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Calcutta Film Festival: Exciting themes but ...

IT poured in Calcutta/ Kolkata, the wind blew with frightening alacrity, but the city's residents, armed with their umbrellas more as a psychological shield rather than any real barrier against the foul weather, queued up outside the theatres to watch the frames of the recentCalcutta/Kolkata Film Festival flash by. There was never a time when the auditoriums at the main venues of Nandan and Rabindra Sadan were less than packed: there were men and women sitting on the aisles and passages or standing at the doorways trying to catch a glimpse of an Angelopoulous or an Aparna Sen. At times, cops, sans their caps, sneaked in to savour a few moments of cinematic ecstasy. Such was the passion, such was the desire to be part of an annual artistic exercise.

But the Festival disappointed a critic: it had few contemporary works to show. And no festival can ride on its retrospectives and tributes alone.

Admittedly, Calcutta/Kolkata had reels and reels of these, and most of them were just captivating. Theo Angelopoulos delighted us with his "Ulysses'Gaze" about a movie-maker's search for missing links in a creation by a Greek documentarist and "Eternity and a Day" where a terminally ill poet tries sorting out his life before he bids adieu.

Aparna Sen's 1981 "36 Chowringhee Lane" is still haunting with its refreshing innocence (an Anglo-Indian schoolteacher's tryst with loneliness and love in a relatively tranquil period), which I rediscovered in her latest, "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" (a romance, but set amidst violence). Where was Sen's "touch"' in all these intervening years?

Mani Ratnam's "Mounaragam" (1986) and "Alaipayuthey" (2000) still spelt magic, despite the passage of time. Here again, Ratnam's pictures shot between these two high points did not quite bowl one over. The only exception was "Nayakan", and a large part of the credit for this should go to Kamal Hassan.

Besides Sen and Ratnam, Marcello Mastroianni's "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "Divorce Italian Style" (1962) had the power to rejuvenate one even today, and the Festival's decision to pay homage to this wonderful Italian artist was indeed welcome. As was the move to honour Max Ophuls in a centenary tribute. All these sections were virtually mesmerising, but when the modern, current fare offered only a handful of films, which could excite.

Calcutta's/Kolkata's opening night movie, "Sons and Daughters" from Argentina, pictured a very different kind of story, where a woman's desperate attempt to find her twin brother leads to a wall of frustration. When she thinks she has found him, a DNA test plays spoil sport. But the man, whose parents too disappeared during Argentina's brutal military dictatorship in 1977, finally comes to terms with truth. He decides to look for his own biological father and mother.

Marco Bechis, who directed "Sons and Daughters", believes in simplicity. His frames are bare, his narrative is shorn of pretension. "I do no think that you need colour or great locations or beautiful faces to tell a tale. Cinema is all about acting, and if you have good performers, you can make great stuff'," he said at one of those absorbing adda (chat) sessions in Calcutta/ Kolkata. "These are merely frills. They help one to fool an audience into falling in love with your work." Bechis' words of wisdom may well anger many among his ilk, especially in India, whose celluloid extravaganza almost borders on the vulgar and is often found wanting in content.

In contrast, some of the international movies at the Festival had the power to enslave with their bold themes or innovative stories or disarmingly simple approaches. Can you believe that there was a full length 100-minute Iranian entry on a fake bank note? Called "Iranian Spread", by Sofreh Irani, it traces the journey of a counterfeit piece of paper, but this journey is merely incidental, it is only a means to paint the canvas of a community. Right from the time, the note is picked from the pocket of a small boy, the film explores and analyses human emotions among a people. Divided though they may be by geographical, cultural and ethnics differences, the men and women show surprising similarity when they are confronted by the fake. There are almost humorous situations: when a woman at a medical clinic tries to palm it off to an unsuspecting receptionist, and when an art dealer is foxed by the way his wife has been cheated. Irani must be patted for his courage to transform a threadbare tale into a flawless script. Indeed, a case of a pulling rabbits out of a hat.

The only other Indian director that I can readily think of for being equally daring in our times is K. Hariharan, whose Hindi picture, "Current", was deftly woven around an electricity bill !

At Calcutta/Kolkata, there were a few movies that might not have had great stories to show, but were, nonetheless, picturised impressively. Canada's "Tar Angel" depicts the pain of an Algerian family when the son sets on a social crusade to help illegal immigrants. When it finally manages to get its Canadian papers, it discovers that it had paid a heavy price. Denis Couinard handles anger, passion and sorrow with ample restraint, thus preventing his work from degenerating into one long sob.

Italy gave us an another opportunity to look at teen trouble: Federica Martino's "Beauty Queen Olivia". Sixteen-year-old Olivia is humiliated at school and abused at home by her stepfather. She is ready to die, when she strikes a friendship with another girl, a relationship that marks a turning point in Olivia's existence. The film's strong narrative and realistic characterisation often leads to frustrating points, because the director remains undecided about his aims. It slips into an ambitious jumble, watchable, but never entirely satisfying.

Other movies, such as "A Cab for Three" (by Chile's Orlando Lubbert), "Bolivar Am I" (Colombia's Jorge Ali Triana) and "Last Supper at the Arabian Gray Horse" (by Hungarian master Miklos Jansco) had plenty of cinematic appeal to keep one glued to the seats.

The first follows three thieves in a taxi as they go along merrily waylaying unsuspecting passersby, the second talks about the disappointment of an actor told to do the role of a Colombian hero in a way he disapproves, and the third strings together the adventures of a pair of gravediggers. Interesting subjects, but marred in a way by a certain feeling of dissatisfaction. This, in short, was also the problem with the Calcutta/Kolkata Festival: exciting themes but halfhearted handling at times.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated December 1 2002)

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