17 October 2016

The Company of Strangers

My Mirror column:

What we miss out on by watching movies on our laptops, we regain by going to film festivals.

As Durga Puja and Dussehra melt quietly into another trafficky, teen-patti-laden Diwali, the year brings out its hidden trump card: the film festival season that is almost upon us.

First, the hotly-anticipated Mumbai Film Festival — a Bombay-style extravaganza of cutting edge world cinema with indie Indies, conducted under the suitably ‘we-aim-to-confuse’ rubric of MAMI — will run from the 20th to 27th of October. Kolkata has reserved the next slot, conducting its annual international film festival from the 11th to 19th of November.

Then the International Film Festival of India — a smiling sarkari behemoth that goes by the confusing diminutive IFFI — will happen in Panaji, Goa from 20th to 28th November. The year comes to an exciting close with the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) which has announced its dates as being from December 9 to 16.

I started thinking about film festivals last week as I inwardly chastised myself for watching a couple of recent releases that I had missed seeing in the theatre, on my laptop. Being watched on a smaller and smaller screen — be it the television, laptop, tablet, or even the mobile phone — is, of course, the inevitable fate of more and more films these days. Even the most committed film-lovers have started to betray the medium — likely telling themselves, like all betraying lovers, that all relationships must change, and that surely, this is a more intimate experience than the one they had before.

There are several complicated things to think (and say) about our increasing closeness to our increasingly smaller screens.

But a conversation I had today with a playwright and theatre director set me thinking about what not going to the cinema means: more often than not, it means watching the films alone. My play-making friend is convinced that his plays are produced, in the end, in the conversations that take place around them: what your gushing friend said about the director’s last outing, what review you read last night on the play’s Facebook page, what you said to your already-irritated girlfriend as you both walked out dying to get some much-delayed dinner. These are all crucial to what you, months or even years from now, will remember about what you thought of the play.

This is, of course, also true of watching films. The film-watcher who sits down in the dark, cool expanse of the cinema hall is both solitary and aware of others like herself, sitting down to the left and right and behind her. We’re intensely aware of collective laughter, collective derision, and even more, of a collective hush. And that free-floating, un-targeted, nervous web of communication (in which we are enmeshed along with whichever strangers we happened to buy our tickets with) changes the film for us, whether we realise it or not.

Even so, there is a guarded anonymity with which we (post-)moderns enter that experience of stranger sociality. Very few people talk to the person in the next seat about the movie they're watching — unless they already know them.

In a film festival, I think our usual guardedness is exchanged for a particularly deliberate sense of community. Coming to the theatre and lining up in hopeful excitement to get into a screening — the latest Wong Kar-wai, or the unreleased Nawazuddin Siddiqui film made three years ago which faced censor trouble — is a recipe for queue conversations. Especially if you both fail to get in.

I have certainly made acquaintances at film festivals. Most of the time, the pally feeling lasts only for the duration of the screenings. But sometimes, just sometimes, over the course of a week, a film festival partner can begin to feel like your best friend.

The sudden intimacy should not be surprising: we have agreed, after all, to combine forces in that most important of life’s decisions — choosing films.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Oct 2016.

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