There is one thing that a growing number of people that I speak to seem to have a problem with at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival. It would’ve been fine to see it a couple of times, maybe, and I think everyone appreciates the sentiment behind it. But every time it comes on, before every single screening, I hear a chorus of ‘tchs’ and ‘pffts’ around me.
I’m referring, of course, to the version of the national anthem that has been preceding every screening at the PVR multiplexes during this festival. A tribute to the heroes of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, it begins with a voice-over by Farhan Akhtar that explains how this version is a tribute to the heroes of 26/11, before showing us sombre drone shots of the police officers, fire officials, hotel staff and others who displayed exceptional courage during that horrific tragedy.
It’s a great sentiment, sure, but there are two problems with it. The first: I don’t know if there’s any larger advantage to having nationalism forced down our throats at a film festival and forcing some people, perhaps, to relive what might be traumatic memories. It’s bad enough that Maharashtra is one of the few states that enforces this rule for regular public screenings anyway.
Secondly, this may sound puerile, but the film that accompanies the anthem is such a tacky effort that were I a chest-thumping nationalist, I’d waste no time in calling it an anti-national, foreign-funded conspiracy to malign Hinduism and, therefore, India.
The montage — scored by Salim-Sulaiman and featuring the voices of renowned singers such as Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal, and Kailash Kher — begins with a typo-filled slate (it pays tribute to “martys”, for example). Akhtar’s uninspiring voice-over asks us to stand up for the ‘rashtra geet’ (which actually refers to the national song i.e. ‘Vande Mataram’; ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is the ‘rashtra gaan’). It ends with another that informs us that this is the work of a company called ‘Fadoo Media’ (‘fadoo’ is slang for ‘awesome’), which makes me wonder how the Mumbai Police ever took them seriously.
Irritated festival-goers have already come up with unique ways to amuse themselves during this mandatory experience. A friend, for instance, always gets a chuckle out of the presence of an awkward extra lurking next to a fire-truck in one of the shots. Another gets a kick out of how several shots go out of focus. Hey, it’s a film festival — how else did they think people would react?
Moving on from this, Tuesday was another interesting day at the movies that began for me with Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia. A docu-fiction mood piece that moves with surprising playfulness through decades of French history, it struck me as a compelling and worthy companion piece to his 2002 masterpiece Russian Ark (a seamless-looking, one-take film that came out more than a decade before Birdman).
French director Philippe Garrel’s In The Shadow Of Women was next. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is an inexpressive documentary filmmaker who works closely with his wife Manon (a wonderful Clotilde Courau, who looks like an older Anushka Sharma). From the outside, they seem to have a wonderful marriage (in one scene, a friend asks if they ever fight, to which Manon responds by taking responsibility for all quarrels); however, it soon transpires that both Pierre and Manon are being unfaithful to each other.
This is familiar territory and there is nothing surprising about this film at all, but the film’s nimbleness as well as its performances come together to make this a minor-but-satisfying study of the male ego.
I won’t write much about Michel Gondry’s Microbe And Gasoline, which is a fun, easy watch that doesn’t tax your brain much — think of it as a more accessible version of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom minus the breathtaking directorial flourishes. Instead, here are my thoughts on Jacques Audiard’s Golden Palm winner Dheepan, which is the film I ended my day with.
I had my reservations about Dheepan despite the accolades and great reviews, especially after it wasn’t chosen as France’s entry to the Oscars this year despite being a French production (even though much of it is in Tamil). I walked, therefore, into the theatre with far more realistic expectations.
This immigrant drama tells the story of Sri Lankan refugee and LTTE fighter Dheepan Natarajan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a real-life LTTE member making his acting debut here) and the life he begins in Paris with his ‘wife’ Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan, a theatre actress from Chennai) and ‘daughter’ Illaayal (Claudine Vinasithamby).
With ‘family’ in tow, Dheepan becomes a caretaker in a rough Parisian neighbourhood, while Yalini finds work as a maid. The first two-thirds of the film depict how they adjust to a hard life in a new land, punctuated by some heavy-handed visual imagery. Despite its loose structure and a few unanswered questions, this portion of the film worked quite well for me as it satisfyingly played with themes of displacement and acceptance. It also helps that the actors are uniformly stellar, with standout work from Jesuthasan and Srinivasan.
The larger problem with Dheepan, however, is its refusal to fully develop any one thread of the story, cramming in as much as it can while conveniently forgetting others (Illaayal, sent to a French school where she finds it difficult to make friends, disappears for a good portion of the movie). The final portion, culminating in a Taxi Driver-like act of righteous bloodshed, is flat-out ridiculous. The epilogue, even more unbelievable, is a complete cop-out.
Moral of the story: don’t always go by the accolades.