Breaking free

Print edition : September 07, 2012

Manav Kaul, whose film Hansa was adjudged the best film by critics and won the audience award.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Osians Cinefan 2012 was an ode to excellence, with the narratives paying homage to the perennial outsider.

Dipped in the setting suns bleeding colours, the meandering kites seemed almost bereft of their many-coloured hues, more like tentacles of knotted desires dotting old Ahmedabads skyline. In the hands of the gifted film-maker Prashant Bhargava, these kites bring about a powerful cinematic subterfuge to tell the story of disintegrated lives and broken promises in the eponymously titled film Patang (kite). This years Osians Cinefan, New Delhis only independent Asian film festival, was an ode to such marvels of cinematic excellence, stories from around the world told eloquently by film-makers with an acute eye for their craft.

Back after a two-year break, necessitated by financial constraints, Cinefan 2012 was envisioned as a celebration of the freedom of expression. From the genres that were highlighted, such as animation and pink films, to the themes of individual films, the notion of breaking free from constraints permeated every aspect of the festival. Seamlessly woven into narratives of college revolutionaries, vagabonds, recluses and love-sick musicians is melancholic homage to the perennial outsider those pushed to the peripheries of organised societies.

From the opening film Asura, a Japanese hybrid animation feature , to the closing film Chitrangada by Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh, the rebuked and ridiculed outsider looms large. Interspersed between these two titles was a world of cinema animated by stories with universal themes.

Japanese films

Asura takes the audience to 15th century Japan made desolate by the ravages of a series of natural disasters flood, drought and famine. Employing this as the backdrop, director Keiichi Sato brings forth the tragic tale of Asura, a boy born out of the darkest pits of these calamities. Abandoned at birth, Asura learns to survive and with time turns to cannibalism as a means of living. It is only when young Wakasa enters his life that he discovers the power of compassion and love. Yet, he and Wakasa are not given a fighting chance as prejudices and jealousies reign. In the world that Sato creates, the venerated values of civilisation crumble at the faintest hint of threat, and Asura the boy destined to live and perish on the margins of civilised society emerges as a metaphor of the futility of civilisations dearest values.

There is an almost poetic quality in Satos cinema, a trait shared in no small measure by his Japanese counterparts. Through animation and in evocative black-and-white frames, Japanese movie-makers successfully infuse the world of celluloid with the melancholic and the bizarre. A lot of the films presented at the festival borrowed massively or were immensely inspired by the world of manga the art of Japanese graphic novels.

Asura is an adaptation of George Akiyamas controversial manga of the same name while Eric Khoos Tatsumi is eponymously named after the Japanese comic artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Khoo manages to capture honestly an important phase of manga evolution when Tatsumi introduces gekiga, a form of manga replete with perversions of all kinds and lascivious relationships created for the consumption of adults, and yet operating in a meta-narrative that offers a critique of norms in organised societies. While telling the life story of Tatsumi, Khoo intersperses it with Tatsumis own manga tales.

The festival also became the first platform in India to hold a retrospective of renowned pink film directors Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi. Pink films represent a genre in Japanese cinema where the lines between mainstream and pornographic films are blurred. Pornographic depictions in these films were used to make alternative political statements and tap into the various counter cultures.

A case in point is Wakamatsus Ecstasy of the Angels, where nudity and the mere act of sex devoid of love become a metaphor against the backdrop of tensions brewing among the cadre of a little-known communist guerilla movement in Japan. Debates on individualism and collectivism, revisionism and radicalism, or political strategies and ideology are articulated in the narrative by showing different layers of friction between different groups in a Communist party.

The Japanese director Suji Terayamas cult classic Emperor Tomato Ketchup was also shown. The film, which shows children running the state, can be read in two ways either you read the characters as dwarf adults standing in for the infantile nature of Japanese society or you see the characters as children trying to act like adults. Nevertheless, the film is about the need to acknowledge the serious nature of infantile sexual drives rather than projecting collective fantasies of innocence onto children.

Sexual violence & ban

Two films that left a mark on the festival for their graphic depiction of sexual violence were the 2000 French release Baise Moi, the first film to be banned in France, and the Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolinis Salo, or 120 days of Sodom banned in Italy in 1976 by the fascist regime. Though set in different contexts, both emanate as strong opposition to high-handed governments. While Baise Moi contextualises the French immigrant populations violence in an unjust socio-political system, Salo depicts the excesses of the then fascist government in Italy, which, in the film, was shown indulging in brutal sexual oppression and sodomy.

Iranian films turn the camera inward

If the Japanese film-makers subvert the norm by highlighting and almost celebrating deviations, the Iranian film-makers turn the camera inward and leave a mark with their intimate stories of middle-class lives and insecurities.

Ali Mosaffas brilliant The Last Step innovatively portrays an actress life and strained relationship with her husband. What makes it unique is the hint of an extramarital affair in the storyline, a sort of first in Iranian cinema. Mosaffa in his interaction with the audience after the screening of the film emphasised the difficulty of making a film alluding to an extramarital affair in the Islamic state of Iran.

Another Iranian film that was an audience favourite was the brilliantly conceptualised and executed Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud of Persepolis fame. An adaptation of Satrapis graphic novel by the same name, the film catalogues the last eight days in the life of the musician Nasser Ali, a relative of Satrapi. The movie evocatively straddles the story of one mans burning desire for artistic excellence and eternal fame while capturing the quirkiness of a genius, all in the garb of a well-told and moving love story.

The Middle Class

The middle class was a favourite subject with Indian film-makers as well, with directors choosing to highlight trends in the psychologies of the ever-burgeoning middle classes in their narratives. The biggest beneficiaries of economic globalisation, the middle classes in the Eastern world grapple with insecurities and rising aspirations, all intertwined with their previous worlds that are on the brink of change. And as the change is happening, the two worlds of the middle class the new capitalist world view and the traditional spiritual world view of the East interject and produce new imaginations that are replete with confusion and tension.

South Korean movie The King of Pigs puts this context in a narrative about an elite school where bullying by the rich is commonplace. The rich are called dogs while the poor who are bullied are called pigs. A pig (poor kid) contemplates suicide with assistance from two friends to teach the dogs a lesson that they would never forget. An extreme means of opposition to the rich, it metaphorically denotes the lost opportunities of the poor in a globalised world.

Other South Korean and Thai films were also stories about the complications in middle-class lives that are on the throes of change because of the continuously changing economic landscape.

Turkish films also deal with these themes. Yeralti (Inside), by the Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz, shows the increasing pace of normal life. Through the eyes of the protagonist, he shows how everything has a commercial value and people who are still rooted to their non-material selves are being alienated continuously.

Indian leg

The Indian director Ashwini Mallicks film Monophobia has a similar theme. It shows how the fear of staying alone is gradually creeping into our minds. Loneliness of the individual in these days of maddening rush is a symptom of the new industrial world.

Most directors featured in the festival employed crime, sex, religion, fragile relationships, and mental illness as themes to document these tendencies in an ever-changing world.

The Indian leg of the festival also attempted to capture the dreams and trepidations of the middle class. However, rather than picking exceptions as stories, the Indian directors looked inward into the local societies, picked mundane stories and wove them into exceptional screenplays.

Masala, a critically acclaimed movie by the Marathi director Sandesh Kulkarni, is the story of a poor and failing entrepreneur. The film highlights very simply a poor mans aspirations to become rich in an unequal world and the strength of the human spirit in the most ordinary circumstances.

The Marathi film-maker Umesh Kulkarnis dark comedy Deool (the temple), through its well-written screenplay, uses a metaphorical temple to show political power play and the dubious short cuts that ambitious yet lethargic youth take in Indias rural and semi-urban areas to realise their aspirations. They commercialise everything from emotions to God to earn a quick buck. The Hindu Right and the so-called secular political parties take advantage of this greed, and it is this harsh reality that Deool captures powerfully.

Ajita Suchitra Veera, who won the Best Director award for "Ballad of Rustom".-

Manav Kauls Hansa won the audience award and was adjudged the best film by critics. Shot using a professional still camera and set in the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand, it tells the story of a teenage girls search for her missing father. The girl, Hansa, has a pregnant mother to take care of, and the local goon and property dealer has his eyes on their house, which he wants to convert into a mountain resort for tourists. With her father gone, the situation is ideal for the village leaders to exploit the family by pretending to help them. Through a simple narrative, the director brings out the ecological dangers in the countrys mountain regions and how tourism has added to the problems.

Even though the festival showcased some excellent films, the bad apples were not too hard to come by. Two of the most disappointing films largely because of the massive hysteria they had generated in the run-up to the festival were Ashish R. Shuklas Prague and Ajita Suchitra Veeras Ballad of Rustom. Dubbed a psychological thriller, Prague tells the tale of Chandan, a schizophrenic architect. Though the idea in itself had potential and the actors did a decent job, the film faltered owing to its rather unimaginative screenplay. Ballad of Rustom has fantastic frames and enchanting music but is guilty of an overdose of self-indulgence that shrouds the films technical brilliance.

Censorship, as reflected in the choice of films shown, remained a pressing concern throughout the festival.

Osians Cinefan paid tribute to the esteemed Indian film-maker Mani Kaul, one of the greatest advocates of freedom of expression, on his first death anniversary. His acclaimed films Uski Roti, Nazar, Naukar ki Kameez, and Bojh were shown, while panel discussions on his legacy and contribution were conducted. The discussions brought forth musings from Indias new stream of film-makers such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibankar Banerjee on the parameters that dictate their choice of films and treatment. The growing trend of making films in the Indian milieu and rendering a refined cinematic language to deal with such subjects were also passionately discussed.

The effect of the changing times on cinema has been enriching and enabling. While Western and South Asian film-makers chose to focus on societal churnings affecting the common man, directors from the colonial Far East picked up cultural exceptions and brought them centre stage. Such complexities have led to the frequent use of metaphors and a non-linear narrative style and, consequently, this has brought greater diversity to cinema as a medium. From selling dreams and unbridled fantasies, cinema today has come a long way. The crafts inherent potential in illuminating the fault lines of the world we live in was amply displayed at this years Cinefan.

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