The Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF lives for its own sake, of course, but it has a sort of afterlife too. For, it serves as a tastemaker for the Academy Awards—an advance notice of the reception a film is getting. For instance, it added garnishing to the buzz over Moonlight, last year’s Best Picture winner. In 2008, it pointed to Slumdog Millionaire sweeping the Oscars. One figure who’d been missing on the red carpet during the Toronto premiere of that film was Vikas Swarup, author of the novel Q&A, on which it was based. A decade later, Swarup finally made it to TIFF. Now India’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, he was invited by Toronto’s very own Deepa Mehta for the opening night film, Borg/McEnroe, Janus Metz’s take on the famous 1980 Wimbledon faceoff between the stoic Swede and the temperamental American. “I jumped at the offer,” Swarup said, as he watched the film with his counterpart in New Delhi, Nadir Patel.
Some mind-numbing stats. TIFF is thinner this year—about 50 films lighter compared to 2016. But it still weighs in at nearly 350 films. That includes 255 features and 84 shorts and spans 74 countries, with the longest running time for a single movie clocking in at 197 minutes (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library). This means, even though it spans 10 days, it isn’t humanly possible to actually watch each film at the festival, despite additional screenings for the press and industry. Some begin at 8.30 am and showtimes extend beyond midnight. TIFF had a sterling slate of zombie flicks this year, including The Cured and Les Affames. But the shambling, shuffling critters most people saw walking around the festival radius were critics, presswallahs and industry folks, wandering around bleary-eyed to their next cinematic appointment.
These days, you don’t have to strain your sinews to come up with a South Asia connection in world cinema. And by that token, What Will People Say, directed by Norwegian-Pakistani Iram Haq, offers an embarrassment of riches. A social drama on TIFF’s juried list platform, it revolves around a Pakistani immigrant family’s sense of honour clashing with their daughter’s upbringing in Norway, and features a newcomer with a painterly sort of visage in the lead role of 16-year-old Nisha. Maria Mozhdah, 18, is of Afghan origin and quite a polymath—musician, painter, florist. Counterpoint to her is Indian actor Adil Hussein as the father.
Another face familiar in India, via his character roles in films like Gangs of Wasseypur, is Vineet Kumar Singh. He makes his debut as a leading man in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (The Brawler), which had its world premiere here. Playing lead would have been farthest from his mind when he first approached Kashyap with the script. Kashyap said yes, but only if Vineet starred! Simple enough, except this film is about a boxer. “I’d never ever touched gloves before that,” Vineet says. He had to go into training for nearly a year in Patiala before punching in for the shoot, also working with a senior coach at a farmhouse, waking at 3.30 am to begin a daily regimen of four sessions, collecting bruised ribs and lacerations across the forehead for his efforts. What’s with India and boxing films? Before Mukkabaaz, even Mary Kom had debuted at TIFF 2014.
During the opening few days of TIFF, a section of King Street, the Toronto avenue where its headquarters Lightbox is located, is closed off to traffic and converted to Festival Street. Everyone simply surrenders to the mela-like atmosphere. That of course means all manner of food (“Organic? Step in here”), music and plenty of stalls peddling random stuff, including a couple for VR experiences, and this being Toronto, even one set up by trade unions. A short distance away, a chicken-suited person holds up a board reading ‘Free Food’, and points to a food truck handing out, what else, chicken sandwiches, a tie-in promo for Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 2, the sequel to his documentary about a food industry gone wild. If none of this works for you, there’s even airline cuisine, at Air France’s pop-up Air Bistro Paris. Among its specials is the possibility of winning a free trip to the Cote d’Azur, and with that, an opportunity to attend TIFF’s rival festival at Cannes.
Toronto wasn’t impacted directly by the hurricane season but it had a tangential effect on TIFF. Some Miami organisations had planned a reception while the festival was on. Then Irma closed in on the Florida coast, and they called it off before you could shout ‘Cut’! As an e-mail explained, the hurricane was at that time “predicted to make a direct hit on Miami” during “the exact hours of when our party would be taking place.” Some disaster films, mercifully, never get made.
The writer is a journalist