March 30, 2020
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Locarno Diary

Locarno has alw­ays favoured young filmmakers and consistently provided a platform for their films.

Locarno Diary

Night lights and action

“I was born here,” Anurag Kashyap declared at the screening of his Bombay Velvet at the Locarno International Film Festival. This was not hyperbole. The director is a true son of Locarno: his controversial film, Black Friday, was screened here in 2004, three years before the Indian censors cleared it—that too after the Supreme Court’s intervention.

Back home, Bombay Velvet may have been rejected by the critics and the public alike, but in Locarno it received an ovation. The screening was at the Piazza Grande, the town’s main square, and all the 8,000-plus seats set out there were taken. By day, the square is a pulsating meeting place for the town’s 15,000 residents. By night, during the film festival, it turns into an open-air cinema. The warm summer nights, the stars, the sky, the wide, grey cobbled square with its arcades, the palazzi on the perimeter, some of them centuries old, gently illuminated for the festival and shimmering in the light from the screen—the Piazza Grande is the perfect place to see romantic comedies as well as thrillers. The screen in the square is huge—and I mean huge! It’s almost the size of a tennis court, and delivers amazing clarity even at that size. You can order beer or a pizza from the numerous bars and restaurants that surround the square while action lights up the screen. Lagaan was shown here 15 years ago, and A.R. Rahman’s music had the audience dancing in the aisles.

The Prague nursery

This year, it was the turn of another young Indian to make a spectacular debut in Locarno. Writer-director-producer Raam Reddy is only 25, looks even younger; but he walked away with two major prizes for his film Thithi. It was declared the best first feature film  and Reddy the best new director. The film is in Kannada, and was shot on a shoestring budget. In a remote village, the descendants of a 101-year-old man react differently to his death. There are three storylines—of children and grandchildren—and they intertwine till they finally converge on the thithi (the eleventh day  funeral rites performed after the death of their forebear). Locarno has alw­ays favoured young filmmakers and consistently provided a platform for their films. After its success here, I hope Thithi gets a good release and reception back home in India. Reddy studied filmmaking in Prague, not Pune. He told me that quite a few aspiring Indian filmmakers turn up there.

An Italian wind

This beautiful resort town on the shore of Lake Maggiore is in the Ticino canton, nearabout the southern tip of Switzerland. It offers a perfect place for the fusion of nature and art. Every year in August, it hosts the fourth largest film festival in Europe, just as prestigious, though less mainstream, than the ones in Cannes, Venice and Berlin. The Locaro festival is one of the oldest—it’s been around since 1946. We had a choice of over 300 films this year, at a dozen venues around the small town. Locarno is more Italian than Swiss. It is closer to Milan than Zurich. You will find dozens of pizzerias but you won’t find fondue here. The region was part of Italy until it was conquered by Swiss forces in the 15th century.

Prize draw

Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound, fell asleep at a screening some years ago. She had probably had an exhausting day. She  started snoring. A colleague is learnt to have tapped her on the shoulder, saying, “Penelope, stop snoring. You’re waking the rest of us up.” At this year’s festival, I was president of the jury for the international critics prize, meant for the best film in the main competition. Sitting through 19 films over eight days can be exhausting. I dozed off a few times; to the best of my knowledge, I did not snore. There were films light as souffle; there were films so avant garde that I was completely baffled even though erudite colleagues explained to me the director’s intentions. Some of you may be wondering how juries at such festivals arrive at a decision on the various prizes. There is no doubt a bit of luck involved; and there is also some give and take among jury members. We were five of us on the jury and at our final discussion, we narrowed down to three films. My colleagues from France and Poland were passionate about an Italian film, while the two from Switzerland and Turkey preferred a French film. I was the only one who voted for a South Korean film. Since I was the odd person out, I changed my vote to the French film. That’s how Suite Armoricaine, by Pascale Breton, ended up with the prize. It is a lovely memory film about a woman returning to teach at a university where she was once a student. The filmmaker says it has some autobiographical touches; she shot it at the university she went to.

Last Week...

The drinks were on the house for Anurag Kashyap after the screening of his Bombay Velvet

Delhi-based author and columnist Bhaichand Patel is a former director of the United Nations; E-mail your diarist: bhaichandp [AT] gmail [DOT] com

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