When do you know a film festival has hit the ground running? When there is a little bit of chaos and lot of excitement in air. A city like Mumbai is always going to be a curious location for a film festival. Do you pack it all in in what is originally the Bombay town? Or do you spread it across the city? Apparently the former used to be the norm. Everything was clubbed around a small area. This way you didn’t have to get yourself from one end of the city to another. But now almost every film has a screening at every part of the city. Five locations. But people will still find ways to complain. When I sat down for my first screening in the fest – Francofonia from Alexander Sokurov – I heard snatches of conversation about it being a hassle to get from one part of the town to another because the schedule for two films you don’t want to miss are clashing in your location. But this way it is accessible for everyone is how that conversation ended. And curious choice of words like “we’ll hit X then we’ll hit Y” X and Y being your choice of movies. Hit is it? We are playing Battleship for the next one week.
What may not be termed immediately accessible though is Francofonia. It’s a documentary but at the same time not exactly one. It’s presented in curious ways and that’s enough to hold one’s attention. In simple terms, it’s a straight forward must watch if you love to – like me – soak yourself in nuggets of history and lose yourself inside museums. Sokurov tracks the history of Louvre, since the very beginning and mainly during the Second World War when Germany controlled France and Paris was declared an open city. Paintings come alive in Francofonia, both literally and figuratively. We have Marianne coming alive and wandering inside the present day museum like a tourist. Then there is Napoléon Bonaparte himself – still very full of himself – talking about his plunder and what drove him towards historic artifacts. Sokurov builds on this art as the central justification for wars and how two people – one French museum director and a German commander come together in not so explicit ways to preserve the museum during the Second World War. Time bends in Francofonia and this is also invoked by Sokurov (who narrates). We see him trying to contact a captain in the seas – Dirk – but repeatedly loses connection. The captain is caught in a storm and is carrying some museum artifacts in his ship. It seems like Dirk is from another era but Sokurov is trying to connect to him using his present day computer. There is archival footage, there is history recreated where Sokurov has some fun with aspect ratios. He films the interiors of Louvre with a childlike affection and helpfully has tourists of all sizes placed for us to get the scale of the magnificence inside. Francofonia is rewarding and affecting, and Sokurov’s healthy disregard for the other symbol of France – the Eiffel tower – must be noted. With him, it’s all about the Louvre.
My second film of the day was going to be Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster which unfortunately got postponed. Not a surprising thing in any festival but it was apparently the second of the day with half of it still left to go. With not many choices left and having traveled to a different theatre, I sneaked into Heavenly Nomadic, a film from Kyrgyzstan. And now it feels like a film festival! Where else would you get to watch a Kyrgyz film? It’s a debut feature from director Mirlan Abdykalykov and it’s the sort of film that can probably be filed under art-lite? Its filmmaking is rich and inspired while its sensibilities are more of the everyday kind. Heavenly Nomadic asks questions of the old and the new – of cities, villages, open spaces and mountains and more importantly of ideas. The cinematography is exquisite, capturing a family living in a sun kissed valley with their horses. There are occasional attempts at humor whenever things become intense, mostly provided by the little girl Umsunai – performed wonderfully by Jibek Baktybekova – and the camera stays still. Heavenly Nomadic doesn’t explore any of its central themes as extensively as it could have. Just like the problems of its protagonists, it chooses to deal with everything at a micro level. Art-lite alright.
A nomad is what becomes of Dr. Srinivas Siras (Manoj Bajpai) in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh that opened the festival (Not really as the screening was held well past shows in other theatres had begun). He’s suspended from his position at the Aligarh Muslim University (curiously, at a lot of places the film refers to it as AU and not AMU) for his sexual orientation. After his allotted quarters is taken away, he moves to a different house, then a hotel and then again. None of the people who drive him out give him a straightforward reason. Aligarh is a powerful film and an important one even if it is rough around the edges. Mehta stops short of making the character melodramatic or overly sympathetic to us by coloring him with a tinge of black humor. When asked about the court case, Siras observes how they are boring. He mentions how the decision to not commit suicide was a good one because now at least he can have a drink. More than the homosexual angle, Aligarh concerns itself with the idea of privacy in the modern life or lack thereof. We are shown the incident that sets off the events in Aligarh in installments. We first see what happens before then we see what is, for all purposes, breaking and entering, and then we see what happens after. Mehta places these scenes at different points in the film and it creates an inquisitive atmosphere where we are the ones prying into a personal life. The court scenes are written at a pitch that is in conflict with the rest of the film and there too Mehta never shows the judge. He films the case from the focus of the judge’s seat and it is we who become one. While Bajpai and his performance are the strong points of Aligarh, Rajkummar Rao’s Deepu Sebastian is a little generic for my liking. There is noise all around him. Either from the motor in his paying guest room or in the media he is part of that wants to make human interest stories into sex scandals. There is another scene in the end when Sebastian is informed something at a funeral that is so tonally off compared to rest of the film. But Aligarh deals with a topic that is too sensitive especially in the current political climate. Delhi High Court ruling of Section 377 as unconstitutional in 2009 was an important device in the Siras case. The film gets ready for its mainstream release just over a couple of years after Section 377 was upheld by the Supreme Court of India.
(An edited version of this was published in Silverscreen)