accessible while still feeling entirely perplexing. Drawing on characters and ideas from Greek myths, Schanelec tells the story of a man and a woman whose lives keep unravelling. The woman, Iro (played by Agathe Bonitzer), is particularly striking as we see her go from a uniformed guard to a woman stripped down (literally and figuratively) by despair.
Two boys, a mother who wants to do right by her son as a single parent, a grandmother who made a terrible mistake, a teacher who finds himself accused of bullying — it turns out that the monsters are everywhere, but at the same time, no one is a monster. The question of exactly what happens at the end of the film resulted in much debate and heartbreak within the Film Companion team.
People on this island are either dreaming of leaving or have retreated into their world of memories. Two kids build a cloud-castle future in which they’re playing baseball for the Yankees. An old woman lives only to read the letters her lover sent her decades ago. A young couple do everything they can to not confront she’s going to emigrate and he’s got no way out of Cuba. Beautiful as this film may look in black and white, to show Cuba without colour feels like a shame.
A thoroughly unromanticised take on contemporary Kolkata and its gentle, desperate and crooked people. This is the city of conmen, adulterers, lovers, drunkards, and dinosaurs. The film feels uneven and stops short of plumbing the emotional depths of its characters, but many moments feel memorable.
An intimate and playful documentary about the neighbourhood in which the filmmaker grew up and how it’s featured in Filho’s imagination. Great use of both voiceover and old footage, but the film’s best part is the final chapter, with the taxi driver who says his superpower is his ability to disappear. Delightful.
My favourite film of the festival. Who knew being a toilet cleaner could be the stuff of poetry? Koji Yakusho is magnificent as the elderly Hirayama, whose life follows a neat and steady pattern. The film gives dignity to those whose labour is ignored and who are usually disrespected by a wealth-obsessed society. In addition to gorgeous cinematography — Hirayama’s life is in colour, but his dreams are in black and white — the film also has a wonderful, nostalgia-ridden soundtrack.
If Juliette Binoche wasn’t reason enough, this film opens with an extended sequence that lovingly documents how an elaborate French meal is prepared in a sun-warmed kitchen. Without Binoche, everything is bland.
Another example of stunning cinematography. The film is set in a remote village in Meghalaya and looks at the paranoia about outsiders — which has been such an important narrative in the politics of that region — as well as the trauma of witnessing violence. Powerful and haunting.
Originally filmed in 1923 and now with a soundtrack composed by Sqürl (an “enthusiastically marginal rock band” made up of producer Carter Logan and director Jim Jarmusch), this one was entirely trippy. There are four short films in this anthology and they made me think Man Ray would have aced Instagram reels.
Missed the first 15 minutes of this film because of scheduling gods, but the otherwise average film really comes into its own in the later parts, when it shows the disorientation and despair that struck Afghanistan when the Taliban returned to power.
A poignantly romantic story of a dancer and a sign language interpreter who fall in love. He’s asexual, which becomes a stumbling block in their relationship. Tender, graceful and marbled with vulnerability, this film was one of the festival’s hidden gems. If this is love, then it really is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
Charming and ultimately heartbreaking, this film shows the life of a young woman in rural Maharashtra through the prism of arranged marriages. From caste to cotton prices and community weddings, everything gets a look-in. Nandini Chikte, who plays the lead role, is a star.
Weird, beautiful and occasionally hilarious, this is a remarkable film when you keep in mind it was made in the Seventies. There are some awkward sections — one character seems to exist only to wail. At one climactic moment, the bad guy wallops himself — but Beyzaie also created a whole new myth cycle with this film, tapping into anxieties about strangers, bad guys who dress remarkably like ayatollahs, and celebrating women who refuse to fall into traditional narrative traps.
A long short film at 31 minutes, this is everything you expect from a Pedro Almodovar film: Beautiful men and a celebration of desire at its most photogenic. It’s also a cheeky twist to make a gay Western, given how important that genre has been for masculine constructs. The real question to ponder though is the contrast between how lust is depicted between Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, and the actors playing these characters’ younger selves.
The artwork is beautiful, particularly the use of watercolour in the animation. However, the plot is a mess, burying the interesting details in a profusion of triteness.
A Dutch colonial family face off with the Indonesians on their plantation when the patriarch dies and his son realises his legacy includes debts and an illegitimate child. More than the plot, which struggles to balance quirk with the cruelties of colonialism, this is a film to watch for its imagery.
An actor, a camera and a story — it doesn’t get more simple than this set up, but what a punch it packs! Nine vignettes about how the current regime in Iran is choking the lives of average Iranians. Frequently funny, constantly biting and never preachy, this one’s a masterpiece.
Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan decided to turn his camera on his parents when they started growing older. Those home videos come together to give us an intimate and moving account of a generation that was there for the birth of modern-day India. The best kind of history lesson.
This celebrated documentary is a fantastic record of how journalist Ravish Kumar navigates the toxic trolling that comes his way. There are also some poignant bits, like the recurring motif of a farewell cake, that hints at the crisis in Indian journalism today. However, despite the amazing access that the camera enjoyed during the making, the film doesn’t give the viewer enough about what makes Kumar remarkable as a journalist or the media landscape in general.
It feels as though the filmmaker is living with his subjects in this documentary, trudging through the extraordinary ordinariness of working in clothes manufacturing workshops in the Chinese town of Zhili. The monotonousness is deliberate, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. These are the kinds of films that need to exist, not because of their entertainment or artistic value, but so that there is a record of what makes ‘success’ and ‘prosperity’ possible in our times.
Charming documentary about supercop Madhukar Zende, who is famous for having caught serial killer and thief Charles Sobhraj (twice). The film spends very little time on that incident though, focusing instead on how Zende’s humane side and emphasising that it is his kindness and empathy that make him heroic.