The Gateway of India looked surreal with the colored lights that circled it. It was an image equally stunning and equally impossible to capture in its visual glory. The night was breezy stretching around the grand image of the Gateway of India as it started filling with guests in their glittering best. It was a seaside October evening that played host to the opening ceremony of the twentieth edition of the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) held on October 25th 2018.
The ceremony on the stage, with the Gateway of India as its background, was hosted by Indian actor Kalki Koechlin and highlighted the Juries and the various segments of the film festival that is currently celebrating its twentieth year. This year the festival also celebrated the contribution of Shyam Benegal with a lifetime achievement award, a man who had been one of founders of the film festival in one of the busiest cities of India.
The Mumbai Film festival was started in 1997 and has a history that is intertwined with the city of Mumbai. This year a book, In the Life of a Film Festival, commemorating the twenty-year journey of the film festival was launched by Jaya Bachchan, Shyam Benegal and the founding members of the Mumbai Film Festival. The year 1997 was not the best for Indian cinema. In the years after the bomb blasts of 1993, cinema theatres were not seeing many audiences and the morale of the city was not in its top form. It was the moment that led to the creation of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images and their first film festival titled Festival of Films. The objective of the film festival was to get the collective of cinema lovers together for a yearly celebration of cinema from across the world. It was also the first time a film festival was to be organized in Mumbai, a city that is home to the mainstream film industry. The city was now to be the home of a film festival that brought films from outside the mainstream space for the cinema literate and cinema lovers of Mumbai.
While the past was celebrated on stage there was something more this year. At the opening ceremony Festival Director Anupama Chopra in her brief speech addressed the necessary disruptions of the #MeToo movement around the world and closer home. Over the past month the Mumbai Film Festival has dropped films where the directors and producers have been accused of sexual harassment in one of the largest collective voicing in media of the movement in India. Interestingly, this year the festival, apart from its lineup of films as part of international competitions, world cinema, India Gold, and its various other sections celebrating cinema, has also organized workshops on sexual harassment in one of the theatres in an effort to continue the conversation around gender safe work environment for women working in cinema. A party at Soho house (a members-only club for those working in creative arts across Europe and North America that has just opening its doors in Mumbai) followed the opening ceremony of the film festival.
But the real party of a film festival is housed at the screening venues and in MAMI, the party begins with the first show of the morning. Every year the festival celebrates the best of Indian independent cinema and cinema from the best of the film festivals. The Mumbai Film Festival has screening venues across the large bustling megalopolis of Mumbai right from South Mumbai in the historic cinema halls of Liberty and Regal to the multiplexes in Andheri, Juhu right up to the far end suburbs of the city. The next morning onwards, the two multiplexes at Versova, Andheri area of Mumbai, also the places where film and media professionals reside, were strewn with cinema-lovers wearing the yellow and pink badges of MAMI. The festival offers a nominal fee for viewing the over 300 films programmed, and the party had just begun for attendees. The second day of the film festival had film screenings across the multiple venues and it saw long queues right from dawn for almost all the films playing but especially for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix production. The film was introduced by Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and earlier in the day the festival also brought him closer to cinema lovers in an easy-going conversation with Anupama Chopra that touched on the streaming service developing more Indian content, and also generated several questions on the #MeToo movement and Netflix’s sensitivity towards workplace safety.
The opening film of the festival is titled The Man Who Feels No Pain, directed by Vasan Bala. It tells an unusual story of a boy growing up with a disease where he is insensitive to pain and fragile—and despite (or because) of this, the boy is crazy about martial arts and action heroes. The story is told in an original yet kitschy style of filmmaking, complete with homages to eighties Bombay cinema and action films. The film also saw extreme crowds waiting for hours for a seat even though three shows of the film were scheduled at the same theatre. It also must be mentioned that this kind of interest towards an independent film which has no well-known faces or stars also points to the changing taste of the cinema loving audiences in Mumbai. The film itself took narrative and formal liberties, many times freeing itself of the expectations of how a character or a story will unfold. The use of old songs, video clips, a directorial voice played around with the form of cinema, not common in Hindi films. In recent years The Man Who Feels No Pain will be remembered as a film that teased the audiences out of their complacence while constantly undermining the Hindi cinema that we are used to. Even the title is a pun on heroism as a disease, inevitably reminding us that the commercial hero oriented films Indian audiences have been brought up on are no longer relevant. In this film, the fragile young man living in middle-class Mumbai and trying to be brave despite suffering from a disease that makes fragile and prone to incessant dangers is the real hero. And real heroes in indifferent cities often need help from women and may not be heroic enough.
Across the city in Regal cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree screened to audiences who can never get enough of the Turkish auteur. Over the years all of Ceylan’s films have screened at local festivals and film clubs, and he is one director whose films have been sold out from the moment the ticket sales have been announced. But then, who can ever get enough of Ceylan’s languid, philosophical, and artistic landscapes? There were other interesting things at the film festival, like chance meetings with filmmaker friends. The Mumbai Film Festival is a time where film directors, writers, editors and almost everyone associated with the cinema meet each other rushing from theatre to theatre, sharing quick words and animated conversations about films they loved or hated. This year notably all the conversations did not just end at films but encompassed the stories around the #MeToo movement that has gripped the otherwise insensitive commercial film industry. The other interesting Indian films of the film festival include Bulbul Can Sing by Rima Das, whose 2017 debut Village Rockstars, which was shot, edited, produced and directed by Das, has recently been chosen as India’s entry to the Academy Awards. Village Rockstars captured the everyday life of a young girl on the verge of puberty with a desire to be a singer in a far-flung village in Assam. This new film treads on similar landscapes and paths, this time telling the story of a young adult, but using similar craft, cinematic style and landscape that enthralled audiences about her first feature film. While the festival awaits an exciting masterclasses by Sean Baker and Lucretia Martel lined up towards its end, the one thing that most of the cinema-crazy suburb seems to be waiting for is a one on one talk with film school and independent filmmakers’ favorite Darren Aronofsky, brought back after last year’s success of mother! for a public conversation with the festival director.
Even as commercial cinema occupies the largest space in India, the Mumbai Film Festival is a clear reminder of the large community of film buffs who eagerly wait to watch the best of festival films of the year. Over the years, MAMI has become a festival not only for those who live in Mumbai but also for those who descend to the city to watch world cinema that is otherwise still inaccessible in India.