My Mumbai Film Festival Diary [2017]

4.5 days, 10 films. My thoughts, in the order that I saw them.

DAY 1 [Regal, Colaba]

The Other Side of Hope [Finland]

“Do you want to fight?”

We all have seen Alan Kurdi’s corpse on the Turkish beach and the horrific images of death and destruction in Syria over the past few years but how little do we know about the day to day struggles of the refugees who have managed to successfully reach any of the European cities and now trying to make a life out there, from scratch, in an extremely hostile environment. From Neo Nazis to Govt Courts, no one wants them around.

Aki Kaurismäki’s absurdist yet deeply humane film composed primarily of static frames, deadpan humor, and melodious folk songs sung by old people is a gut-punch that traces Khaled’s journey to give you a peek into the stark realities of a young mechanic’s struggle who have fled Aleppo to find a semblance of calm in Helsinki.

I don’t matter.” says Khaled (a brilliantly stoic Sherwan Haji) to his immigration interviewer while he recounts how he fled war torn Syria, crossed multiple borders in between and reached Finland in a coal freighter. The scene is harrowing to say the least but Khaled doesn’t show a single emotions during the entire scene. His only aim in life is to find his sister Miriam (the only surviving member of his family of 6) and make sure that she is okay.

You know that feeling when you are laughing out loud but weeping inside, that’s what this entire film is like. It is a reminder that tragedies can be quirky, funny, heartbreaking and poignant at the same time. My first film at the fest, couldn’t have asked for a better start.

“I am too young to die.”
Trivia: It won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Call Me By Your Name [Italy]

“Is there anything you don’t know?”

This Sundance favorite was on my must-watch list and was the reason why I chose to spend the weekend at Regal, Colaba (major props to @MumbaiFilmFest for the brilliant selection of films at Regal this year). This James Ivory screenplay based on the 2007 steamy novel by Andre Aciman & directed by Luca Guadagnino is a lovely lovely film that feels like a sexually charged cool summer breeze filled with beautiful piano riffs, delicious food, and hormonal confusion.

A very handsome and intelligent 24 year old Oliver (Armie Hammer, who is a 32 year old Greek God in real life) spends a summer in 1983 at Professor Perlman’s (Michael Stuhlbarg, who I recently saw in A Single Man, is such a delicate and beautiful actor, perfectly cast for this role) villa in Lombardy, becomes friends with his 17 year old son Elio (utterly gorgeous Timothee Chalamet) and helps him explore who he actually is.

Saving you from any spoilers, let me just say that it was the most sensuous film of the fest and it almost makes you feel like a voyeur. If you see it (and you should), you will never be able to look at a peach the same way again.

Special shout out to Sufjan Stevens for gorgeously capturing the mood of the film so well.

Full disclosure: This film made me a little uncomfortable because I did not know the age gap between Elio and Oliver beforehand. Doesn’t matter because Armie Hammer is fighting tooth and nail to defend it anyways.

And here, 42 seconds of pure bliss —

DAY 2 [Regal, Colaba]

The Square [Sweden]

“You have nothing.”

I wanted to watch this film for three reasons -

  1. Elizabeth Moss (who plays a journalist Anne) who’s had such a stellar run this year with The Handmaid’s Tale & Top of the Lake so far.
  2. I absolutely loved Ruben Östlund’s last film, Force Majeure.
  3. It won the Cannes Palme d’Or this year.

This hugely entertaining and woke satire takes a peek at the life of a Modern Art Museum curator Christian (the dashing n suave Claes Bang) who’s hired a PR agency to create a new campaign for his next art installation called ‘The Square’. He also loses his phone, wallet and cuff-links which makes for a hilarious parallel track and sleeps with Anne who owns an animal you wouldn’t usually see as a pet.

This film does a great job dissecting our ‘Viral Content’ obsessed marketing world and calls out the hypocrisy of not only the pretentious farce that Modern Art (in the name of freedom of speech & artistic liberty) sometimes can be (the Beast terrorizing the dinner guests is perhaps the most freaky 10 mins of the fest for me, if I don’t count Mother!), but also of faux-feminism — in a superbly written exchange between Christian and Anne about the role of power in sex.

Fun fact: The beast is played by Terry Notary, who contributes motion-capture performances to the Planet of the Apes films. Ha!

You can’t afford to miss it if you work in advertising/marketing/PR (how not to do it) or journalism (how to do it right). It’s a hysterical film and a gobsmackingly glorious achievement.

“So what’s my name?”

The Florida Project [USA]

“I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”

Sean Baker’s follow-up to the highly acclaimed Tangerine, which was shot entirely on an iPhone. This time, he co-writes, edits and directs this beauty of a film that follows 6 year old Moonee (an unforgettably cute and spunky Brooklyn Prince) in the sweltering Florida summer heat. She stays in a low-rent motel called Magic Castle, right outside Disney World with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, found via Instagram, in a career defining breakout role). The motel is managed by Bobby, played by William Defoe with utmost love and kindness. He does everything in his power to make life easier for the kids, though the kids don’t spare a single chance to make his life hell.

The film, which can be deservedly called our generation’s Paper Moon, is about how Halley is conjuring up new schemes to collect the weekly rent money and how her mother’s derailed life is shaping up the impressionable Moonee into becoming a person she shouldn’t be. She is creative, smart, intelligent and brave. In an ideal world, she would have access to the education and resources needed to kick ass, but in the current Trumpian dystopia that we inhabit where poverty is imagined to be a ‘state of mind’ by some dumbfucks (nope, it isn’t just Rahul Gandhi), leftover pancakes is her daily meal and spitting on cars is a substitute for Legos. The brilliantly edited muted climax that inter-cuts between Halley and Moonee arguing with Child Services officers is a heart-breaking harbinger of sorts for Moonee’s future.

My initial thoughts upon exiting the theater were mixed. I thought the second half left me wanting for more, but the fact that I couldn’t get Moonee out of my head even after so many days tells me that the film was successful in doing what it set out to do. It made me fall in love with and worry for Moonee, a bright impoverished kid from Florida living on the edge of paradise. I wish her the coolest life possible.

And I hope Sean gets all the money in the world to make the kind of films he is making. Here’s his story, in his own words —

“Yeah Mom, you’re disgraced.”
Fun Fact: The Florida Project was an early development name for Disney World.

DAY 3 [PVR, Juhu]

Bright Sunshine In [France]

Supposedly a rom-com, but turned out to be a boring pretentious art fart. Even Juliette Binoche’s perfectly sculpted cheekbones and gorgeous smile couldn’t save it. Walked out after 40 minutes.

Mother! [USA]

“You don’t love me. You just love the fact that I love you so much.”

Disclaimer: This is not a horror film. It’s something way more sinister & profound.

A woman sitting a few rows behind me shrieked so hard upon witnessing a particularly disturbing scene that I literally skipped a few heartbeats. That should tell you how powerful watching this film in a dark theater with equally terrified people must have been like.

This religious/political allegory, shot mostly on a handheld cam comprising of suffocating close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence (poor thing!), starts out as a pretty normal tale of a husband (Javier Bardem, credited only as ‘Him’) and wife living in a remote house in a faraway place and soon spirals into a twisted hyperventilating orgy of fear, anxiety, paranoia, & apocalyptic frenzy. I don’t claim to have fully understood the film, though I strongly believe that it could be definitely making a statement about the perils of domestication of women and men’s general entitlement/ego, but the 121 minutes that I spent seeing it unfold, layer by layer, were perhaps the most tense and nerve-wrecking 2 hours that I enjoyed at the fest. I was on the edge of my seat throughout and I literally couldn’t take my eyes off of the grotesque yet beautifully immersive imagery, thanks to Matthew Libatique’s superlative camera work.

Fucked up, bizarre, intensely metaphorical, unflinchingly original, visually and aesthetically striking and deliciously evil. Darren Aronofsky, who wrote the first draft in just 5 days!, has crafted a cinematic masterpiece.

I feel bad for the people in India who wouldn’t be able to see the uncensored version on the big screen because there is no way our censor board can allow you to witness the stuff that I fortunately did. Wait for the torrent and watch it on the biggest TV you can find.

Do not watch the trailer or read any reviews. Go as uninitiated as possible. It’s a gorgeous nightmare. Let it scare the living shit out of you.

DAY 4 [PVR, Andheri]

Loveless [Russia]

“The stats are on your side.”

I have never loved anyone.” confesses Zhenya, the 32 year old mother of a 12 year old kid, to her 47 year old would-be second husband while lying naked beside him. The man remains silent.

“Would you leave us too?” asks the 24 year old pregnant would-be second wife of Boris (father of the same kid) while lying naked beside him. The man changes the topic.

Boris (an average joe Alexie Rosin) and Zhenya (an otherworldly gorgeous and perfectly bitchy Maryana Spivak) are going through a bitter separation. The only things holding them back is their child Alexey. He knows that he is a burden and can’t stop himself from crying all the time.

The kid, the adults, the relationships. They all are loveless in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s stark, terrifying tale of a missing child. The first half is extraordinary when it shows the glimpses of Boris and Zhenya’s lives separately. The film drags a bit in the second half when it becomes a procedural about the rescue mission of the missing child (major Prisoners vibe). But the climax leaves you utterly disturbed and a little satisfied for knowing the misery these two have been and will go through. Schadenfreude, FTW!

If you needed a lesson in understanding why you shouldn’t marry at a young age and not have kids with people you don’t really love, look nowhere else.

“Useless idiot!”
Trivia: Russia’s official Oscar entry.

Summer 1993 [Spain]

“Would you like to talk to your mother?”

I had to miss ‘On Body and Soul’ to see this one and I am so happy that I chose this as this is hands down the best film of the fest for me personally.

6 year old Frida (Laia Artigas), after losing her mother to AIDS, goes to live with her uncle Esteve. The film observes how Frida is adapting to her new surroundings while coping with the trauma of her mother’s death and how Esteve, his wife Marga and their 4 year old daughter Anna ((this kid stole my heart!)) are accepting her as a part of the family.

Carla Simon, in an exceptionally poignant and moving semi-autobiographical debut shows that children are extremely sensitive, smart, observant and they go through a whole gamut of complex human emotions even if they can’t find the right words to express what they feel. Jealousy, insecurity, grief, loneliness, feeling left out, unwanted, unloved or overlooked. Summer 1993 wins you over because Frida acts out all these emotions and many more, so effortlessly and naturally, with barely any help from the spoken word. It’s all in the eyes and the body language. It is literally a miracle to get the kind of performances that Carla managed to extract from Frida and Anna. In a post screening Q&A she explained how she spent weeks with the kids at the shoot location in Catalonia and rehearsed the scenes multiple times. (She had to act out the lines so both the kids could imitate her)

The climax, which is perhaps the most beautiful scene of the entire fest for me, broke my heart into a million pieces. The sheer brilliance of the writing and performances in that scene is bound to leave you with a huge lump in your throat. Moonee and Frida, both 6 year olds are going to stay with me for a long long time.

“Frida, finish your milk.”
Trivia: It won the The Golden Gateway Award in International competition section at MAMI and the Best First Feature Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Sweet Country [Australia]

I shot a Whitefella

Where do you get your blackstock from?” asks Harry, an ill-tempered cruel war veteran who has recently shifted in the neighborhood of Fred (Sam Neil).

“We are all equal here. We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord.” responds the benevolent preacher Fred before lending his personal slave Sam Kelly and his wife to Harry to help him out.

Harry’s sadistic treatment of the native workers and his murderous temper culminates into Sam (Hamilton Morris, an Aboriginal non professional actor making a splendid debut) shooting him in self defense and fleeing with his pregnant wife. The chief Sergeant, along with 3 others including Fred, chase after him.

That’s the premise of this gorgeously shot (by Warwick Thornton, who also directed it) and idiosyncratically edited brutal western set in the Australian outback of 1920s. What made it an absolute winner is the fact that it never got self serious and at the same time never lost sight of the gravity of the subject matter it was dealing with. It was equal part hilarious and moving, and it made all the right points without becoming preachy for a second. Films like these are necessary & important for people like me who probably would never know about the indigenous history of another country in such detail if not for amazing films like these. A genuinely pleasant surprise, something Tarantino can learn a thing or two from.

PS: I LOVED the fact that this film had NO background score.

“No, Boss.”
Trivia: It won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

DAY 4.5 [PVR, Andheri]

The Departures [Japan]

“This is death.”

“What are the three things you will leave behind when you die?”

A Buddhist priest, Ittetsu Nemoto, asks this to a group of suicidal people and take them through a ‘corporate training seminar’ type exercise (kinda like a ‘Death Workshop’) to help them understand why they shouldn’t rush to check-out so soon.

Nemoto, who works as a suicide prevention counselor in Japan, receives in-numerous messages, emails and calls throughout the day (“I fail at everything I try.” “I should just disappear.” “Nothing’s left here for me.”). He has devoted his life to save people from taking theirs. But this devotion is taking a toll on his own health and family.

Lana Wilson, in this minimal documentary, leaves the camera around Nemoto to just observe his life, the time he spends with his wife and daughter, his interactions with his ‘patients’, his trips to hospitals for his own ailments, and his disco visits where he dances on EDM (he used to be a punk musician before he decided to become a priest when he saw an ad that said — “Priests required. No prior experience needed”. He still drives a BMW bike.)

Throughout the film, I just couldn’t help but marvel at the patience and empathy Nemoto carried in his heart while grappling with his own impending mortality.

This slow-burning lyrical meditation on the meaning of life, death, and the will to endure everything in between was my last film of the fest. A perfect closure to a frenzied 4 days of sensory overload.

So long, MAMI!