Mad visuals and melodrama

Posted on January 16, 2016


Brief notes from the 13th Chennai International Film Festival.

Where are the great images? I kept asking this question during this year’s edition of the Chennai International Film Festival, usually a December fixture in the city’s cultural calendar but postponed a month due to the floods. When I say “great images,” I’m not talking about good cinematography, which is almost always a given in festival-calibre films. If you’ve seen anything by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for instance, you’ll know what I mean – even the most ordinary person or place or event is “composed” for the screen, in the manner of a master painter. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about women in bikinis waving to a statue of Christ dangling from a helicopter in La Dolce Vita. I’m talking about eels being pulled out of that decapitated (and decaying) horse’s head in The Tin Drum. I’m talking about that seaside game of chess between the knight and Death in The Seventh Seal. These marvellously mad images plucked out of the id, we don’t seem to see them anymore.

So I must admit I was relieved to see a used condom floating around a dead octopus in a bathroom sink, in Duccio Chiarini’s Italian dramedy Short Skin. I cannot relate, in this family newspaper, the circumstances that led to this image – but there wasn’t another image like this from the films I saw, juxtaposing things that wouldn’t seem to belong together anywhere but in a fevered dream. After sex, food. Naomi Kawas’s bittersweet Japanese drama An featured more conventionally pleasing images, of a bean paste being prepared with the kind of love only cooks in cinema seem capable of. Neither film did anything new. Short Skin is your average coming-of-age story. An is your average free-spirit-cures-curmudgeon story. But there are enough dissonances to dispel the clichés – and who says all festival films have to redefine cinema? Sometimes, it’s just nice to see what the average popcorn muncher in another country is watching.

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Watching Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, I was struck – touched, even – by the fact that a film can speak so easily to an audience from another culture, halfway around the world. It’s a terribly banal insight, I know, but you have to have been there in that theatre, with roars of laughter punctuating every scene with the American actor played by John Turturro. The warm, sad, and very funny film is about a filmmaker who keeps shooting her new movie even as her mother is dying. It got a lot of applause, and not just at the end. One thing about the Chennai audience – they applaud the instant they feel something. It may be a visual, or a line that touched them. It’s lovely, and you don’t find this at other festivals, where audiences are presumably too sophisticated or too self-conscious to react this way. A man behind me loved the dialogues in Srijit Mukherji’s intermittently powerful, eminently watchable period drama Rajkahini. He kept applauding. It’s the art-house equivalent of wolf whistles during a masala movie.

I call Rajkahini “intermittently powerful” because the film – unlike, say, the director’s earlier Baishe Srabon – is let down by an overly familiar storyline (oppressed sex workers rise in revolt) that could be described as Mandi-meets-Mirch Masala. The oldness of the storyline isn’t so much a problem as Mukherji’s inability to infuse much newness into it, despite the Partition-era setting. There was another Bengali filmmaker at the festival: Buddhadeb Dasgupta. This time, he had a Hindi film, Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui (whose entry was received with wolf whistles worthy of a Vijay or Ajith in these parts). Siddiqui plays a private investigator whose bumbling methods (much comedy here) are redeemed by his boundless heart. Isn’t it a problem for a man in his profession to be too compassionate? That’s part of this lovely film’s agenda, to show what such a profession does to such a man. After searching for motives and missing persons, the search, finally, turns inwards. Mysteries outside are far easier to solve than the ones inside us.

If you’re film-crazy – I’m going to get a tad dramatic here, perfectly acceptable given the circumstances – looking at the schedule is a little like the big reveal of Sophie’s Choice. The whole exercise is fraught with sacrifice, and ensuing regret. Saturday evening, for instance: the new Nanni Moretti movie, or the Icelandic drama Rams, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year? At least Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent made it easy to decide. One, it was in black and white, and you don’t get to see many black-and-white films on the big screen. And two, the subject was irresistible: the story straddles two time periods (1909 and 1940), as an Amazonian shaman helps two scientists searching for a rare plant. One of them mutters, “This is madness.” But of course. Hasn’t he seen Apocalypse Now, or Death in the Garden, or Fitzcarraldo, or anything by Apichatpong Weerasethakul? If you’re in a movie and you end up in a jungle, the mind is the first thing to go.

Among the many categories, for me, in a film festival is the Film You’ve Watched Many Times But Need To Catch On The Big Screen. I don’t know why I do this – maybe it’s to feel what it must have been like to have been part of the audience at the time of the film’s initial release. Forget that you now own a smartphone, and you could believe you’ve entered a time machine. The two films I chose in this category were both heroine-centric. The first: The Marriage of Maria Braun, which showed as part of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. The second: Aval Oru Thodarkathai, part of the K Balachander retrospective. (Alas, this was replaced by Manadhil Urudhu Vendum, the director’s vastly inferior update.) Maria, of course, is an explicit stand-in for post-War Germany – she dusts off the rubble and goes on to make a spectacular success of herself. Balachander’s heroine is more bound to her household, but she is no less a symbol – for the archetypal Indian woman who gives and gives, without a thought for herself. Melodrama, whether in style (as in the Fassbinder film) or as a genre (the Balachander film), is another word for bigness, and it’s never better than when on the big screen.

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