Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lavish spread of cinema”

Posted on December 23, 2011


In the jam-packed schedules of film festivals, is it possible to savour the films you see? To some extent, yes.

To some people in Chennai, this weekend portends nothing but sleep, blissful sleep that will not be interrupted by an alarm meant to drive them to a morning screening, followed by others in the afternoon and evening and night. These committed cinephiles – and some would say that these cinephiles need to be committed – have braved traffic and varying audiovisual arrangements and irregular mealtimes and indecipherable languages and the fine print of the festival bulletin in order to see more films in nine days than many would see in a year, perhaps even a lifetime. And now that the 9th Chennai International Film Festival has come to an end, they can finally rest. (Will their dreams be subtitled? Only they can tell.) No one needs this rest more than the person who won the special award for being what the festival’s web site calls a “passionate film buff,” watching the maximum number of films and giving a personalised account about each one. How do we know he’s passionate? Because, unlike me, he’s not getting paid to watch these films.

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A reader – after seeing my story about the festival, which talked about the screening of 133 films from 53 countries, plus the Indian Panorama, plus Tamil films in competition – had this to say. “I have a general question about these festivals. If the grand objective is to promote/celebrate/share great art, shouldn’t the audience be given sufficient time in between film viewings to digest/debate and let the experience sink in? Whereas with this kind of cramming, it is difficult to remember the finer points of the first film (unless you are religiously jotting down everything, in which case too you are losing out a bit on the experience) by the time you are finished with the third film?” He likened the efforts of the cinephile, probably the one who won the passionate-film-buff award, to dining at Saravana Bhavan, Sangeethas and Woodlands within an eight-hour span. Technically, given the diversity of films, his simile might have included restaurants serving different cuisines – Saravana Bhavan and Azulia and even Pizza Hut – but his point is taken. However starved you are for good cinema, how much can you devour in a single stretch?

Taking the food analogy further, I’d venture that a festival is an opportunity to take a bite from several dishes in a lavish spread, in order to know what’s out there. And once we identify the items that please our palates – say, films from Iran, or the work of this particular director or that particular actor – we can, on our own, sit down for heaped platefuls of what we like, a knowledge that we’ve taken away from that sampling. And as we attend more festivals, the stomach – so to speak – expands to accommodate more helpings more effortlessly, and unlike real life, where binge eating is ruinous, festival overindulgence comes with no side effects, other than insomnia, perhaps. Yes, nobody can see all the films screened at a single festival, just like nobody can work their way through an entire buffet. (And even if we wanted to see them all, we’re often forced to choose between films scheduled at the same time.) But you can see enough. And that’s one of the points of a festival.

To invoke an entirely different analogy, a festival is like vacationing in a foreign country. You’re there. So you try to see as much as you can, the palaces, the mountains, the countryside, the local life. Can you see everything? Surely not. But you try to make the most of the opportunity, not worrying about how you’re going to be crying out for sleep by the time you return, how you’re going to need a vacation to recover from this vacation. Because you may not be there again. A film festival, of course, is a little more serious than a vacation. For people making films or acting in films or involved with films, like me, in a more tangential fashion, it is a kind of fast-track school that offers a crash course, through which you update yourself on what’s happening in cinema in different parts of the world. If you made lists of all the foreign films you wanted to see, and if you decided you were going to download them one by one, and get to the next film only after chewing and digesting the first, then you may never be done. You’ll just keep adding more and more films to your plate. A festival, thanks to its abbreviated schedule, accelerates this process. Besides, the laptop monitor is no match for the big screen.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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