Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smiles and Frowns at TIFF11

Well, this was certainly not the year when I should have decided to broaden my horizons and experiment with more films at TIFF. I am usually broke by the end of the summer, so I tend to just go to one or two highly anticipated Hindi films and call it a day. This year I figured, heck, let's support Indian-ness at TIFF a little bit more consistently, and had planned an (almost) "a film a day extravaganza".


The disappointments started before the stars even rolled into town: my trusted friend and fellow Bo/Ko/Tollywood aficionada, Larissa (@elegnt_hedgehg on Twitter), had to break it to me that tickets for the much buzzed about Breakaway (about which I blogged briefly here) were sold out in less than an hour and that I would have to wait just like the rest of them until September the 30th to see it.

Just as I was falling in love with the soundtrack. It's hard to say if that was a blessing in disguise since reviews for it have been rather unkind, but what can I say, I must be a sucker for marketing because I really wanted to see it.

Despite this... um... thing. Whatever it is...

Or maybe all the more because of it!

And for crying out loud, they brought in an elephant on Yonge Street on the day of the premiere!!

But you know, I missed the elephant because of another film: Azhagarsamy's Horse. The Tamil movie at TIFF this year.

**Azhagarsamy's Horse**

Azhagarsamy's Horse is one of those films that are perfect educational material when one wants to explain the concept of "first half" and "second half" in Indian films. I would imagine it's hard for people who don't watch Indian films to understand how a movie can be excellent in one half and terrible during the other. Hollywood films are either good overall or bad overall. Azhagarsamy's Horse falls under: awful first half, brilliant second half.

The first half sets up the scene in a poor village where agriculture (and by extension rain) is the only lifeline for some hundred villagers. When it hasn't rained for a few years, unlike the resourceful bunch in Lagaan, who knew exactly what gods to pray to (the gods of cricket, obviously!), the villagers resort to all kinds of solutions, one more pathetic than the other. They all involve white magic, or better said crooks posing as priests or messengers of the Gods. And of course, they all involve the villagers rounding up what little money they have left to pay these crooks or to make sacrifices for the gods.

I think I may be a little tired of these types of shenanigans and of the side plots with the priest whose job consists of fooling the poor innocent villagers. They seem to show up in all kinds of Tamil and Telugu films, often as the comic relief, and I find it neither funny nor sympathetic. So a whole hour of these clowns parading around on the screen sure made the prospect of going out and seeing the Breakaway elephant terribly attractive. Add to that some 20 minutes of technical difficulties before the second half started and you can just about picture my long face before the second half of Azhagarsamy's Horse.

But then this little guy shows up.

And all of a sudden... we have a movie! We have a beautiful, touching story, actually several of them, we have some character development, we have some charming surprises, we have love, we have justice, we have compassion, we have forgiveness, we have friendship, and just about everything that makes for a lovely film. Truly lovely. All thanks to this one character, played superbly by Appukutty.

**Mushrooms (Chatrak)**

My next adventure was Vimukthi Jayasundara's Mushrooms (Chatrak), a French production shot in Calcutta and spoken for the most part in Bengali.

It's a very slow paced film (we're talking "2001: Space Oddysey" slow here!) about the consequences of industrialization and about the downside of progress. The grey majesty of Calcutta is shot in a masterful way which lets you ponder in between short scenes of plot development. I can't say I liked the movie, though I am certain I would have felt very positively about it had it been a 20 minute short film instead of a full feature, but it did leave me with some brilliant imagery and some profound symbolism that I am not likely to forget any time soon.


After having to revise my choice for "most awaited film at TIFF" twice, I finally defaulted to Michael, as the only much awaited film I did actually see at TIFF. Anurag Kashyap's newest production, directed by the very amiable newcomer Ribhu Dasgupta, is a psychological thriller about a former police officer who is struggling with progressive myopia. Protecting his 12 year old son and maintaining a relationship with him is the force that keeps him going and as we watch Michael fall apart we begin to experience some of that over-protectiveness ourselves, shifting our empathy from Michael to the little helpless boy.

Michael works as a thriller up to a certain point, when it becomes all too clear what is happening, but by then we are already caught in the web of curiosity so we continue watching in awe at what may or may not happen. The ending was changed by the director upon receiving feedback from people in the industry, and that in itself is sad, because they were probably right. I always have to keep in mind that us festival going audiences are not the same as the audiences in India, so where we would love to see ambiguity, other audiences would probably not. But except for this little disappointment, Michael delivers a very tender emotional story that sends the psychological aspect to the back seat which is why it worked for me. 

As always, Naseeruddin Shah shines in a role that exploits his tremendous talent to its fullest and he is beautifully complemented by young Purab Bhandari (whose talent we had the pleasure to appreciate before in the heart-melting Tahaan).

Unfortunately, even this film came with its own frown, perhaps the saddest of them all: the film is dedicated to the late Somak Mukherjee, the brilliant cinematographer who gave us Pankh and Iti Mrinalini (which I have yet to see) before Michael. A very talented man whose work in Michael deserves every praise: a film that was shot mostly at night, in a decaying Calcutta, and yet its quaint beauty shines through in every frame. Such was this man's talent. I am truly sad that I have to praise Somak Mukherjee in past tense.


Of course, the most dramatic frown of the festival was reserved to the cancellation of Mausam, a day before its world premiere. I have spent far too much time expressing my displeasure with many of the details of this fiasco, so for this post I will remain peaceful and use the paragraph to give props to the organizers at TIFF for the extremely professional way in which they handled this disaster. We got our money back the very next day and they were in excellent crisis management form. I'm sure vases were broken behind closed doors, and I can only hope TIFF never has to experience this again, but they did make me proud.

**More frowns**

Speaking of frowns, I should mention my greatest disappointment this TIFF: I didn't get to see Salman Rushdie in a conversation with Deepa Mehta about Midnight's Children. Poor timing, and it sold out quickly, so I suppose it wasn't meant to be. Now I don't like Deepa Mehta and find that her skills as a film-maker are always overshadowed by her bitterness as a person, but I still await Midnight's Children with trepidation because, you know, I adore Salman Rushdie. Since he was involved in the script writing, there is hope for this movie still.

Of the three films I did manage to see so far, only two of the directors showed up, and none of the cast. Truly a shame to not see Naseeruddin Shah at the premiere of Michael after that fantastic performance. I am sure the audience would have been off their seats!

Last on my list for TIFF this year: Trishna - Michael Winterbottom's interpretation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, set in modern-day India. But barring a sensational performance from Freida Pinto, I doubt I will find anything to blog about since Tess is definitely not one of my favourite books. Sorry, was that too subtle? Ok, I hated this story, so there!


mm said...

Thank you very much for your roundup, Dolce. First, let me say it's too bad you missed the Rushdie interview. I saw him once in a similar set up and he was extremely funny. OTOH, is it worth putting up with Deepa Mehta? I don't know. On the third hand, maybe he would have skewered her? Maybe you can talk to someone who went and learn how it went.

I've been thinking on the subject of "crossover" films (the great goal of many Bollywood film makers) a lot lately, which has as a subset the festival film, or those films that are lauded for being more "professional" or "mature." Most of this is code, of course, for being more like Hollywood films. Now it strikes me that one big hallmark of the festival film, or with acclaimed western films in general, is that they general have a rather cynical and/or negative or bleak world view, which is the exact antithesis of most Indian films. Why is it accepted without question that a hopeful outlook is "naive" and only a relentless negativity is a sign of maturity? Most of the films from India aimed at film festivals have this built in assumption. Now Anurag Kashyap may really have this world view (he seems to be bitter about a lot of things) and so at least isn't just putting it on. But about some others, I really wonder whether they even believe what they portray in their films, and perhaps that's why the films come off as being fake many times.

But even commercial Hollywood films all have a resolutely "hopeful" ending, however understated it may be.

What do you think?

Swati Sapna said...

Breakaway (Speedy Singhs in Hindi) has got okay reviews here... havent watched it yet, but from what I hv heard, its in the same zone as a lot of the underdogs emerging winners sports movies. So I will just watch it on DVD!

Azhagarsamiyin Kudurai is a film that I have heard so much about!! I have liked the other 2 films of director Suseendhiran, and his next film - Rajapattai has my best friend Vikram as the hero, and he assures me that the script is a gem :) So Azhagarsamiyin Kudurai is high on my wish list...

Mausam - I have read your tweets... so I think we are all on the same page :D brilliant momets and a horrible attempt at an 'epic' romance. sigh!

Am so jealous you got to watch Michael!! cant wait to see it :) Naseer is always such a pleasure!!

And as for Rushdie, I love him. Am a huge fan of his writing and 'Midnight's Children' is my all-time favorite book! I so wish you could have made it for the talk with him and Deepa Mehta so we could have got some vicarious pleasure out of it :P I dont think much of Mehta as a filmmaker either... but I did like 1947 Erath, which was also adapted from a very good book. So there is still hope for MC i think :)

Mette said...

An editor of the German Bollywood magazine said she fell asleep during "Mushrooms" ;).

About "Mausam"... I don't know if I'll watch it, the reviews sound quite negative.

Well, you've seen a lot of films, and again, I wish I'd been there.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey mm, sorry for the delay. Yes, I definitely would have been able to ignore Deepa with Salman in the same room. :D But there is hope yet to see him in a lecture about one of his books, he seems to come here often enough (every couple of years), so you never know :)

In regards to Festival films, you know, the thing is, that unfortunately applies to all films at a festival, not just the Indian ones. I think the idea of serious films at a festival is somewhat associated with the idea of bleak films. Well, with the exception of Hollywood, where it's who's in it that matters more than what the movie is actually about. But I was reading descriptions both this year and last year for other films from Europe and other countries and I got depressed just reading them!

So it's hard to say if it has anything to do with Indian films. I mean they did have Mausam lined up (which is anything BBUT realistic! LOL)... and last year it was Dhobi Ghat which is only partially bleak, and the year before it was Road Movie which is quite optimistic, and then Dil Bole Hadippa. :D So I think they do try to get a mixed bag, but sometimes it doesn't work as planned *cough such as this year cough*. :P

I do see what you're saying though from the point of view of the film makers, but again, it could also be what we're watching. Like I definitely have a preference for slice of life films, so I tend to watch a lot of them, while other people who like the Akshay Kumar type of comedy probably see a lot of those. There is a bit of a trend now towards more serious topics, but I wouldn't say it defines the industry. Not yet anyway...

Also, I suspect optimistic = naive in many people's view of Bollywood simply because the movies that are over the top happy, really are over the top! :) I mean, take Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, that whole film is so over the top it probably fell over to the other side! :) So yes, most festival goers who are not used to Indian films would probably not know what to make of it. Whereas we know it's all in good fun. The counterargument to that being: Dil Bole Hadippa got very good feedback from people and it's also over the top and more about the fun than about the substance. It takes all kinds, that's the only conclusion I can draw :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Swati!!! Heya! I will definitely see Breakaway this weekend, and unless it's really bad, I will even review it. :) But keeping all expectations at a minimum.

For Azhagar, I can encourage you further by telling you that my other two friends who came with enjoyed the first half as well, so it could just have been me being a curmudgeon there. :P And either way, it is totally worth it for the second half. It's excellent! I have lined up one of the director's previous films and now that you're saying his next one stars Vikram, then I'm in for that too! :)

Ah, Mausam... Let's just not talk about it, shall we? :)

And you are totally right about Deepa being slightly better when she adapts books. Earth is also the only other movie of hers I have respect for (can't quite say I liked it, for obvious reasons, but it *was* well done). She did have the help of Aamir's fabulous acting in that one though. I put the prospects of MC in the category of: how badly can she possibly f*** it up? :D

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! I do not find that hard to believe at all, Mette! It really is THAT slow. LOL

I don't know what to say about Mausam... it's definitely NOT my kind of story anyway, so in all fairness it didn't have much hope with me, and now that I have seen it, really not sure if it would have been a good fit at TIFF even if it did premiere. But then again, even people who like epicness have had issues with parts of Mausam (specifically the ending), so it's hard to predict who would like it and who wouldn't... But as a general idea, some of my friends in Toronto have a soft spot for Shahid and I have taken them to see other films of his on the big screen, and I didn't even have the desire to tell them about this one, that's how meh it was for me... :-/

And what are you talking about, you definitely have me beat this summer on the films front, so don't be jealous! :)


mm said...

Hi Dolce, now I missed seeing your response about festival films till now. I agree with you that the "bleak" description (as well as "edgy") applies to festival films in general, not just Indian films. If anything, you probably have a better chance of getting a happy Indian film because TIFF consciously tries to get the commercial stuff as well as the artier stuff.

Anyway, what I really came here to say was that I saw Breakaway earlier tonight and found it to be immensely satisfying. The only negative points for me were the "Bollywood touches" that I assume were there to make it more marketable in India. A futile effort (as the Indian box office reflects), since they're not enough to make the film truly Bollywood style, and they only distract from its more North American style and format the rest of the time. But fortunately they were short. Before it released, with all the comparisons to Bend it Like Beckham, I was hoping that they wouldn't make it just another formula immigrant story, but point out Canada's unique multicultural policies and how that impacts immigrants from different parts of the world. Well, I must say the film delivered big time on that score, and became a truly "Canadian" film that can't be duplicated by setting the story anywhere else.

I'm also sorry to see someone above saying it's just another sports movie of the underdogs winning, because that refers to the format, not the content. It's like saying a film is just another murder mystery where the detective catches the murder. Such a summary misses the entire point of the film.

Anyway, have you seen it yet? And if yes, when will the review be up? If no, run to your theater and see it already! :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey MM, no worries, I am having a hard time myself keeping up with the comments section these days.

And yay! Thank you for the good review on Breakaway! I haven't seen it yet, and probably will not this weekend (it's been the week from hell, no time for anything), but will make a point to catch it next week. That's the great thing about a Canadian movie: you KNOW it will stay in theatres forever. ;)

I was hoping basically for the same things you mentioned, so if they did deliver on those counts, the format of the story doesn't really matter. Then again, that could also be why it didn't work in India: could be one of those cases where without the cultural background everything loses its meaning (like watching Family Guy in Eastern Europe, it just seems stupid :P).

Yay! I am so happy you liked it! Now more optimistic about it myself even if a review may be another week or so. Thank you for coming to share that!

mm said...

Hi Dolce, I hope you were being ironical about Canadian films staying in theaters "forever." That's why I made sure to see it during the first week, if not the first weekend (as originally planned). I hope you do get to see it soon, though.

I have various thoughts on why it didn't work in India, but I'll wait to discuss those till you've seen it, as they will probably involve spoilers.

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! No really, I was totally serious! Usually BW movies, if they even come to the major theatres, get 3-4 sccreenings a day and only stay for a week. This one had a good 6 screenings a day from the beginning and it is definitely staying for at least a second week, if not the third and fourth ones. But worry not, it will be next week for me. :)

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