This year, there are 200 films from 65 countries, including India, and some of the best of Cannes and Berlin is to be seen at the Mumbai Film Festival.
In many ways, a film festival flourishes because it has had a competent man at the helm of affairs. Not just this, but also that the man has been given a free hand and allowed to steer the festival for a reasonably long period of time.
We have seen this at Cannes, where Gill Jacob stayed as the head of the festival for many, many years, till Thierry Fremaux took over from him a decade or so ago. What is more, Jacob continues as a titular head, helping the festival wherever he can. He is still very visible.
It was the same at Venice, where Marco Mueller spent eight years as the festival director before the usual Italian political pressures and pulls terminated his contract. He now heads the Rome Film Festival, but in those eight years that he was at Venice, he literally pulled the sinking festival out of the Adriatic Sea. Literally.
In India, the International Film Festival, held every November in Goa’s Panaji, has suffered mainly because the government-run event has never let a director stay long enough to produce results. Also, he has seldom been given a free hand to work.
So, although the Goa festival is technically the largest in the India with the biggest budget, it is the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival that has created waves. Srinivasan Narayanan, who has been the festival’s director for five years now, has been able to offer not only an interesting canvas of movies, but also the latest from the world crop.
This year, there are 200 films from 65 countries, including India, and some of the best of Cannes and Berlin is to be seen there.
The 15th edition of the festival opened with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. An inspiring story of an American southerner who served no less than seven Presidents in the White House – from Eisenhower to Reagan — the work is a touching journey of a man who began his life in the cotton fields of Georgia and ended up as a White House staffer, played by Forest Whitaker. The movie marks the return of Oprah Winfrey, who co-stars with Whitaker. She was last seen in the 1998 Beloved.
The festival has also managed to clinch an equally impressive closing night work. On Oct 24, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate will sing adieu. A dramatic thriller, The Fifth Estate, which opened the recent Toronto Film Festival, is a biopic of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).
Based on two books, including one by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (who is also a major character in the movie portrayed by Daniel Bruhl), the film takes us through the twists and turns of Assange’s life, who emerges as a feared and much hated leader of WikiLeaks, a website that aims at exposing corruption in the government and the corporate world.
As The Fifth Estate runs through some of the most memorable moments (including America’s war in Afghanistan), with Assange daring the powers that be, the movie begins to breathe fire and look visually stunning.
In a way, The Fifth Estate could be today’s All the President’s Men. If at all Condon’s work stumbles, it is when it skirts the moral questions, even the dilemma, that Assange’s mission threw up.
Between the opening and the closing galas, the Festival has an interesting palate of cinema to offer. Categorised as Kabul Fresh, this slot has been screening shorts (the longest is 26 minutes), giving us a peek into strife-torn Afghanistan.
Never seen before in India, the titles like Eye Witness, Driving Test, Life Imprisonment, A Time called Oldness and The Glasses are stories of a land that has been battered by Super Powers and wracked by sectarian violence, its simple people sacrificed at the altar of suffering.
Probably as a contrast to Kabul Fresh, the Festival has been showing several Spanish films – both the old classics, like The Hunt by Carlos Saura and The Spirit of the Beehive, as well as a pick of the latest from a nation known for its celebratory spirit. Son of Cain and Picasso’s Gang are two in this lot. But where is Pedro Almodovar, the most renowned of Spanish auteurs?
Almodovar’s latest “I Am So Excited” – described as his return to broad comedy – is neither in Mumbai nor listed as Spain’s official submission for the 2014 foreign language Oscars. The man seems to be under a cloud, and maybe Mumbai could have drawn him out of it by screening his work.
The festival also had controversial movies. And what is a festival without a dash of these?
One of the most sought-after movies in Mumbai was Tunisia-born Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes last May. It travelled to India in a trail of controversy that had in recent weeks reached a crescendo, almost as provocative as the film itself.
The past weeks have seen a war of words between Kechiche and one of the two stars, Lea Seydoux, in Blue is the Warmest Colour. In just about four months after the big night at Cannes when Kechiche and Seydoux as well as the other actress, Adele Exarchopoulos, hugged one another and planted kisses, the relationship had soured beyond belief.
In an interview to a French magazine, the 52-year-old director, settled in France for a long time, went to the extent of saying that the movie should not be released. “It’s been too tarnished. The Palme d’Or was a fleeting instant of happiness; since then, I’ve felt humiliated, dishonoured, rejected – as if I’m cursed”, he lamented.
Kechiche’s remarks came in the wake of serious allegations that he mistreated his cast and crew during the shoot. Seydoux described her experience on the set as terrible, and referred to one incident when Kechiche lost his temper after 100 takes of the same scene, a violent fight, and demanded that the actresses carry on even though Exarchopoulos was bleeding.
Also, the author of the Gallic novel on which the film is based, Julie Maroh, has accused the helmer of turning the movie into pornography. She was referring to the graphic scenes of lesbian love in the celluloid work.
Another Festival entry that caused ripples at home is Asghar Farhadi’s (on one of the juries in Mumbai) Iranian work, The Past. The movie is the country’s Oscar submission in the foreign language category. Critics have lamented that the film is “not Iranian enough”. About an Iranian who returns to France after four years to divorce his French wife, he uncovers a secret. Contrary to Farhadi’s earlier, A Separation, The Past has a plot that could have unfolded anywhere. A Separation won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.
Apart from these, the Festival has an international competition for first features, a section on world cinema, some restored classics and the cream of Indian cinema.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He is now covering the Mumbai Film Festival, and may be emailed at [email protected]