Good cinema, not just skin-deep

Skin shows like Sleeping Beauty and Recruited Love attracted lean crowds compared to the screenings of Restless, The Turin Horse and Pina

It’s a sign of the Net-access times perhaps. With sex sites just a mouse click away — officially to over 18 year olds only — the lust for nudity on the big movie screen has shrivelled, porn unintended.
Clearly, that’s one lesson learnt from the MAMI International Film Festival, which concluded in Mumbai today. Skin shows like Sleeping Beauty and Recruited Love attracted lean crowds compared to the packed-to-the rafters screenings of Gus Van Sant’s Restless, a valentine to young, tormented hearts, avant-gardist Bela Tarr’s rigidly experimental The Turin Horse and Wim Wenders’ Pina, a salute to the legendary choreographer-dancer Pina Bausch. At the end of their shows, the audience applauded spontaneously.

It almost seemed like a return to the 1970s, when the phalanx of film society activists led by K.A. Abbas, Arun Kaul, Gopal Dhutia and Basu Chatterji rewrote the taste of the campus youth by exposing them to every significant trend of contemporary cinema from Italian neon-realism and the French nouvelle vague to Britain’s kitchen-sink realism. Annual membership fees to Mumbai’s film societies film forum, Anandam, Suchitra, Prabhat Chitra Mandal were within a student’s pocket money budget. However, all good things must pass. The movement ebbed.
RIP? Fortunately not. The International Film Festival of India organised by the information and broadcasting ministry’s Directorate of Film Festivals, mostly in the chill of December in New Delhi, became the next hunting ground for the world cinema addicts from the 1980s right down to the new millennium. Again that became IFFI (read iffy), as soon as it shifted location to Goa. Consequently, independently sponsored events in Mumbai, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram turned out to be the next best things.
The 13th edition of the MAMI festival asserted that India can still draw an outstanding stock of films, despite the inevitable glitches. The crowd that thronged to the shows for its 10-day run were pre-eminently in the 18-30 age group, eager to imbibe quality international cinema, nudity and titillation be damned. Of course, any film festival is as spirited or as sullen as its chief. And for that MAMI’s festival director, Srinivasan Narayanan can take a bow. He kept the event kicking and alive, in the manner reminiscent of the film society troubadours of yore.
The section devoted to films concerning old age issues is certainly this festival’s USP. On the downside, the sidebar packages of films discussing Indian diaspora as well as the nod to MGM studio’s classics seemed to be just bunged in. Another lesson learnt: surely quality counts over quantity. It’s not practical to add to an already overloaded plate, whatever the reasons of political correctness may be. Instead of 300 films unspooling away in different parts of the city, 150 would have made as much sense as 10 salads at a buffet instead of a thousand. Also, south Mumbai appeared to be ghettoised, what with many films like Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, restricted to far-out suburban screenings.
Overwhelmingly, though, India’s kick-off international film festival did pay heed to the emerging trend of digital cinema, by once again showcasing short films made on HD format by students and first-timers. Workshops by jury members on the craft of filmmaking by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) and Jerzy Skolimowski (Walkover, Deep End) indoctrinated its participants on the purest tenet of cinema: it’s one’s convictions that count way above preserving age-old formulae and rank commercialism.
A lesson re-learnt: at a modest estimate, 95 per cent of Bollywood’s film personalities are just not interested any more in cinema which goes beyond the horizon of their noses. There was a time when the fresh from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge Aditya Chopra, highly dramatic Rekha darting the classic byte to Doordarshan, “I’m here to see him,” Shah Rukh Khan (before he became SRK), Kamal Haasan and Gulzar would be film festival regulars, even if it meant jetting down to the shuddery climes of New Delhi. Just a drive away from their homes in Mumbai, the easy to access exposure has become the proverbial case of ghar ki murgi daal barabar.
Never mind, if the B-town stars aren’t keeping up with the cinema of the time, it’s their loss entirely. There’s a whole new world evolving, which cares much more for sense and sensibility than for formulaic titillation. Way for cinema to be!

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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