At MAMI, The Films Were Fictional, But The Fear Was Real

Many of the movies exhibited at the Mumbai Film Festival stayed away from controversial political topics, but politics was a running theme at the after-parties.
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone poses during the opening ceremony of the 21st MAMI Mumbai film festival in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone poses during the opening ceremony of the 21st MAMI Mumbai film festival in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

“Right now, for me, there isn’t that much at stake,” said the director, sipping a martini at Juhu’s Soho House. “For Aamir and Shah Rukh, the threat is on a different level altogether,” he concluded, staring into the distance.

It was the end of October but Mumbai’s skies hadn’t got the message. Thunderstorms reverberated out over the Arabian Sea, making for a melodramatic background score, a trope rarely found in the films exhibited at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), which had organised this soirée.

Occasionally, Cecconi’s, the Italian restaurant which was the venue of the shindig, would be lit up by a flash of lightning, creating an ominous vibe. Inside, an assorted bunch of actors, producers, directors and important-looking delegates of varying nationalities hobnobbed and hung around, lamenting Bombay’s ‘London-esque’ weather and lauding the new Almodovar film.

The director, one of the most successful filmmakers in the country, was speaking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most recent attempts to coax Bollywood’s brightest stars to turn into unofficial ambassadors for Brand Modi. On October 21, a galaxy of Hindi film stars landed at his official residence to participate in a ‘cultural event’ that marked the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

The director I was in conversation with said he was also wooed by Modi’s footsoldiers, but had resisted.

“We need to turn our medium into the message,” he said. “What one was embarrassed to say in private is now said out loud with pride because this regime has emboldened such voices. We need to push back with the same decibel levels. Only then can they hear it.”

Medium into message? By making obsequious movies about government schemes and biopics that take such liberties with the truth they could be replaced with actual party propaganda and no one could tell the difference?

Most big Bollywood names haven’t even made a token attempt to resist the pressure, allowing themselves to be co-opted with the ease of a star kid landing a Dharma film.

As I excused myself to get a refill, the director said, “Watch out for yourself, man.”

That gave me pause. Having covered MAMI for the past seven years, I can’t remember people talking in hushed whispers, cautioning others to ‘watch out’ for merely doing their jobs.

“You too,” I instinctively replied, the interaction bringing to the fore a thought I had tried to squash earlier: asking people to be cautious is the new normal.

Venice, Cannes and propaganda

Film festivals have never claimed to be apolitical. The oldest film festival in the world, at Venice, was conceived under Mussolini’s regime, with the top prize at the fest being called the ‘Mussolini Cup.’ In its early years, Venice had such strong bias towards propaganda films that the Cannes film festival was started in France to counter this.

While MAMI, under the stewardship of Anupama Chopra, Kiran Rao (now replaced by Deepika Padukone) and Smriti Kiran, has tried to project a woke image—last year, they called off the annual movie mela in honour of the #MeToo movement and organised panels to discuss the issue—the festival in itself isn’t overtly political. For instance, this year, hardly any of the feature-length films dealt with politically controversial topics, but the short film section featured a number of dissenting voices.

A celebrated documentarian, who made a film about growing saffronisation, told me that his film didn’t make the cut at the fest.

“They, too, have to kowtow to the government,” he said.

The conversation around current politics may not be reflected in the films, but was a running theme at MAMI’s many parties.

“Subversion is the key. We need to find ways of saying what we want to say without being explicit about it,” an actress told me. “My problem with the industry is that a good lot of them are vocally supportive of the government. I don’t think that Kangana Ranaut actually is a rabid right-winger but she knows that being seen as one is insurance for whatever is coming next.”

Things hit #PeakIrony when a panel discussion on artistic freedom, moderated by Anupama Chopra, barely mentioned the threat of censorship looming over streaming studios such as Netflix and Hotstar.

“We’ll respect the law of the land,” seemed to be the template answer that Netflix and Amazon bosses clung to when asked about the I&B Ministry’s plans to roll out ‘guidelines’ to police content on the Internet.

But Nandita Das’s chat with Palestenian filmmaker Hani Abu-Assad more than made up for that, with the celebrated director speaking about art being a tool of political resistance.

“Art for art’s sake is a nonsense concept. It was not bullshit 200 years ago because it was a protest movement. Now it doesn’t make sense. True mission of art is to make you think,” he said, speaking about how he tapped into his own experience as a Palestinian to make his films.

UNO, Dabangg and another warning

Much like previous editions of the festival, UNO cards emerged from black-and-orange sling bags, as anxious moviegoers entertained themselves while waiting in serpentine queues. Given that Hindi cinema’s enfant terrible, Anurag Kashyap, had two films that he helped produce playing at the fest (Cargo, Saand Ki Aankh), the running joke was that MAMI should be called the “Anurag Kashyap Film Festival.”

The young and the restless were, as always, young and restless.

A first-time filmmaker, whose movie got a standing ovation, looked rather sombre at an after-party. When asked why, he said, “MAMI mein to Dabangg ko bhi standing ovation mil sakta hai. I need this in Cannes.”

“My film isn’t gonna make it to the Riviera, I think only Juhu Versova is gonna watch it,” said another young filmmaker, before inviting me for a screening of his film that was scheduled for the next day.

There was also the reminder that often, big deals are cut behind the scenes of revelry.

A dynamic producer, one of India’s biggest indie exports, was watching the proceedings from a distance. When I went up to say hello, she said, “This is my favorite time of the year. Because this,”—pointing at the party goers—“is where I get a lot of my potential deals closed.”

Any that I know of? “You’ll hear it in a week’s time.”

As I soaked the celebrations in, it was hard not to feel like a character from a Madhur Bhandarkar movie (but with good production values and better-dressed people). So, here I was. After a week of feasting on cinematic treasures by Kore-eda, Eggers, Herzog and Har’el, Bombay happily grooved to Baby Doll and Balam Pichkari at the closing party at JW Marriott, the foreign guests trying their best to match steps awkwardly.

Then an old acquaintance, now an established producer, spotted me. Without interrupting my hook step, she leaned in, and gave a tip-off. “Vikas Bahl has started pitching his next to producers. He’s gonna get the money, one way or the other,” she said with disappointment. “They all get away, don’t they?”