Between Reviews: Once Upon a Time in the Fest – Part 1

Posted on December 25, 2010


Movie-hopping through the 8th Chennai International Film Festival, with its mix of the curious and the commendable.

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DEC 26, 2010FEW PLACES ARE MORE CAPABLE of inciting homicidal thoughts in a cinephile than the inside of a cinema hall. If eyes could sprout daggers, there’d be slumped bodies everywhere – the teens willfully unaware that the light from their unmuted cell phones can distract the attentive movie watcher; the father of the newborn who, instead of carrying his mewling infant outside, attempts to lull it to quietness a couple of seats away from you; or the overfed man whose unrepentant belch has just enveloped you in a miasma of his spicy breakfast. But rarely before have I witnessed these silent thoughts – which I’m sure I’m not alone in having – manifest themselves in outspoken outrage. The entire section around me at the opening ceremony of the 8th Chennai International Film Festival – at a Chennai cinema hall – was up in arms against the photographers and videographers who went about their business of capturing the events on stage. Standing in a row in front of us, they ensured that not a soul behind could see a thing. A hoarse old gent vacillated between rage and reasoning: “We want to see too!”

It was worse when actresses Oviya and Anjali appeared on stage to light the ceremonial lamp. The primal scene was right out of Tennessee Williams – like the cannibalistic children converging on a hapless Sebastian at the close of Suddenly, Last Summer, the phalanx of photographers and videographers raced towards the stage, engulfing everyone ahead, their predatory arms held aloft with recording equipment. Again, no one could see a thing – only the rising smoke offered an indication that a ritual was in progress. A distinctly discomfited Madhavan, on stage to host the ceremony, quipped, “For those straining their necks to see what was happening, it was just the lighting of the lamp.” Give us a theatre whose roof is strewn with cobwebs, and we’ll look the other way. You don’t need billions to fix this – just a broom. But never mind. Tell us, unabashedly, that a special show, every evening, is reserved for special-invitee film-industry VIPs only, and instead of feeling indignant about this inegalitarianism, we’ll focus on the wealth of films available to us mere mortals (though in all fairness, these films were on display during the regular screenings too). But next time, would it be too much to ask that the festivities are not reduced to one of the umpteen cinema-related programmes so beloved by Tamil television, with wacka-wacka porn music filling the gaps between announcements and with everything and everyone becoming crane-camera fodder?

But a few badly behaved photographers should not be allowed to overshadow an embryonic event. Or as Albert Brooks said in the recent issue of Esquire, “Acceptance is going to a restaurant where the salad’s not great, but the steak is fine.” The latter analogy is a perfect fit for the opening night film, Fatih Akim’s well-acted, enjoyable and uncharacteristically lighthearted Soul Kitchen. I was torn about this curious selection, all too ready to sacrifice its tragic themes at the altar of comedy. While it’s true that life’s little cruelties are best garnished with wry laughter, Akim is almost demonically intent in ensuring that nothing, just about nothing, is taken seriously. On reflection, though, this may be exactly the kind of film a fledgling festival needs as kickoff. Around midpoint, the theatre collapsed in a gale of laughter when the red-faced protagonist, near-naked on a female physiotherapist’s table, attempts to distract himself from getting aroused. This sequence builds as farce, so of course he’s unsuccessful, and the payoff visual gag pulls back to reveal him tenting his boxers. The amused audience is entertained but not alienated, titillated but not traumatised. At some point, this festival will have to define itself as more than just a collection of films from around the world, and the audience’s vigorous approval of Soul Kitchen seemed to indicate a possible niche: the festival that doesn’t take itself too seriously, aka the film festival for those who don’t much care for the typical festival film.

My selection of films the next day confirmed my suspicion that the films here don’t exactly require the viewer to immerse himself in monastic levels of concentration and contemplation – but then again, that’s perhaps true of a lot of what passes for “art cinema” (quotes intentional) these days. When art cinema made its presence felt in the 1950s and 1960s, it was such a wondrously singular creature, so far removed from what people were watching in their local theatres every week, that it required the engagement of parts of the movie-watching brain that were rarely used. But over years, the idiosyncratic grammar of Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni and Godard has been assimilated into the mainstream in some shape or form, and when we watch an Almodóvar today – to take the name of a major figure in the art-house circuit – we no longer have to strain to absorb the import of the images on screen. Art is not as austere any longer – we’ve either grown used to watching art films and so they no longer seem like a long night of calculus homework, or the art films themselves have become lighter and more accessible. Which is it? Let’s continue this conversation next week.

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