Not Far from Bollywood By Gönül Dönmez-Colin

in 10th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Gönül Dönmez-Colin

The International Film Festival of Mumbai is somewhat of an anomaly for Mumbai, a city that is routinely identified with Bollywood, the commercial Indian cinema. From countries such as Iraq, with no film industry to speak of at present, to faraway places such as Brazil, an eclectic choice of films find enthusiastic audiences here who are willing to combat the notorious Mumbai traffic to reach the festival venues, themselves modern and alluring but inconveniently located away from the hub of the city.

For the foreign critic, the main attraction are naturally the national products. 35 films were submitted to the Indian Competition section this year out of which the selection committee had chosen only ten. These came from different parts of the country representing India’s multiple cultures and languages, although Hindi (the official language of India) and Marathi (the official language of Maharashtra and the fourth most spoken language of India) films were predominant.

The films approached diverse issues. From marital discord to economical malaise affecting the agriculture sector, there was no paucity of ideas. The problem was the confusion in the manner to tell these relevant and timely stories. Most of the films gave the impression that the filmmaker was caught in a dilemma trying to make a film that could do well at film festivals but could also bring box-office success. In fact, one particular Bengali film, Tale of a River (Ek Nadir Galpo) by Samir Chanda shifted style, mood and tempo sharply at midway, losing continuity. Justified or unjustified, resorting to song and dance numbers (the trademark of Bollywood) was not uncommon. Sorrow (the women’s) was over-dramatized. Pearl drops rolling down beautiful women’s cheeks seemed to be a very common infatuation of the camera to the point of exploiting human sorrow and the audience sentiments (and inadvertently building a defense mechanism of indifference). Acting was another common weakness. The characters kept miming with exaggerated gestures and grimaces, in loud and shrill tones (most Indian films are shot silent and dubbed later on). None of this granted any credibility to what they said, as nobody knows any real Indians who speak in that manner. Finally, the obsession with flashbacks was at times almost like an insult to the audience intellect, or at least memory. One Marathi film, Perhaps by Chandrakant Kulkarni repeated the same scene of a wife/mother falling off the stairs no less than ten times.

Malayalam cinema (from the small southern state of Kerala) was represented with two ambitious films. The Foreigner (Paradesi) by P.T. Kunju Mohammed (who drew light on the concerns of the Muslim Indians of the state with a remarkable film, Gershome in 1998) focused on a more political issue involving Muslim natives of northern Kerala, who are continuously harassed by the Indian police because they happened to be in Pakistan during the Partition and hence carry Pakistani passports. The intricacies of the film’s plot were not easy to understand, or rather the director failed to get it across to the audience, making the film difficult to watch. Home audiences could be lured to such a film because of its subject matter and more so for the presence of one of the most famous male actors of Kerala, Mohanlal, but universal appeal was certainly lacking. The second Malayalam film, The Sea Within (Ore Kadal) by Shyamaprasad focused on a strange love story between a world famous scientist intent on keeping his relationships with the opposite sex on a physical level and an uneducated housewife whose hero worship and the subsequent feelings of guilt are detrimental to her mental health. (Women suffered from psychological disorders in more than one of the ten competing films.) Shyamaprasad who is one of the prominent filmmakers of Malayalam cinema failed to create living characters in this film. Neither the alcoholism of the scientist (played by a very famous Malayalam actor, Mammootty), nor the woman’s feelings were properly developed (or even identified) to draw the audience into the story.

A Tale of Two Fathers (Antardwand), a Hindi film by Sushil Rajpal told a strange story set in Bihar, the director’s native state. An eligible bachelor was kidnapped by a rich landowner and forced to marry his daughter. Our Indian colleagues were more shocked than us to see such a story happening in today’s India. But this was only one of the problems with this film that tried to maintain audience attention with sumptuous colors of saris, flowers and glittering gold jewellery, not to mention elaborate festivities involving banquets and sensual dancers. The saving grace was the wonderful acting by the young girl, who, after receiving abuse from her father and her captive husband, decides enough is enough and with her luggage in her hand, crosses the threshold to the other side. Believable? Perhaps not considering she is also carrying a child. Nonetheless, such endings give the audience a sense of justice.

Frozen, shot in black and white in Ladakh by Shivajee Chandrabhushan stood apart from the other films in the program with its exquisite photography, but somewhat failed in terms of a sound script, character development and narrative. I do not think that one can make a film in Ladakh with Ladakhi characters and somehow not connect them to their environment as otherwise the work does not go beyond a tourist postcard. Indian army jeeps appear now and then in the film and a girl acts mad most of the time, but to put these together and make some sense out of it, one needs more than beautiful photography.

One film that touched the hearts of all was Stars on Earth (Tare Zameen Par), the first feature film of the Bollywood heartthrob Aamir Khan. The film tells the story of an eight-year-old dyslexic boy who is unable to keep up with the rat race his parents want him to be involved in. It takes an understanding teacher (Aamir Khan himself) to bring out the best in the boy and return him to society. The acting on the part of the boy was very convincing and Khan managed to rise above melodrama in several occasions although the narrative remained manipulative most of the time.

The Marathi film that received the FIPRESCI award, Tingya by Mangesh Hadawale, stood out among the rest with its simplicity in telling a burning issue, the farmer suicides, reported daily in the newspapers. The story is told from the point of view of a little boy and at times one thinks that this is a film for children (although one could hardly imagine a child sitting through 122 minutes of a film where not much happens). The boy’s feelings for his cow that has to be sold to the butcher sound very genuine and the exchanges among the members of the extended family are realistically developed. Also significant in this film is the acting, which is natural and spontaneous as most of the players were non-professionals. Perhaps the film could benefit from a tighter editing, but for the members of the two separate juries in Mumbai, it was like a fresh breeze, well deserving the Best Film award.