The Films that Stunned and Inspired at MAMI 2017

A dekko into the highlights and currents seen at the Mumbai Film Festival.

The Mumbai Film Festival has come to an end, leaving in its wake cinephiles besieged by chronic withdrawal symptoms. Considering the truly excellent selection of more than 200 films from 49 countries offered this year, even a person of unexcitable disposition would find herself reorganising her life to stand in long queues whilst gorging on samosas. She’d find herself impolitely eyeing viewers in an auditorium like a bird of prey selecting a vantage point. And trying to master a complex schedule of films spread out from Thane to Colaba, while weighing Mumbai’s onerous travel times against the critical acclaim of the film being pursued.

Of course, the annoying distraction of having other work from one’s ‘normal’ life to attend to almost seems surreal in the midst of the festival’s fiery blaze. Colleagues, after all, would be unlikely to appreciate a cinephile’s maddened appeals to binge on film after film. For those who could not circumvent their schedules this year to make it, here’s looking back at the films that moved audiences.

 

Played by trans actress Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman traces the leading character’s relationship to a respectable middle-aged man. Following his death, society cannot come to terms with this relationship, viewing her sexual identity as a “perversion”. It’s the powerful Chilean entry to the Oscars, and was much loved by audiences here. Many other films also subtly undertook concerns of the LGBT community and conveyed them in the most sensitive, empathetic light possible.

Call Me by Your Name was one such film, and also one of the most popular films of the festival. A young boy becomes enamoured by his father’s research assistant during a summer in sunny Italy. The two men proceed to embark on a secret romance. The scene where his father finds out makes for the most memorable, emotionally sensitive ‘talk’ probably ever delivered on the subject by a father to a son. It’s films like these which will help move mountains for the LGBT community.

Representing coming-of-age through the theme of sexuality, figures once again in Beach Rats, where an aimless teenager from a working-class background is having a horrid summer while exploring his sexual preferences towards men. Thelma, the Norwegian entry to the Oscars, equally delves deep into the psychological tensions brought about by an awakening of sexuality. When the female lead, haunted by her strict religious upbringing, falls in love with another girl in college, she frequently breaks into epileptic fits. Thelma soon learns of her innate mental abilities, which sends this story of a fledgeling romance into a frightening supernatural spin.

Another film that purportedly evoked psychological terror in audiences was Darren Aronofosky’s Mother! The maker of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream has apparently left no holds barred in this Jennifer Lawrence starrer. “You’ll either love it or hate it,” I overheard someone mumble while hushedly discussing the film’s ending, immediately striking horror into my heart and making me resolve not to overhear MAMI conversations ever again (it’s a terrible hazard at these festivals). Also from the US, It Comes at Night was a highlight in this year’s ‘After Dark’ section. Billed as a psychological horror film, it explores the terrors ‘within’ that surface in the face of external, worldly terrors, in the aftermath of a dangerous cataclysm.

On another note, often unequivocally declared as the best film of the festival was Loveless, the Russian entry for the Oscars. It traces the hostile spat between a husband and wife as their relationship veers towards divorce, in the midst of their son’s disappearance. The film coldly looks at the Russian social situation and inadequacies of human love, with a stunning performance by Maryana Spivak.

The Audience Choice Award, however, went to the Hungarian entry for the Oscars, On Body and Soul. A man and woman who work in a slaughterhouse realise that, strangely, they have the same dream every night. The film traces their difficulty in translating the love they share in their dreams into reality.

Art-lovers also had much to look forward to this year, with Poland’s much-awaited Loving Vincent having been released. As the first fully painted feature film, that took 100 artists 7 years to make, it’s a breath-taking film. A heartrending homage to Vincent van Gogh, it investigates the mystery that shrouds his death, while bringing to life 120 of his paintings.

The Australian-German film Manifesto is another unmissable film for creative people to relish. Starring Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles as she dramatically – and often, satirically –performs various artists’ manifestos; the film navigates the intellectual premise of movements ranging from Dadaism to Futurism, Pop Art to Conceptual Art, and Architecture to Film.

The power of cinema to bring out untold stories with activistic flair was greatly elevated with the excellent selection of documentaries on offer as well. City of Ghosts traces the dangerous journey of a band of citizen journalists in Racca, Syria, who are taking on the Islamic State by standing up to the evils of the terrorist group through journalism. Devil’s Freedom takes an intimate look into the lives of victims as well as perpetrators of violence in Mexico. All the characters are flattened behind flesh-coloured masks, with nothing but the look in their eyes and the twitch of their lips to convey their emotions, ranging from fear to remorse.

Closer home, Rahul Jain’s Machines has picked up the Silvery Gateway Award at MAMI for its unflinching portrayal of the humdrum life of workers in a textile factory in Gujarat. In one scene, as the little boy on screens starts dozing off while straightening a yarn of cloth for the thousandth time, the film subtly blurs the boundaries “between machines and humans”, both lost in an endless ream of production.

Unfortunately, the screening of Machines was scarcely populated, as half of Mumbai had turned up for the screening of Vaishali Sinha’s Ask the Sexpert, instead. The documentary broaches a hugely taboo topic through the story of Dr Mahinder Watsa, a 92-year-old sex therapist best known for fielding bizarre questions with unabashed humour in Mumbai Mirrors’ column by the same name. Though he has done much for sex education in India, he’s also fielded his share of controversy for seemingly “corrupting the youth” through his columns.

Another documentary that pays homage to the first taboo-breakers in India was Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema. When the first films were made in India 100 years ago, it was considered improper for Hindu and Muslim women to perform. The very first Indian actresses – Sulochana, Nadira and Pramila – were actually all Jewish women. The documentary traces how they broke records to establish female protagonists as strongholds of acting, paving the way for other Indian women to later follow.

The runaway winner of the festival, however, was Rima Das’ Village Rockstars – a story about a young village girl in northeast India who combats inequality to start a rock band – which swept the Golden Gateway Award, Oxfam Best Film Gender Equality Award, and the Young Critics Choice Award. Inspiringly, one more woman director stole the show, as the top honour in the International category went to Carla Simon for Summer 1993.

The Grand Jury prize went to Dipesh Jain’s In the Shadows, a psychological drama starring Manoj Bajpayeeas a man who feels trapped within the walled city of Old Delhi, and within his own mind. Anurag Kashyap’s latest film Mukkabaaz also racked up quite a buzz when it was screened at the opening of MAMI.

Unfortunately, an entire year stands now between us and the coming film festival. Until then, Netflix and an unrepentant line-up of marathon movie sessions are in the pipeline!

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