There's nothing quite like the winter romance of mountains and the movies.
The joys of this breathtaking and passionate affair is best summed up at the annual Dharamsala International Film Festival, now in its 6th edition.
Monks, both young and old, dressed in soothing red robes, people the vibrant town, strolling across its long-winding streets. Clad stylishly in what appear Ray Bans, red sneakers, and black backpacks, they make for quite a sight.
Tourists, both local and foreign, walk the streets with the restless enthusiasm only wanderlust can inspire. At the central square is where the cinephiles gather, exchanging notes about what to watch and what to skip, and where to find the most delicious Momos (it's at the Tibet Kitchen btw, a lovely restaurant just around the corner of the square).
Assembled under trying circumstances and functioning with modest resources, DIFF opened Thursday evening at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) near the Dal lake, about 10 minutes away from Dharamsala's main town, McLeod Ganj.
Free from the tempting vanities that the Mumbai Film Festival seductively pulls off, Dharamsala Film Festival, like the actor Adil Hussain said, is a great festival because 'there is no red carpet.'
Hussain, a naturally gifted actor, who sprung up on the scene with his layered performance in Gauri Shinde's much-celebrated English Vinglish, was present at the opening ceremony as his film, Mukti Bhavan (Hotel Salvation is its international title), opened the festival.
Hotel Salvation, which translates to 'deliverance from harm', is an uniquely inspiring choice of film for a festival set in Dharamsala, a place that's largely populated by Tibetans who escaped home due to a brutal Chinese oppression in search of a safe place. The festival founders, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, are vocal critics of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and its systematic cleansing of Tibetan culture.
In that context, Hotel Salvation is also a very political choice as opening film, even if it's incidental and not deliberate.
The film has been often cited as the best film of the year. At least that was the case until Amit Masurkar's Newton came along.
Directed by debutant Shubhashish Bhutiani, who was only 23 when he pitched the idea to Hussain, Mukti Bhavan is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of life and death and of troubled parent-offspring relationships.
As Hussain's character, Rajiv, takes his father to the titular hotel, where the elderly come to peacefully transition into the realm of the unknown, the film very subtly nudges one into examining our own attitudes towards mortality, parents as well as how their upbringing influences the way we end up treating our children. Incidentally, this was also one of the underlying themes in Titli.
Hussain and Behl have a fractured father-son relationship and it's this very complexity that Bhutiani explores with nuance and subtlety.
On the deathbed, can you get yourself to despise your father, or even love him fully, for the decisions that dramatically altered the course of your life? Hate, bitterness, distance are all components of the larger sentiment of love which overpowers most feelings in Hotel Salvation's morbid yet deeply funny universe.
The film has a terrific ensemble, led by Hussain and supported ably by Lalit Behl (who played the quietly sinister patriarch in Kanu Behl's Titli), Palomi Ghosh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Navnidra Behl.
Hussain spoke about how he drew out this part from his personal experience of having had a troubled relationship with his father, who wanted him to become a professor of English and not an actor. It was only in the last two years of his late father's life did he come around to approving his career choice, after watching an interview of his on the BBC.
About his performance, Hussain said, "I have learnt to be responsive and not reactive. I tend to internalise and hold back my emotions. Whatever seeps out is the performance you see on-screen."
Incidentally, Hussain's acting mentor, the legendary Barry John, was in the audience. About the film, Barry said, "A film like Mukti Bhavan is so moving and one is at a loss for words. There are so many emotions one experiences that one doesn't know how to cope with it."
It couldn't have been summed up in a better way.
The festival will continue until the weekend, where Rima Das' MAMI-favorite, Village Rockstars, plays as the closing film.
Among other films to be screened at the 4-day long festival include India's Oscar-entry Newton, Konkona Sen Sharma's A Death in the Gunj, and Rahul Jain's, Machines.
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