Sunday, November 22, 2015

Crime and humanity at Jio MAMI 17th Mumbai Film Festival

On Taxi and other films I watched at the Jio MAMI 17th Mumbai Film Festival:

There was a report in The Guardian during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK, the same week the 17th Mumbai Film Festival concluded, in which the reporter begins telling that in 2005, the local police of Gujarat state murdered a criminal Sheikh Sohrabuddin, and how this cold-blooded murder was cheered by the crowd during a 2007 election rally of Modi, then chief minister of the state, who, when asked the crowd what should be done if a man is found possessing illegal arms, got a resounding response of “Kill him”.

In the opening scene of Iran’s banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, we meet one gentleman who is of the view that thieves who steals car-tyres, which is apparently a rampant crime in Tehran, should be lynched to death. “Death penalty for a crime as petty as stealing tyres?” argues a humanist school-teacher repulsively who is his co-passenger in the taxi. We don’t know what that gentleman does for a living; he doesn’t tell despite being asked several times by the lady school-teacher. But his refrains do suggest that he is not on the right side of the law. And with his views on humanism, it is not tough to imagine him as a part of one such mob that could fill air with aggressive, extreme opinions.

Taxi is one of the best films I saw at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival. My fourth consecutive year at the fest, I managed to watch maximum movies this time. Twenty three. That is in seven days. Law of diminishing marginal utility seems to almost fail. But it does get heavy in head at a point, sort of viewer’s block. And, you wonder, what is the point of watching films in a chaos? Like in a chaotic mob, judgements (of few films) do get a little discombobulated here too.

Characters in Panahi’s film come and go. They are the passengers of the taxi driven by Panahi himself which makes for a running commentary on the politically oppressed state of Iran. Panahi is under house-arrest; his crime was he made films. And one of the early characters we meet is a video rental guy who pirates Western films and TV shows for his customers, who are mostly film-students. Panahi was his customer too, he reminds. Piracy is again a crime, and at one point, as a cover-up for one of his customers, he even makes Panahi his partner. This is cheekily funny, almost satirical. Though a criminal, he is one of the sources of international pop-culture import in this consumerist country. You can see Apple products, Angry Birds school-bags, and modern coffee-shops. The place doesn’t feel strange, in ways more than one.

The star of the film is Panahi’s affable niece who is a young school girl and owns a camera. They teach films at schools there, which is unimaginably awesome. But her lessons in filmmaking are all about how to make a “distributable” film which is by avoiding “sordid realism”. I would like to know if the school-teacher passenger whom we met earlier would subscribe to such lessons or would teach the same thing to her students. Panahi, on his taxi ride, takes a slight detour to meet a friend who has been wrongly framed in another criminal charge and Panahi is asked to offer quick judgement after watching the CCTV evidence. Moments later, he bumps into a lady lawyer friend of his who puts brilliant perspective about the country where law and religion strictly informs each other and people have to tread this thin line between a criminal and a sinner even in their daily job of bread-earning.

In one of the most rewarding scenes I’ve ever watched in cinema, the lady lawyer picks out a rose from the bouquet she is holding, puts in front of the camera installed in the taxi as an offering to the audience watching her. “A rose for the ‘people of cinema’, because they can be relied on,” she says.  Shot on a small digital camera which could have made this film watchable even on a laptop screen, this quoted line from her made the entire theatre burst in applause, and what could have been a personal-watching transcended into being a powerful and heart-warming community-watching experience. Also, it’s affirming to see a crowd of people cheering plain humanistic love. Fittingly, this film won the Audience Choice award at the fest.


Sometimes, extreme love or desperation for someone or something could push humans off the boundary where they stop being humans. In a milder instance, there were reports that few ‘people of cinema’ heckled a screening for which they were denied entry even after queuing up for hours. The screening had to be cancelled. The idea of film festival as celebration of films by film-lovers coming up together as one took a back seat for a while. We see a grimmer instance in M Manikandan’s novel-like Kutrame Thandanai (Crime is Punishment), but telling that would be a spoiler. The protagonist is a credit-card payment collector (though the lead actor looks too well-off for this job) who suffers from tunnel-vision problem, literally and figuratively. The film is little melodramatic, mainly due to its background-score (by Illayaraja), and its production value makes it look soap opera-ish. One misstep after another, he finds himself in a quarantine-like loop.

In Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, the female protagonist goes through relatively same dilemma. She meets a bunch of "fun-loving" dudes while leaving a pub, where she was getting drunk all alone, of whom she finds one guy a little more attractive than the others. Post Linklater-ish first half of stoner romance, she finds the air around her getting dangerous. While she had the chance of safeguarding herself, it is interesting to see how and what makes her keep crossing the line that drags her deep in this quicksand. The main setup comes a little late and feels a bit contrived, shifting the tonality of the film, but the fluid filmmaking (134-minute single take) assures that the mood of the film is not disturbed (perfect colour treatment is also responsible for that), keeping you engrossed and rooting for the titular character while the tense atmosphere grows on you.

What animalistic things people would do or behave like when in little or extreme love or desperation, they make you do when you’ve found none. They make you an animal. Literally. When you fail to find anyone of the opposite sex to be in relationship with. I am talking about Yorgos Lanthimos’s cracker of a film The Lobster. This hilarious satire on modern human life is set in a fantastical world in near future – where after breaking-up with your current relationship, you enter a hotel where, like… err… Tinder, you have to find a match for yourself from the singletons arrived there. The Lobster is great fun in its idea, and its top-class execution of the dystopian world divided between loners and lovers is reflective about the human nature towards love and loneliness.

A still from Anomalisa
Loneliness is again something Charlie Kaufman tries to look at and wants us to feel about in his latest stop-motion animated film Anomalisa, co-directed by Duke Johnson, through his middle-aged character Michael Stone who is a motivational speaker and writer. Marred with loneliness and awkwardness in dealing with people, Stone feels everyone is same, boring and mechanical. This existential tragedy of his takes the narrative form on screen where everyone is puppets having the same voice. One of the billed reviews on the film’s poster reads “The most human film of the year”. I so agree with it that I believe the characters on screen are humans and it is just “the magic of cinema” that transforms them to look like mechanical puppets. (I went to see this film wearing a T-shirt that read “Being Human”. That would have made Gods of Cinema weep in heavens though.) When almost all the animated films are made for kids telling them the hopeful nature of life, this one is for grown-ups, showing them the pathetic nature of it.

Human form of life and its existence is most objectively and contemplatively put to discuss and debate in Michael Madsen’s docu-fiction of gob-smacking brilliance, The Visit. Assuming that planet earth has been invaded by the aliens in a spaceship, officials from UN agencies and NASA are called in to put their perspectives about the changes that our extra-terrestrial guests would bring in, if allowed to leave their spaceship and enter our world, at levels ranging from bio-chemical to political. Filmed in the style of Terrence Mallick, constituting mainly high shots and slow-motion images, The Visit distances us from the human civilization and yet looks at its vulnerabilities very closely in a deeply introspecting way. Give this film a chance; it could alter your perspective.

Come back to earth in a remote region of Andhra Pradesh, India, where humans migrated from place to another are looked at as “invaders”, where law is still dodged to bring out the animal side of humans. This is Vetrimaaran’s disturbing Visaranai (Interrogation). Visaranai demands great empathy for its principal characters – who in search of jobs have come to the city of Guntur and have been wrongly framed in a case by the police themselves. But when one character gets jokey about his teeth in a situation of which he is clueless about why is he there at first place, my empathy gets little reserved and all the brutal beatings then tend to appear as emotional porn. The director conveniently forgets them for a good screen time when he has to shoehorn a larger political nexus related crime story to shock us more, but superficially. Yet, surprisingly, his filmmaking remains smooth.

These films tell us how we are, as humans, inherently—lonely and insecure, and what we become at desperate times and measures. Amidst this chaotic movie watching experience, as I try to make sense out of it, if and when I ask myself why do I go to movies, I get my answer. To be human.

Here's another post from the 17th Mumbai Film Festival, a full length review of Ruchika Oberoi's Island City:

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