The International Film Festival of India has traditionally been a great platform for seeing the latest and best of cinema from Iran, one of the leading centres of film production in Asia. This year has been an exception. The big names of Iranian cinema are conspicuously absent. Maestro Abbas Kiarostami's latest, Ten, is being screened in the New York festival even though he has been denied a visa to attend the event. Why couldn't he and his film come to the cinebuffs in Delhi? No answers are forthcoming. What we've got instead is a middling fare.
Pick of the Pack
Perhaps the pick of the pack would be Dariush Mehrjui's Bemani (Stay Alive), a film that interweaves three separate tales of women's subjugation. One of the three girls is killed by her brother because she falls in love with a soldier. Another is not allowed to pursue medicine by her tyrannical father. Bemani herself is married off to a rich, old man. What is the escape route from her tortuous existence? Setting herself afire even though it implies that Bemani would stand to lose her "biggest weapon": beauty. The film is structured like a series of testimonials and ends tellingly at the graveyard as the maker concludes that the dead are more faithful than those alive.
In the absence of any uplifting fare from Iran it's the films of South Africa and Brazil that have caught everyone's eye. Amandla, Lee Hirsch's musical journey into the revolution in South Africa left many transfixed, particularly those already hooked on to African Jazz.
After getting Paro 2002, alias Aishwarya, for the inaugural, IFFI also brought us face-to-face with the original Paro, Jamuna Barua who played the role in P.C. Barua's 1934 version of Devdas. She specially flew down from Calcutta to inaugurate the restrospective section and also talked about the production techniques of yore, how they shot outdoors instead of the sets.
Mrinalda is not the only one who seems to have quietened down. Celebrated Polish maker Krzysztof Zanussi's Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease was a rather sedate work about a terminally ill doctor. In fact, the end, a perfectly timed moment of death, made it seem more in the mould of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand.
Old is Gold
Some of the most accomplished performances at the IFFI have come from the old hands, literally. K.N.T Sastry's Tiladaanam, the story of a Brahmin-turned-corpse carrier and his Naxalite son derived all its strength from the lead actor's nuanced show. Girish Kasarvalli's Dweepa was held together by the spirited old Ganappa and Ram Gopal Bajaj was wonderful as the old, lecherous theatre owner in Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Tale of a Naughty Girl.
Film festivals have a way of creating instant celebrities. American Chai, a predictable tale of coming to terms with one's Indian identity in America, found quite a few takers including the ushers and the bouquet girls who went scurrying for the autographs of brothers Anurag (director) and Aalok (actor) Mehta. For those who've watched American Desi, Chai is a case of deja vu. Sureel can't tell his parents that he's studying music, not medicine that they have always desired. He finds himself torn between a traditional home and a progressive world he shares with his American friends. Like the protagonist of his film, Anurag too finds himself caught between two worlds. He is a fan of AB but wants to make Hollywood films. Following the success of Bend It Like Beckham and American Desi, Chai too is gunning for the commercial circuit. It releases in India in January 2003. Question is how many more such identity crisis films can the market take?
Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark may have been two years too late to reach us but is worth the wait. Bjork plays Selma, a music-crazy Czech immigrant working in a factory in America. She's gradually losing her eyesight and her son too could share the same sad fate. Tragedy strikes when her neighbour steals the money she has collected for the operation of her son. The story might sound mushy but the music, the treatment and a sensational performance from Bjork make for a compelling viewing. The all-American musical is given a novel twist by Von Trier. It's not just the hills and vales that are alive with the sound of music. Songs emerge in a factory, on a railway track, in a court, in the jail, even after a murder or in the throes of death.
Divorce Italian Style
As likeable as Bjork was Marcello Mastroianni in the delightfully funny film from Pietro Germi, Divorce Italian Style that won the best comedy award at Cannes 1962 and also fetched Mastoianni an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Mastroianni is brilliantly deadpan as Ferdinando who is tired of his marriage and has an eye for his young cousin. Italian society disapproves of divorce but fully understands crimes of passion so Ferdinando hatches a plot: to first prove that his wife is an adulteress and kill her thereafter. What ensues is a hilarious take on marital conventions.
Comfort of Classics
When in doubt go for the classics, they're always a safe bet. So is Francois Truffaut's stylish The Woman Next Door starring a young Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant. The two neighbours were one-time lovers. Their lives fall apart as they realise that they can't be together and yet can't do without each other.
Too Hot for Journos?
The "hot" scenes were liberally splashed in an unlikely film. Bongja from Korea had the viewers at the Siri Fort hurriedly SMSing friends to come over for some fun. The tale of a 30-something woman's life being turned upside down by a teenager used any pretext possible to squeeze in nudity and bedroom scenes. Some journos were not amused and expressed their displeasure to the festival director, Deepak Sandhu. By then it was already too late.
No Turning Back presented yet another face of America, this time through the story of an illegal Spanish immigrant, Pedro, who accidentally kills a little girl. A journalist, Soid, follows him to videotape his adventures and his attempts to find a good life for his young daughter Cristina.
Gabriele Muccino's The Last Kiss is a funny take on life's ordinariness. The wordy, conversational film is about Carlo, who has a panic attack when his girlfriend declares that she's pregnant. His friend's horror stories about child rearing make him more edgy and he's tempted to have an affair with an 18-year-old. The comedy about love, courtship and marriage is based on the philosophy that normality is the biggest revolution.
With Trivandrum, Mumbai, Kolkatta and now even Pune getting a fest of their own, isn't IFFI losing its already diminishing sheen? Most of the Indian panorama films themselves had been on view at the Cinemaya film festival in Delhi. However, fest director Deepak Sandhu feels that "a million such fests should bloom". "We're not competing but supporting a common cause of bringing in quality cinema," she said.
IFFI this year had a touch of commerce. One of the new attempts has been to set up a Film Bazaar. The market is a joint effort of NFDC, CII and FICCI and the obvious target is to raise the growing exports further. It also showcases facilities and locations for shooting in India. However, are there enough foreign delegates to reach out to? According to NFDC managing director, Deepankar Mukhopadhyay, enquiries have been coming from China, South Africa, Mauritius, Sri Lanka among others. But deals are still far from being struck. "Negotiations are like marriage proposals, they take at least six months to fructify. But we've made an important beginning," he said. Yashraj Films that already has a distribution foothold in "80% of the foreign market", in UK, USA and Dubai, decided to participate to target the non-traditional markets. They claim that quotations they've been getting weren't good but a "start has to be made from somewhere".
The market out there is not just for Bollywood. Arya Bhattacharya, the producer of Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Tale of a Naughty Girl, claimed that the film has been picked up for North American release for a minimum guarantee of a "seven figure sum in US dollars". Subsequently they'll also get a 75% share of the royalty.