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Copyright 2004




International Film festival of India 2002: Rare gems

ONE learnt the art of wading through tens of movies to try and find the rare gems at the recent International Film Festival of India in New Delhi (October 2002). One found them all right, but unfortunately they came unannounced and often went unnoticed and unsung.

A classic example of this was the package from Japan. Most of it was shown at a theatre far away from the main venue, Siri Fort, and very few Festival delegates were able to budget for the time involved in travelling back and forth. The result, most screenings had half a dozen viewers!

There were at least three Japanese works that kept one's attention riveted on the screen. Jun Ichikawa's "Tokyo Marigold" looks at the desperation of loneliness in today's society. When 21-year-old Eriko falls in love with a boy who already has a lover in the U.S., she begs him for his affection. When she finds that this may not happen, she asks him: "Will you be my boyfriend till your girlfriend returns after a year." Eriko understands the pain of such an arrangement: Ichikawa visualises this in a splendid scene. She gazes out of a window, sees a marigold, which blooms and dies in a year, and compares her own state of despair with that of the flower.

If Ichikawa's film is a bittersweet study of solitariness, Masato Harada's "Bounce Ko Gals" is also, in a sense, a portrayal of man's isolation. A damning look at schoolgirl prostitution in Japan, Harada's effort is aimed at telling us why this happens. There are two underlying reasons: a consumerist society and, of course, loneliness. Both drive men and women to sell and buy sex. If Maru gets into crime and the world of gangsters in her quest to buy the world's top designer labels, older men lavish her with money and material, because they themselves lead an unwanted existence, where the slightest of attention is like spring in snow. Harada's is a powerful social documentation, narrated with restraint, even pain. There really is not a single frame that is either exaggerated or unnecessary.

In contrast, Hisashi Saito in his "A Painful Pair" (Itai Futari) uses humour to tell us about relationships, one of them quite peculiar. Ryo and Natsu are married, they feel each other's pain, literally. When one gets hurt, the other winces. In a series of delightful scenes, Saito questions the very meaning of marriage: the couple are shown cheating on each other, and when the woman conceives the man is in a dilemma. "I will die," he pleads with her, afraid of the agony he would have to suffer when she brings the baby out. Although, Saito loses his grip at the end, one does not fail to appreciate what he is trying to get at.

Japanese society is increasingly getting disenchanted with intimacy, fast becoming a singles-only community. In fact, according to recent surveys most women at 30 are unmarried. Many men at 40!

However, this is not special to Japan, we were told. Israel's Lina and Slava Chaplin presented an impossible love story in "A Trumpet in the Wadi". A talented trumpet player and a smart travel agent have the right magic to hold them spellbound in their attraction for each other. But the guy is a Jew, and the girl is an Arab, and they live in Israel, where political and personal prejudices push the wrong keys. War and strife drive Cupid away, and the movie closes with a heavy heart, though the girl says in a show of triumphant defiance that she will keep his baby.

"Silence" was yet another marvellous peep into human emotions. It is a beautiful Easter day in a sleepy little Polish town, where a child's prank leads to a nasty motor accident. Six-year-old Magda is orphaned, and eight-year-old Simon holds himself responsible and clutches to his guilt all his life. Magda grows up, determined to let the past rest, not Simon. When they meet years later, Simon is still haunted by what he did to her, and allows his remorse and regret to cloud his feelings for her. Helmer Michael Rosa paints a picture of contrast Magda is all ready to forgive, forget and get on with life in a film that relies on soothing colours and brilliant acting to make its point. There is hardly any background score (unlike in most Indian pictures, where music is always giving us the cue: now laugh, now cry, now get angry, now feel love!), and the flawless direction is a touching reminder that there are many Simons among us who carry loads of unwanted baggage.

We do not know whether 13-year-old Janey did the same in an entry from New Zealand, Christine Jeffs' "Rain". When she seduces a much older photographer, her mother's lover, to take his pants off in a foolish attempt to be one up on her parent, she is not prepared for the consequence. Her little brother in those unsupervised moments drowns in the sea, and Janey's holiday turns into a lifelong nightmare. Or, perhaps it does not, but as the van taking her back home moves; we hear her sobs and confession of penitence.

But cinema at the Festival had its lighter or more positive approaches to make a mark of excellence. France's "The Closet" was such a delightful affair. Auteur Francis Veber weaves a multi-layered yarn and examines human behaviour in a refreshingly novel manner. We have two acting heavyweights in Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. Auteuil is an accountant in a firm that is about to fire him, but a psychologist neighbour suggests that he pretend to be a gay. He does, and his bosses think that it will be politically correct to let him stay. In a series of fun frames, Veber strips the onion to its core and lets us sneak into a world of inspiring souls. Auteuil's lady boss finds herself suddenly attracted to him, his divorced wife too sees something new in him. In an utterly witty scene, we see the boss and the "gay" making love furiously in the office while a team of Japanese businessmen watch in bemused wonder. What is more, they are ready to place additional orders with the firm if only they will be invited to another display of flesh!

The Festival's opening and closing movies were extraordinary pieces of celluloid. Though one may not agree with the choice of "Brainstorm" (Brazil, Lais Bodanzky ) for the inaugural slot, but it is a compelling narrative on the state of mental asylums. Adolescent Nato finds himself behind the venerable fortress of a mad house, because his father suspects him to be a junkie. I am told in Brazil the insane and drug addicts are housed in the same centre. Neto experiences the humiliation and anguish of the other inmates, and what one sees here is nothing short of morbidity. However, the film ends on hope: Neto is a character based on a real Brazilian guy, who gets out of the institution and becomes a vociferous campaigner for the closure of lunatic asylums.

Not so bleak and grim was the closing shot: Finland's highly acclaimed "The Man Without A Past", by Aki Kaurismaki.One of the favourities at Cannes last May, it is "sublime, comic, meditative, liberating and philosophical". Indeed, "The Man Without A Past" is all this, and, maybe much more. It does go to Kaurismaki's credit and experience that he was able to make a film so simple and yet so profound. In any case, of all his works, "The Man..." is the most positive, the most humorous and the brightest by far.

The hero, played by a Kaurismaki regular, Markku Peltola, arrives in Helsinki, sits on a bench and is promptly mugged. He loses his memory, is even given up for dead in the hospital, but comes out. He cannot, of course, remember who he is, but is taken in by people who live on the social fringes. Here he finds compassion and, finally, love from a Salvation Army worker. But for these less than 10 films, the New Delhi Festival could have ended on a note of cinematic disillusion.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated October 20 2002)

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