Films & Feni: The First Festival Hit?

Posted on November 25, 2008


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NOV 26, 2008 – SOMETIMES, YOU DO JUDGE A BOOK by its cover, or a film by its first few minutes. I was quite horrified by first-time director Irfan Kamal’s blatant attack on my heartstrings, when he allowed an infant at a railway station to crawl in the direction of an oncoming train, and then signalled to the mother to bound across, at the last second, and save her baby. If this manipulation weren’t bad enough, the all-too-appropriate title was splashed across a frame of the relieved mother cradling her child: Thanks Maa. There are a lot of things to like in this first feature, like the incredible set of performances from children apparently picked up from the streets of Mumbai, or some genuinely touching moments capable of un-jading the most hardened heart, or even the unexpectedly hilarious cameo by Sanjay Mishra’s bare buttocks.

But Kamal cannot decide if he’s going for a flinty survival story set amidst the Dickensian squalour of Mumbai or a flighty Enid Bytonesque fantasy in which kids, if they put their minds to it, can do anything. Thanks Maa, therefore, comes off as a half-hearted cross between Oliver Twist and a Five Find Outers adventure, about a bunch of artful dodgers attempting to return an abandoned child to its birth mother. Suspension of disbelief is all very fine as an abstract theory, but how can you gloss over sequence after sequence where these children, however steeled into premature adulthood by the unforgiving aura of the city they live in, pull off feats that adults couldn’t manage? But the audience didn’t seem to care. Going by the incessant smatterings of applause, this is perhaps the first of this festival’s breakout hits.

AND GOING BY THE INCESSANT WALKOUTS, the painstakingly digitally-restored print of Max Ophüls’ notorious Lola Montes was the first of the festival’s major flops. You’d think the gorgeously saturated Technicolor alone would have been reason to sit through this admittedly difficult film, with its heady blend of musicality and staginess and a staunch refusal to do anything so insulting as offer a clear narrative to hold on to, and these qualities, apparently, didn’t sit very well with the audience. This was my first viewing of this much-heard-about, much-reviled, much-discussed film event of the 1950s, and I came away intrigued enough to settle down for a more leisurely viewing sometime in the future. After all, expecting art to yield all its secrets after one viewing is as silly as hoping to unearth every single one of a woman’s mysteries after one evening, no?

AND FAR AWAY FROM THE SCREENS, trouble seemed to be brewing, as I unearthed what was possibly the first journalistic scoop of my career. Looking for a soft drink, I ended up at a stall with no name, and I asked the man at the counter why he couldn’t put up some sort of sign that would attract, well, people looking for a soft drink. And this was his cue to launch into a litany of complaints – about how he’d paid Rs. 20,000 to put up the stall and how he was losing money as non-delegates weren’t being allowed into the INOX premises. According to him, those who’ve put up stalls outside, on the street-side, are making twice what he makes a day, simply by virtue of being accessible to the general populace of Goa as well. Had I been a true-blue reporter, my nose would have twitched at the possibility of a major story, but as I’m (thankfully) just a film critic, I sauntered off to the screening of Thanks Maa.

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