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Inside IFFI

Birju Maharaj

The 44th International Film Festival of India

There’s much to differentiate IFFI from other film festivals around the world, health but this past week I found a new one: A big male monkey posing and modeling in the middle of the road right opposite the festival’s entrance gate. A young gentleman pedestrian and I tried to bribe him with biscuits and then threaten him with a stick to get him – and ourselves – out of the way of Panjim’s potentially deadly traffic. Then others, here rather than coming to our aid, started photographing and videoing this encounter – a rather fitting offense since we were standing outside India’s premier forum for capturing the image.

The 44th International Film Festival of India, still going on as I write this, has been notable for a number of reasons: the preponderance of Japanese offerings, the grumbling of the delegates about disorganization, the overdue focus on Konkani films, the stunning ‘master class’ by none other than Susan Sarandon and, of course, the juxtaposition of cinema glitterati with a confused Goan monkey. Goa Streets is media partner for content for this year’s IFFI.

Yes, it’s true this festival has had its share of glitches. But in the end, it remains a celebration of what’s best about our nation: our “soft power”, our creative side, our cinematic tradition that serves as a source of pride, entertainment and envy for people all over the world.

And from the Goan perspective, there’s another reason to be happy about this year’s IFFI. For years, we’ve seen the familiar faces from Assam, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Trivandrum, Mumbai and Allahbad, none of them bothering to give our local cinema much notice. Not so this year. Konkani films have been something of a hot topic, with Baga Beach and The Coffin Maker making a particular splash.

As with every year, the best place to interact with actors, composers and directors was at the ‘master classes’, with the most celebrated one this year being that offered by the great Susan Sarandon (see separate article on page 16). Lots of people were upset when NDTV’s Barkha Dutt insisted on asking Sarandon political questions in a master class that was supposed to be about acting. But as Bina Datwani wrote, Susan is a very political woman (in addition to being one of our generation’s finest actresses, with a Best Actress Oscar among her achievements).

 The décor outside the halls of IFFI showed ‘reels’. But today, reels are all but defunct, with most films made digitally. That means that as IFFI marks its 44th birthday, much is changing – but not necessarily for the worse.

“Films don’t even need people on-screen,” said Seth Scriver, co-director (along with Shayne Ehman) of the acclaimed Canadian film “Asphalt Watches”. “New age computer technology has metamorphosed the global animation industry.” Added Max Anderson, director of ‘Tito On Ice,’ “The best thing about animation films was that they could be made with a small budget … In fact, big budgets sometimes limit creativity.”

Can one make out by watching a film whether the director is a woman? I couldn’t. Mouly Surya’s ‘What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love’, a film set in Indonesia that took over three years to produce, captured the sentiment of love amidst a school of visually impaired teenagers. “In the school of visually impaired children, the film shows how they explore love using other senses.”

Maria Douza’s Greek film ‘Tree and the Swing’ was about migration and its effects on a family and relationships. Eleni Bertes’ Greek film, “Joy” was soppy, but well narrated. Filipino actress Ruby Ruz spoke about her role in a film about poorly paid movie extras in her country.

Acclaimed Czech director Agnieszka Holland at one point was asked why she chose the title ‘The Burning Bush’ for one of her films. She replied, “It was a phrase from the Bible where God guides Moses’ towards a burning bush. It is a symbol of a freedom fight, which is an essential part of the film.” The film, a three-part series produced by Home Box Office, tells the story of a member of the Czech freedom struggle setting himself on fire (see review page 15).

One of the best features of IFFI is the Open Forum. Every afternoon, whilst one was munching a kebab or swigging a cold-coffee, one could ask questions of people such as filmmaker Ehsan Majid, critic and filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, Actor Seema Biswas (remember her in ‘Bandit Queen’?), Nayan Kumar, and others.

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Actress Rekha

I believe films have done more to unite this country than white khadi caps or saffron-coloured clothes.

The vernacular films were as popular as the ones from abroad. “Character and not celebrities are important,” said Nagraj Manjule, director of the critically acclaimed Marathi movie ‘Fandry’. “It’s my first feature film, a biopic of my own life.” Said Kishore Kadam, an actor in the movie, “Fandry was an ‘unlearning’ and that was difficult.”

It was hard to juggle movies with the informal chai and chat sessions. At one, New York-based director Vince Sandoval spoke about how his film “Apparitions” explored the conservativeness of nuns in the Philippines. Set in 1971, it’s about a monastery whose nuns leave the world physically but not mentally. You need to see the film to know what that means.

Small and independent producers are making their presence felt. Girish Malik’s film ‘Jal’ was screened to a packed audience. Lead actor Purab Kohli couldn’t stop smiling. “It was the first time that it was screened for an Indian audience.” He plays a water diviner in the water-parched Rann of Kutch region in Gujarat. The press conference at which Ramesh Tekwani and Vincent Corda talked about such filmmakers almost persuaded me to take up the camera.

Wondering how to pronounce Antonia Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia (joint directors of a mafia thriller ‘Salvo’) and Eduardo Rossoff (who directed the Belgian film ‘Let me Survive’) led me to the banks of the Mandovi behind Kala Academy, where delegates were discussing films made by them.

Many guests were excited about visiting Goa. Eduardo Rossoff said that India resembled Mexico a lot. “There is the same chaos, love for spicy food and love for people …  It makes me feel like staying on here forever.” I’d wanted to assure him that a lot of people from Delhi felt like that, too, and they weren’t a 30-hour flight away.

For the next few days, I have on my list interactions with Malayalam Director-Producer Salim Ahamed, the crew of the Hindi film, “A Dream Called America”, and Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Jiri Menzel.