Between Reviews: It's a Wrap

Posted on December 13, 2008


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DEC 14, 2008 – IF YOU’VE SEEN A COMPLETELY UNHEALTHY NUMBER OF FILMS in your lifetime, you develop a sixth sense when it comes to close-to-the-heart passion-projects like Vera Chawla’s Death Without Consent. You know you’re in for trouble right from the moment the screen fills up with this finger-wagging admission: “Inspired by the truth… they didn’t want you to know.” This truth, apparently, is the little issue of bioterrorism, perpetrated by one Dr. Guervich (who’s Russian, naturally). Given that he strips little fishies in a tank to skeletons within seconds, with his foul chemicals, Guervich comes off less a threat to the existence of humankind than a cackling mad-scientist in a James Bond movie – but even he’s not half as ridiculous as the protagonist, an earnest college student determined to expose his father’s killer (Dr. Guervich, naturally), who goes about this task by falling headlong into love (with Dr. Guervich’s daughter, naturally).

The question you should ask, doubtlessly, is how anyone could take this low-rent Robin Cook nonsense seriously – well, unless you’re a few beers into a singularly uneventful evening – especially since Chawla embraces every single moviemaking cliché with such a warm, welcoming smile. The hero making love to the heroine in front of a crackling fireplace, the villain stupidly labelling a computer folder “Human Experiments (Encrypted)” so that even the village idiot knows where to find files about, well, human experiments – it’s all here. And the bigger question, therefore, is how Death Without Consent could make it to the screening schedule of the International Film Festival of India.

This isn’t to knock the (way-too-earnest for my liking) efforts of first-time director Chawla, but unless you’re programming, say, “Young Filmmakers from Outside India Testing the Waters,” how could something this raw, this ridiculous be foisted on an unsuspecting festival audience? For that matter, what, really, constitutes suitable programming for a film festival: everything that’s “cinema,” namely the spectrum spanning the amateurish to the artistic? Few of the recent features have been truly eye-opening in any respect, and the only unqualified cinematic experiences, so far – in whatever broad sense a “cinematic experience” can be defined – have been the retrospectives of Aki Kaurismäki and Wong Kar-wai, along with the special section on “Women,” which included restored classics like Subarnarekha and Lola Montes.

Among my big regrets, here, is not being able to catch the screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown, which clashed with MG Sasi’s Adayalangal. The latter won, in a fierce battle between what was, on one side, the all-too-rare opportunity to see a golden oldie in all its big-screen glory, and on the other, a contemporary film in an unfamiliar language with the aid of subtitles. (It’s nearly impossible to get subtitled video prints of regional language films otherwise). The other factor that aided my decision was that you can somehow scrounge up a copy of even the most obscure foreign films, but arty regional films, once they finish playing in the festival circuit, vanish into a mysterious vacuum.

In the good old Doordarshan days, at least, these films would be rescued, time and again, for a screening on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, but now, not even the state sponsored channel appears to care. And as I’ve gotten nostalgic about the pre-liberalisation era, let me spare a few thoughts for the days we had to wait for months before the latest Hollywood blockbusters landed at our doorstep, which meant that theatres had to keep themselves in business by screening older films. Oh, how I miss walking over to Safire cinema or the impossibly wide-screened Devi theatre and watching Mackenna’s Gold (no classic, but most certainly a big-screen experience) or Lawrence of Arabia.

Now that Quantum of Solace hits our shores before opening in the US, who’d care about screening old films on the big screen anymore? And that’s where festivals compensate. (So they may not screen Mackenna’s Gold, but at least, there’s My Life to Live.) As Adoor Gopalakrishnan pointed out, forget the release date – if a film is good, it’s always contemporary. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s not these older films that are the problem at this festival but the newer ones. While most are certainly worth a watch, especially the documentaries, where are the dazzlers, the mindbenders capable of warping your every prevailing notion of what cinema can be, what it can do?

A few trends have been set in art cinema, over the years, and those trends are faithfully followed, inventively shaped into permutations and combinations – but where do we look for the blinding white light that pierces through the darkness of the theatre and illuminates the senses? Is anyone, for instance, really surprised by Iranian cinema anymore, now that we’ve identified the key styles and the key concerns? (I quote the example of Iranian cinema because the only major film to look forward to, here, is Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows, which has already played at Berlin.) That’s possibly why even the excitement is low-key, more akin to the anticipation of a sedate day out in the country than a luxury-liner world cruise featuring a smorgasbord of attractions.

Perhaps this festival cannot afford to unveil the latest superstar-helmed films – the new Almodóvar, say, or the new Mike Leigh – but surely there have to be other ways of making us feel that buzz, that giddy lightheadedness about being drunk on cinema all over again? But then, would that be expecting too much in a country with a cinema culture such as ours? When “other” cinema, in the theatres, is barely a presence outside of these festivals, does whining about what wasn’t really serve any purpose? At least, for a fortnight, we’ve had access to a big-screen cinema beyond Bollywood, and at least for that, perhaps, the only reaction is gratitude.

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