Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2013: A recap.

The 2013 Indian Film Festival came to a serendipitous close on 22 May with a screening of 'Bombay Talkies', a film that points the way towards a bold future for Bollywood and, likewise, next year's IFFM. Comprised of four short films by four of India's leading directors -- Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap -- 'Bombay Talkies' ended with a rousing pastiche of 100 years of Indian cinema and a flurry of Bollywood's brightest stars:

The film's final story involved a man's unhinged attempt to get Amitabh Bachchan to take a bite of a murabba for the sake of his dying father. Fitting, and ironic, as Mr Bachchan was originally scheduled to close this year's IFFM with a screening of his 1975 hit 'Deewaar'. In a brief speech before the film, festival director Mitu Bhowmick Lange apologised for Mr Bachchan's absence and shared an assurance from Big B's people that the Bollywood legend would attend next year's IFFM.

Let's hope.

Opening night starpower.
The festival kicked off 3 May at Hoyt's Melbourne Central with a screening of the first film ever made in India on the 100th anniversary -- to the day -- of its premiere at Coronation Cinematograph in Mumbai. The surviving reels of the silent 'Raja Harishchandra' were accompanied by a quartet of musicians who brought welcome warmth to the cinema's sterile environs. This was followed by a screening of 'Harishcandrachi Factory', a 2009 film about Govind Phalke, the maker of 'Raja Harishchandra' and the man recognised as the father of Indian cinema. Attendees were treated to a cross-section of familiar Indian cinema faces (as shown above, from left to right):

-- Director Kabir Khan, who quietly presided over a Bollywood dance contest in Fed Square the following night before giving a masterclass the next day about his move from documentary filmmaker to director of the second highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time, 'Ek Tha Tiger'
-- Dancer/actor/director Prabhudeva, also a judge at the dance contest, and who was urged to 'DANCE DANCE DANCE' by the Fed Square crowd each time his thin frame got on stage
Simi Garewal and Vidya Balan
-- Newcomer Girish Kumar, who did little to inspire confidence in his future as a Bollywood leading man
-- Former actor and current director/TV talk show host Simi Garewal (standing here with Vidya Balan), who gave a thought-provoking presentation at Maelbourne University on the evolution -- or not -- of women in Indian cinema
-- Actor and 2-time IFFM ambassador Vidya Balan, who was her usual delightful self
-- Choreographer/director/actress Farah Khan, who was the lead judge of the dance contest and whose natural humour would be the envy of any standup comedian
-- Indian cinema royalty Pamela Chopra, widow of Yash Chopra, who was gently coerced into singing a snippet of a tune from 'Veer-Zaara', one of her husband's many mega-hits and a film whose soundtrack was released at the same time Aradhna and I met in 2004. In other words, it's a sentimental favourite.
-- Previously mentioned and very pregnant festival director
Mitu Bhowmick Lange. (Vidya's bodyguard is standing behind Mitu -- my wife Aradhna recognised him from last year's film festival. She was pleased to see him again. Let's leave it at that.)

Despite the presence of Bollywood dignitaries the cinema on opening night was only half-full. The folks at IFFM, who are affiliated with a Melbourne-based distribution & production company called Mind Blowing Films, put together a phenomenal festival every year but have yet to truly connect with Melbourne's growing Indian community. I don't claim to possess the secret to marketing to a notoriously penny-pinching audience but an event this good deserves a broader audience ... an audience of film lovers, not just Indian cinema lovers.

Kabir Khan and Prabhudeva
For those who did attend, however, opening night was loose and fun. While Kabir Khan and Prabhudeva (shown here) were either extremely shy or jetlagged or both, Vidya Balan embodied her ambassador role with zeal and grace. Vidya had the same role at last year's IFFM and seemed equally enthusiastic on her second trip to Melbourne. She's one of the world's great actors, of course, so a cynic would say she was being putting her thespian skills to use but Vidya comes across as natural, unpretentious ... genuine. When some nitwit in a purple sports coat asked if she had any 'news to share' about starting a family with her new husband she pointed at Mitu and said that since she was like a sister to her, Mitu's blessing would suffice.

[Sidenote: Mitu's resemblance to Vidya in 2012's 'Kahaani' -- a film Simi Garewal called a 'game-changer in Indian cinema' for its casting of a heavily pregnant Vidya as lead protagonist -- never failed to make me smile. Not just for the physical resemblance, but for the strength and patience she had in abundance at the many events she oversaw. Awe inspiring is how I'd describe it.]

If Vidya was the heart of the festival, Farah Khan was the wit. Possessing none of the physical attributes of a typical female Bollywood star, Farah is a tightly compressed force of nature who seems always on the verge of laughter or a volley of words.
Vidya Balan and Farah Khan
When a grossly uninformed gentleman asked why the 100-year-old 'Raja Harishchandra' was a silent film -- compounding the cringeworthiness of his question by suggesting 'technical problems' may have been to blame -- Farah wasted no time in declaring it the 'question of the night' and spared the young man any further embarressment.

Aradhna and I recently watched a movie she starred in last year with an actor named Boman Irani called 'Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi'. It was shocking to see a product of Indian cinema focus on a romance of two over-40s, but Farah's personality shone through and energised the film, making its sometimes silly conceits believable. Seeing her in-person at this year's IFF made her many successes in a male-dominated industry, which includes writing and directing the sublime box office smash 'Om Shanti Om' in 2007, easy to understand: Who the hell could hope to stop this multi-talented mother of triplets?

Performers at the Bollywood dance competition in Fed Square.
The following night's dance competition brought a sizable crowd to Fed Square on a cool autumn evening in Melbourne's CBD. Acts ranged from professional troupes to classically trained women to goofballs. Those watching were invited to vote after each performance via SMS and judges Farah, Prabhudeva and Kabir made the occasional comment at the prompting of Mitu. Girish Taurani was given bahut bahut opportunity to promote his upcoming Bollywood debut in a film directed by Prabhudeva called 'Ramaia Vastavaiya' but he lacked the showmanship you'd expect from a guy with family connections to the industry (his dad's a B-wood bigwig). We'll all find out in July if the young man's reticence can be overcome with a good script, helpful direction and expert editing.

Flinders Street Station glows behind the Fed Square stage.

Wouldn't be Bollywood without melodrama.

Kabir Khan (far left) resists the demand of crowd and colleagues to break out some moves.

Tiny Mitu addresses the large crowd.

Farah Khan dances with the night's winners.

Kabir Khan masterclass
Kabir's opening night shyness and near invisibility at the dance competition made me wonder if his masterclass would be engaging, but I needn't have worried. As is the case with most creatives, given a microphone in a roomful of people who shared his passion for filmmaking he was soon off to the races discussing his history in the industry. The phenomenal success of 'Ek Tha Tiger' has made Khan one of Bollywood's most sought-after directors, yet his roots as a documentary filmmaker seem to ground him. He discussed how his first film, 'Kabul Express', reflected his own experiences in post 9/11-Afghanistan, experiences which also influenced his next and first big-budget film, 'New York'. When he asked for questions I shot my hand up and mentioned my reaction when Aradhna and I left the cinema after seeing 'New York' -- it was the first film I'd seen that addressed the horrors of rendition and the murky, troubling issues that the US's reaction to 9/11 created. A brave, necessary film. And I told him so.

Simi Garewal showing a clip of her own work.
More bravery was on display during Simi Garewel's presentation at Melbourne University two days later. Her appearance was labeled Australia India Institute Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture: Evolution of Women in Indian Cinema. Despite the weighty monicker in a packed, brightly lit room lined with video cameras, Simi's delivery was equal parts intellectual and elegant, lightened with an occasional humourous touch borne of a lifetime of hard-won lessons. She claimed to be nervous but came across as self-assured in her disappointment at Indian cinema's 'lost opportunity' to use its place as India's major 20th-century communicator to positively portray women in its thousands of commercial films. Simi drove home her words with damning clips from films and songs that portrayed women as second-class citizens, human chattel, even deserving victims of rape. As I wasn't introduced to Indian cinema until 2004 I could relate to Simi's observations about India's often baffling values, but to hear them from a legend within the industry was gobsmacking.

Simi also showed clips of herself after describing the circumstances of her arrival in Bombay at the age of 15 in the early '60s. How unprepared she was -- 'Learn Hindi!' was her advice for anyone following in her youthful footsteps -- after being raised and educated in London. How she was stunned to see Indian society as it was portrayed in Bollywood films, and how she avoided taking roles that would perpetuate entrenched, negative stereotypes. Simi described how lucky she felt to be mentored by legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray and confessed to loving the negative role she played in Subhash Ghai's 'Karz'. I felt unworthy to shake the hand of the beautiful 'Lady in White' afterward, but she locked eyes and thanked me in a way that turned my legs to jelly as I walked to the Melbourne Uni tram stop. What a legend.

[An entity called Australia Network News posted a report that uses several clips of Simi's presentation, as well as commentary from Mitu, Vidya, Farah and Kabir. Watch it here.] 

He may be taller but believe me, young Girish is dwarfed by these women.
I also attended a masterclass by documentary filmmaker Penny Vozniak called When Hollywood Meets Bollywood. It was preceded by a screening of 'Despite the Gods', Vozniak's documentary about filmmaker Jennifer Lynch's experience filming a supernatural thriller in India. The Aussie doco-maker was open and enthusiastic during her talk with an audience of less than 20 attendees, but the pretext for the masterclass was undercut by 'Despite the Gods' being less about a Hollywood-meets-Bollywood scenario than a two-hour descent into Jennifer Lynch's selfishness, ignorance, self-absorption and mind-boggling ineptitude at making a film anyone with any sense would pay to see. Ugh. Penny's skills as a documentary storyteller are obvious, and one hopes her next project, which she described as being years in the making and not yet complete, will reward her dedication with a story worth sharing.

On a sidenote: Penny's masterclass was held the night before Simi Garewal's presentation. I was grateful that whatever stain Jennifer Lynch left on my psyche was blessedly washed away by Simi's wisdom, strength and inner-beauty.

I found a better Hollywood-meets-Bollywood lesson at the Australian premiere of a film called 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. Director Mira Nair has made several such cross-genre films, and I thought 'Fundamentalist' succeeded as an engrossing, post-9/11, East-meets-West drama. Mitu addressed the packed house beforehand and introduced a former Aussie cricketer whose name I forget because I'm not Australian or Indian and therefore have zero interest and/or knowledge of the game's history. The man was clearly comfortable in front of a crowd and acknowledged the time he spent in Pakistan as an international sportsman ('Fundamentalist' takes place in Pakistan and the US). A line of people waiting to take 'selfies' with him stretched to the aisle when the film was over, confirming his international fame.

[Update: I've since been informed by fellow Indian-cinema-loving friend Enid, whom I met at this hear's IFFM and who joined me at the 'Reluctant Fundamentalist' screening, that the cricketer's name was Greg Chappell. Thanks, Ms Prasad.]

Understand, this recap barely scrapes the surface of the staggering number of films shown at this year's IFFM. I just flipped through the brochure again and was reminded of the multi-generational, multi-genre scope of the array of movies shown at five locations: Hoyts in Melbourne Central and Chadstone, ACMI, the outdoor screen in Fed Square and newly Pamela Chopra-christened Yash Chopra Cinema at La Trobe University. I've attended other film festivals, mostly in the US, and would rank this one as one of the best I've ever attended. Its presence in Melbourne is something that must be celebrated and broadcast to the rest of the world. As noted before, I believe it's time Indian cinema was promoted outside its natural ex-pat audience. I'm a bloody Bollywood tragic and I grew up in the shadow of New York City. My wife's devotion to Indian cinema was a rite of childhood and her sharing it with me has been a life-changing gift.

It's time that gift was shared with non-Indian Australians and, most especially, ALL lovers of exceptional cinema.

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