Thoughts from a few days when Fassbinder rubbed shoulders with Rajinikanth and Guru Dutt….
How do you plan your viewing schedule at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival? One way is to simply let the film find you. Earlier this year, at the Berlinale, the documentary Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands was one of the hottest tickets. Understandably so. The subject, after all, was only the most important German filmmaker of the post-War period. And someone who died tragically young, at 37, leaving behind a huge if-only on the lips of filmgoers and critics. But in a span of 14 years, he directed 60 films, acted in films, put together 30 stage shows – it was almost as if he knew he did not have much time, that he had to cram it all in while he could. “Such a rate of production is unparalleled in cinema history,” says the Danish director and film historian Christian Braad Thomsen, who splices together his interviews with Fassbinder and reminiscences from collaborators. The result is a deeply moving tribute.
I couldn’t watch the film in Berlin. It was all sold out. So when I saw it in the MAMI line-up, the film practically sidled its way into my schedule. “I didn’t want to copy or imitate Hollywood,” Fassbinder says. He wanted to make films based on his understanding of Hollywood movies. But it’s not just about his career. It’s about his life. His childhood. His thoughts on the Oedipal myth. His reverence for the German émigré filmmaker Douglas Sirk. His dismissal of “art films,” which makes us wonder, with a smile, just what category he thought his own films would be clubbed under. His desire for a child versus his feelings about bringing one into this world. And, of course, sadomasochism. The latter trait announced itself in another documentary as well, one about Rajinikanth’s fans. It’s no news, at least to us down south, that the actor is revered as a god, but a fan gets so literal about it, he pierces his skin with hooks and hangs from a wire, the way devotees do at temples.
For the Love of a Man. That’s what Rinku Kalsy’s documentary is titled, never mind that a lot of the people featured in the film would take offence to their hero being called a mere man. The film lays out some basics about the cult of the star in Tamil cinema (and Tamil Nadu), and then follows a few men who aren’t just fans. One of them begins to weep remembering the time Rajinikanth was hospitalised. He couldn’t function. His brother had to go to Singapore and take pictures standing in front of the hospital in which Rajinikanth was admitted – only then did some semblance of normalcy return. Another fan is an auto driver. Near the steering, where others usually paste pictures of gods, for luck, he has pictures of Rajinikanth. I kept wondering what a foreign audience would make of all this, given that the sometimes fun, other times chilling phenomenon of star worship is so alien to them. And we’re talking star worship to the power of infinity. As a fan says, “This is not Kollywood or Hollywood. This is Rajiniwood.”
The film’s biggest laugh came from the mimicry artist who regales fans by impersonating Rajinikanth, and then admits, “Basically I am a Kamal Haasan fan.” If you don’t find this funny, you’re probably not from Tamil Nadu. I always try to squeeze a few documentaries into my viewing schedule at film festivals. For one, they are best seen on the screen, without distraction. At home, there’s always something else that’s an easier watch that you reach for at the end of a working day. Also, these documentaries are hard to come by once they disappear from the festival circuit. Vetri Maaran’s Visaaranai, on the other hand, is sure to get a theatrical release. But I watched it anyway because there’s no telling what the powerful film will look like once the censors get their hands on it. Aligarh, which opened the festival, was pretty controversial too. I couldn’t catch it, but I wasn’t too bummed. It’s sure to land up in theatres, though someone told me later that there was a sort-of sex scene that might not make it.
The highlight of the festival, for me, was the restored version of Pyaasa, though I wouldn’t exactly call the film a favourite. I’m a bit ambivalent about this story of a Devdas-like masochist who reaches for balladry instead of the bottle. The film is rivalled only by Mera Naam Joker in the self-pity sweepstakes. My God, does he go on, right from the first scene in which a bee is crushed under the sole of a shoe. Guru Dutt plays the bee. The shoe is embodied, at different times, by his callous brothers, his callous ex-girlfriend, his callous publisher, the callous society. And yet, the film is a marvel, a true testament to cinema being a collaborative art. As a novel, as a lone creator’s creation, Pyaasa might have been unbearable, but with this music, with these lyrics, with this (often symbolic, and always breathtaking) cinematography, you cannot look away. And it was amazing watching the film with an audience. They cheered when Johnny Walker walked in with his bottles of massage oil. They knew when the songs were coming. Almost six decades later, Jinhen naaz hai Hind par is still so relevant, it could be the soundtrack to the lives of everyone who’s returning an award today.
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