10 November 2015

At MAMI: Surround Sound

Last Sunday's column for Mumbai Mirror:

Visiting Mumbai, the Delhi film-festivaller finds a metropolis in which the cinema seems more brute reality than dream.

I live in Delhi, where international cinema buffs have been left somewhat bereft in recent years. In 2004, the IFFI (International Film Festival of India), which used to be held in Delhi every alternate year, was whisked away to Goa. For a while, we had the Cinefan festival of Asian cinema, started by the indefatigable Aruna Vasudev and her Cinemaya magazine team in 1999. Taken over in 2004 by businessman and cultural impresario Neville Tuli, it ran for four exciting years under a new and expanded team, including the celebrated experimental filmmaker Mani Kaul as creative director. After its tenth anniversary in 2008, the Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema was faced with a funding crunch, and went into hiding. It made a brief reappearance in 2012, but that's the last we've seen of it.

As a film columnist, I have the unfair advantage of being able to list film festivals under "Important Work Trip". So over the last few years, I've begun to make an annual pilgrimage: I've been twice to Trivandrum for IFFK, and twice to Panjim for IFFI. This year, for the first time, I went to Mumbai for MAMI. Mumbai is a much bigger city than Trivandrum or Panjim. And sure enough, the distance problem hit me on the very first day. I'd put down Phoenix Mills as the pickup location for my MAMI delegate card, but later found myself shacking up at a friend's in Versova. Arriving by train, I couldn't get off at Andheri Station. I had to sit tight all the way to Mumbai Central, get out and take a taxi back to Versova: just so I could pick up my MAMI card on the way! "Woh film festival chal raha hai, uske liye pass pick up karna hai," I said to my baffled cab driver, who was clearly wondering about someone wanting to stop at a mall with her luggage still in the car.

Dubey ji, a bespectacled man with an air of the benign patriarch about him, seemed satisfied with this explanation at first. But for the next hour and a half, as we drifted slowly through the morning traffic, he emerged as a man of strong opinions. "Film festival Bambai mein hai, ki Hyderabad mein?" he demanded first, making me wonder if he might remember a time when the IFFI rotated through Delhi and the state capitals, often finding its way to Hyderabad. Then he asked what the venues were. Other than Regal, they were all multiplexes. Would they show Hindi films, was the next question. And how much did it cost, was the next. The sum of Rs 1,500 for a weeklong delegate pass had him shaking his head. "Hmm, sure, they may show movies all day, but an ordinary person can't watch all day, can they? So it is very expensive. There should be some free shows, or at least cheaper."

And with that Dubey ji launched into the familiar sad lament one hears so often: "I used to watch a lot of movies, but who can afford to go to halls these days? Now we watch them on TV. Which is fine, but you watch for a little while and then go to sleep. Anyway I don't understand the movies they make now." He didn't need much urging to tell me what he still watches in the cinema: Salman and Aamir films. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was good, said Dubey ji, and PK -- "jis mein Aamir Khan joker bana hai" -- was great. This predicament of Hindi cinema, its having been taken away from the poor, who were once a major constituency, is by no means limited to Mumbai. But there was something particular about having this conversation in a city which is still the home of filmi dreams.

The closeness of its ties to the film industry makes MAMI unlike any other Indian festival. Along with film critic Anupama Chopra as festival director and Kiran Rao as chairperson, MAMI's new Board of Trustees includes Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar, Vishal Bharadwaj, Vikramaditya Motwane, Dibakar Banerjee, Riteish Deshmukh, Deepika Padukone, Ajay Bijli of PVR, Siddharth Roy Kapur of Disney, and Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films, new patron saint of independent cinema. Nita Ambani's coming on board as co-chair meant an opening dinner was hosted at the Ambani residence. I wasn't invited or anything, but by Day 2, when I got to MAMI, the world seemed awash with shared images of Antilla's chandeliered corridors and giant Vishnu statues. (Put that down as Filmi Dreams 2.)

I spent the week watching four or five films a day, mostly in the Juhu and Andheri venues, mostly with reservations but sometimes without. The online booking system gave the young and internet-savvy a definite advantage. Standing in the snaking queues, I heard some confused grumbling from older folk about how every show they wanted to book seemed always already full. Barring some exceptions like Cannes Palm D'or winner Dheepan, or films with particularly well-known directors, like Paolo Sorrentino's Youth or Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, the shows always fully-booked in advance and the longest queues seemed to be the Hindi indies. Especially the ones that came with some advance buzz: Vasan Bala's Peddlers; Ruchika Oberoi's Island City; the Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Haraamkhor had many devoted queuers-up, who stayed in line long after it had become clear that the hall was packed. More so than any other fest in India, the indie-watchers here are also the aspiring indie-makers. Whether you got into a screening or not, you could always hang about eavesdropping on the unrelentingly contrary dissection of every film by Mumbai's avid aspiring filmmakers. (I present Filmi Dreams 3.)

And yet, as I charged purposefully from one multiplex to another, films seemed less and less like a thing of leisure, or even love. The city's dreams of cinema seem to hold it in a vice-like grip.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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