A festival to remember

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The 21st Kolkota International Film Festival had an interesting mix of films even though the jury had to face certain constraints, says Shoma A. Chatterji. She runs through the films which impressed, and those which didn’t.

Amixed medley of films in the Indian Select formed one of the three segments which featured at the Kolkota International Film Festival (KIFF). One of these was the section on International Cinema. The second was the NETPAC section which featured South Asian films and the third was the Indian Select with 12 regional language films including Hindi, and three Bengali feature films. The average quality of the films in the Indian Select was lower than what one has witnessed at previous KIFFs, which made the judging easier because there was hardly any competition for the citation from the Indian Film Critics Association whose three members formed the jury. But it was also sad because it reflected the less-than-average quality of the films though in terms of subject matter, most of them were original and unique.

The other problem with films chosen to participate in the Indian Select was that they had already bagged the National Award last year which is a top award and therefore, ought not to have been considered for this competition. The jury kept them out while making their decisions on the winning film. No strict regulations and norms were decided upon during the selection. Even FIPRESCI award winners of the last year were included in the section. The FIPRESCI award is a very prestigious award bestowed by a jury composed of members from FIPRESCI which is an international organisation of film critics, with its head quarters in Munich, Germany.

The jury ended up judging eleven films in all because four were excluded for reasons explained above. The language break-up of the 15 selected films was – three films in Bengali, one in Assamese, one in Hariyanvi, two in Kannada, two in Malayalam, two in Marathi, one in Odiya, one Punjabi, one Tamil and one Hindi.

The roll-call of select films
Several films were fictionalised features of biographies, mainly of lesser known individuals who have/had contributed significantly to their chosen channels of interest/endeavour, and set out examples for others to follow. The opening film Lokabandhu (Friend of the People) directed by Dhiraj Kashyap from Assam unfolded the life and struggles of Dr. Bhubaneswar Barua who was a physician who rushed to attend to critical patients and helped them in cash or kind if he found them in poor circumstances. But he was also a freedom fighter and a passionate philanthropist. But this film was steeped in long sermons, amateurish screenplay, and theatrically structured scenario, worsened by poor performances. The doctor’s supportive wife is so marginalised that she hardly has a line to say.

I am not a He but She, is about young boy who feels imprisoned in his male body

I am not a He but She, is about young boy who feels imprisoned in his male body

Tulasi Apa (Sister Tulasi) in Odiya directed by Amiya Patnaik is also a fictionalised account of the real life educationist Padmashree Tulasi Munda who rose above her poor and low caste tribal Munda roots and fought her way through terrible obstacles and problems to help people of her marginalised, impoverished and oppressed class of Dalits; she broke through the rural-urban divide effectively to go on and be bestowed with the Padmashri. Enriched by some powerful and convincing performances by the lead characters, the film fails to impress because it takes a very long time to come to the point and the cinematography, though imaginatively conceived, does not come across in lucid imagery.

Saankal (Shackle) in Hindi directed by Dedpiya Joshi brings across the terrible truth of a concocted custom among some Muslim communitiesin Rajasthan. During the Partition, for those families who did not go across to Pakistan, the gender divide got tilted in favour of females. As a consequence, several girls remained single till a relatively older age. To get rid of the stigma that attaches to families where girls are unmarried, these communities devised a new custom of marrying off the girls to very young boys within the community so that there was no community cross over. This meant that a girl of 26 was married off against her will to a boy of eleven. That is just half the story.

After the marriage, this young bride was subjected to repeated rape by the men in her husband’s family including the boy’s father, uncles and so on with the support of the other women in the same family. Saankal narrates the story of one girl who grows to love her boy husband as he grows up, but who cannot rescue her from her torture. She commits suicide. The story sounds very powerful but the film is that much weak in terms of performance, presentation, music, acting and technique. The only good thing about the film is its subject matter and the picturesque backdrop of Rajasthan.

I am not a He, but She directed by B.S. Lingadevaru is a touching story about a boy who feels distinctly uncomfortable and imprisoned in a male body with a woman within him. His increasingly effeminate behaviour, body language and manner makes him a strange person to people close to him, but his empathetic sister tries to help him. But he moves away to the city and aligns himself with his inner desire to ‘become’ a woman. The film won two National Awards this year – for best actor (Vijay) and Best Make-up Artist (Raju, Nagara).

Ghar Aaja Jeetu (Punjabi) directed by Jaswant Mintu who also edited the film is produced by Dr. Jaswinder Singh Gandhi who wrote the story. Gandhi is a certified addiction specialist working with addiction medicine at the Amrit Drug Readdiction and Research Foundation for many years. “I decided to produce the film for drug addicts, especially for their families, whose lives are destroyed by the act of a single member will stop at nothing to get money for his drugs,” says Gandhi. The film stands out because it shifts focus to his two daughters who keep waiting for him to return to normal life. “They are compelled to walk on the razor’s edge and continue to burn in the flames of drug addiction though they have not done anything to face this destructive life,” Gandhi sums up.

A still from Elizabeth Ekadashi

A still from Elizabeth Ekadashi

Pagdi, The Honour (Haryanvi) directed by Rajeev Bhatia is about an old man filled with ego and dignity. He is humiliated by everyone in the village because his younger son runs away with a rich man’s daughter from another caste, which the old man will not agree to even with his life. Yet, he rises above the social taboo and understands that custom-made laws have outlived their utility and it was time he changed and accepted the lovers with his blessings. The film bagged the National Award for the Best Haryanvi film and the Best Supporting Actress award for Baljinder Kaur in 2015. It is a well-crafted film with realistic insights woven into the commercial format without disturbing the message. But it is packaged commercially for the mainstream market and bends backwards to fit the message into the production values.

Birds with Large Wings (Malayalam) is a feature-length documentary directed by Dr. Biju which depicts the after-effects of the spraying of pesticides presented from the point of view of a photographer who visits the affected people and the places several times in search of the truth. The film explores in great detail how people in general and children in particular were so seriously harmed by the pesticide filled with endosulfan which had violated all safety norms leading to distorted growth among kids since the last 12 years. However, the film was kept beyond the jury because it was a documentary film and not a feature film.

Last Page, which won the Best Film award in the Indian Select section

Last Page, which won the Best Film award in the Indian Select section

Panhala in Marathi was not up to the mark and got lost within a maze of metaphors that did not work while Elizabeth Ekadashi is a lovely tribute to the spirit of children to win against odds, but as it had won the National Award already, it had to be excluded. Another film Mail Runner-1854 (Tamil) held great promise because it followed the journey of a mail runner, the historical precursor to the modern postman who literally ran with his mail bag from place to place to deliver letters, money orders and so on during the British rule. But it turned out to be a major disappointment because it pretended to sell the usual marketable love, song, romance, adventure, action, villainy and so on, making it a crassly commercial film probably to promote the actor who played the title role and is also the producer of the film. Ain (Malayalam) directed by Sidhartha Siva began with the best intentions but fell flat because of the confusing script that rambled this way and that to finally close in where it began, without resolving the issues involved.

Last Page (Kannada) directed by Nikhilmanjoo Lingaiyah won the Best Film Prize in the Indian Select section. It is about an old couple who live alone with the wife doing all the household chores while the husband keeps nagging her endlessly. When he falls sick and has a surgery, he slowly becomes a different man and prepares for his wife’s comfort and livelihood if he were to die suddenly. But it is the wife who dies and he tries to cope by sharing the simple joys of living with the children in the neighbourhood. The message on empathy for senior citizens comes across only through suggestion and implication, and is never loud or crude.


shoma

Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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