The week after the 20th Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) has been a busy one for the Indian festival calendar. The festival of cinema led us Indians seamlessly to the Festival of Lights: Diwali that lights up moonless city nights across India. It is only in the absence of the possibility of watching non-mainstream world cinema in our local theatres that one is reminded of the delirious days of a film festival.
Even as the Mumbai Film Festival closed its curtains for the year, it signed off with a set of awards celebrating the best of the international and Indian fare. If there were bets for the international competition winner I would have gone with my hunch and placed my bets on Manta Ray by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng. The film went on to win the Golden Gateway Award; the highest laurel in MAMI given in two categories, the International Competition and the India Gold.
Manta Ray is the debut feature of writer director Phuttiphong, crafted with patience and a distinct visual language. The film is essentially about identity and the ultimate erasure of it and begins with the opening plate of “For the Rohingyas.”
The landscape of the story is a fishing village along the border of Thailand and Myanmar where a nameless fisherman lives a lonely life in his small but self-sufficient shack. The opening sequence of the film is a striking one where men move through a dark forest lit by multi-colored sparkling lights looking for what we come to know are buried Rohingya bodies. The sparkling lights recur through the entire narrative, making the cinematic landscape stunning and fantastical in parts.
These bodies are dug in shallow graves, and in my post-screening question and answer session with Phuttiphong, he spoke about the true incident that remained in his mind when he was writing the film. It was newspaper report about dozens of shallow graves found on the Thai coast and suspected to be the bodies of Rohingya refugees. This news contributed to the story Phuttiphong was writing, one that imagined the life and existence of one such stateless man. The story only really begins when a nameless fisherman finds a wounded man who is buried in a shallow grave alive and takes him home where he lives alone. The dialogues in the film are scant, the film is written in a way where only minimum words are required to be spoken. The first dialogues are heard only when the nameless fisherman tries to speak to the wounded man, who speaks no language.
In the story that follows, the fisherman nurses the wounded man to health and even gives him a name: Thongchai. The two men form a strange, undefined relationship of friendship and tenderness, and one of the beautiful images of the film has the two men dancing in the room surrounded by a million sparkling fairy lights. In a story about identity, it is not just the stateless man but also the fisherman who finds his identity vis-à-vis the stranger in his life. It is almost as if the loneliness of the fisherman’s life was waiting to be filled by Thongchai’s arrival. Together they speak a language with and without words, making their way through the small everyday things. It is only when the fisherman disappears while fishing on a tumultuous sea that there is a swap of identity. The two men become interchangeable not just to themselves but to the other people around them. Thongchai, now a man with a name and the fisherman’s belongings, starts to resemble the fisherman whose identity slowly gets obliterated. The metaphor of self and other plays through the film reminding us how fragile identity itself is. The film ends on a note where the sea welcomes identity-less men and we are only left with hope for stateless men and women. Manta Ray is a film that stays with you for a long time for its quiet but humanist and cinematic appeal. Personally out of the international competition films playing at the film festival, this feature debut film will remain in my memory for some time to come
The Golden Gateway Award for the best Indian film went to Bulbul Can Sing by Rima Das, whose earlier vérité -style film Village Rockstars (2017) is India’s entry to the Academy Awards. The Grand Jury Prize-winner for the International Competition was The Island of Hungry Ghosts, directed by Gabrielle Brady, and the Grand Jury Prize India Gold went to Mehsampur,directed by Kabir Chowdhry. Among the Indian films, Mehsampur is a curious film combining fiction and documentary elements to re-tell the story of 80s Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, who had enthralled a generation with his kind of “trucker music” until he was shot dead in 1988. Of the India Gold films, Mehsampur remains one of the Indian films to look out for because of its interesting meta-theatrical and non-fiction elements that are used to recover a dead singer’s life and times. There are several other categories awarded, including Half-Ticket, which focuses on children’s films and where the jury interestingly comprises of children and young adults.
While most film festivals show and award the best of world and local cinemas, the one unique thing about MAMI is its focused award on film books, the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema. This year the award has added a language focus and extended itself to books published in Malayalam. As a film festival ends, we who love cinema sense the disparity in screening venues and theatres where films from around the world ideally should be available throughout the year as well. With the twentieth year of MAMI ending, there is also the promise of its newly announced imprint that plans to publish books on films in collaboration with publisher Harper Collins. Film festivals in India even now only attract a segment of the liberal urbans, but as the Mumbai Film Festival has started their year round film screening programs, one hopes for a dynamism in film watching habits.
It is every cinema lover’s dream to see the city, which is home to the Hindi film industry, eventually create a space where alternative cinema and festival films from other parts of India and the world can also be exhibited.