Asian panorama

Print edition : August 25, 2006

Osian's Cinefan festival was as unique as it was popular.

THE foyer in the Siri Fort theatre complex in New Delhi, is literally a walk down navarasa lane. Rare, forgotten posters of old films in calendar colours jostle with black-and-white photographs of yesteryear's stars. Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Stewart Granger, Laurence Olivier, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayantimala and Smita Patil glisten in the glass frames and spark a dizzying riot of romance and valour, terror and grief.

Osian's Cinefan needed nothing more to proclaim its uniqueness than these samples from the auction house's personal collection of cinema memorabilia. Moreover, the festival is not dependent on the state or any other external source for funding. Osian is India's premier art auction house and archive. Its auction of art, books and cinema (July 20) earned more than enough to cover the expenses of the entire festival. This is testimony to its chief Neville Tuli's passion for cinema and his canny vision to make good cinema available to anyone willing to buy a ticket (Rs.20 a show). An unnecessary exercise in the age of DVD? Not at all. How can it replace the big screen, not to forget the community experience that cinema thrives on?

Tuli's trust in people's taste was not misplaced. With its focus on Asian cinema, Cinefan's biggest section was Asian Frescoes from Singapore, Korea, China, the Philippines, Japan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Malaysia. Though uneven in quality, the fare opened many windows into less accessible scenarios. Nine Dragons (Rudi Soedjarwo, Indonesia) stood out for its offbeat form, as it watched three gangsters bound by friendship and crime trapped in a no-exit situation. Todo Todo Teros (John Torres, Philippines) was a surreal take-off on an artiste-turned terrorist, fated to bomb subways in Manila. Much of the script was written after the shooting of footage featuring musicians and artistes.

Political reportage found voice in The Year of Living Vicariously and Gie. The former, a documentary by Malaysian director Amir Mohammed, fuses spot interviews shot on the sets of the feature film Gie, which profiles the Indonesian activist Soe Hok Gie. Instead of the usual rawness of docudramas, Living Vicariously was poetic in texture. Gie (Riri Riza, Indonesia) itself was more conventional;it told the poignant tale of the young student activist's unshaken but quiet valour in doing what he thought right and best, refusing to be lured by compromise or short-term solutions. Forsaken by his friends and lover, he plodded on, indomitable, alone, with his love of nature and mountain-climbing to nurture his soul's thirst. Conventional as the approach was, the film had idealism to satisfy something deep down in the viewer.

VALLEY OF FLOWERS, the opening film, had breathtaking views of mountains but came under fire from foreign critics for being derivative.-

The immigrant was a major figure in Asian cinema. Grain in Ear (Zhang Lu) showed a Korean woman trying to make a living in China, being mistreated as a prostitute. Cross-Cultural Encounters screened mainly co-productions by two or more countries. Some drove you out of the theatre in ten minutes, like the garish American Blend (Varun Khanna, U.S.). But Zozo (Josef Fares, Sweden, U.K., Denmark) was a poignant tale, in which the reality of the situation is so unnatural that it seems more illusory than the surrealism of the shots. War in Lebanon orphans young Zozo. His decision to find his grandparents who have emigrated to Sweden takes him on an impossible journey with a little chick as a pocket companion. His happy encounter with a little girl is all softlit innocence, destroyed by irate adults. His troubles do not end in Sweden - the boy is bullied by classmates. A lovable grandfather refuses to submit to injustice and provides a role model for the bewildered child. Drawn from autobiographical experiences, Zozo's appeal cuts across the rigid boundaries of art and commerce.

The Arabesque section featured socio-political commentary in nine movies from eight nations. Lebanon usually scores in works of art, but Autobus (Philippe Aractingi) was a flimsy attempt at showing youthful protest through performances of traditional Dabkeh dance on tour. The performers win applause from the people after rejection from hidebound officials. The Dawn, Oman's first ever feature film, made with help from Indian technicians, was a disaster. It copied Bollywood melodrama to no purpose. Hamlet of Women (Mohamed Chouikh, Algeria) was as provocative as its title. Women in a remote village learn to operate firearms to protect themselves from terrorists, and find time for humour and love. Downtown Girls from Egypt used comedy and romance to depict vignettes of metro women, zest intact, dreaming of gender equality but practical about present-day curbs. The Asian and Indian competition sections had the usual mix of the good, the bad and the downright pedestrian. The former had some surprises. Complex Ubume from Japan was a trial even for the seasoned, while Homeland (Bangladesh), by Tareque and Catherine Masud, was a let-down after their enchanting first feature Claybird (2002), screened at an earlier Cinefan. In Homeland a divorced mother returns to Sylhet with her son for the funeral of her former husband. It is a rite of passage for the son and a coming to terms with life for the mother. The narrative was linear, the dialogues wooden, the camera tedious, and the message didactic.

Asoka Handagama's (Award winner at Cinefan 2001) Letter of Fire (Sri Lanka) did not live up to its promise. The balance between the symbolic and the real falters, though it gives a graphic touch to the magistrate mother who has to deal with a son involved in a prostitute's murder.

The Philippines threw up The Bet Collector by Jeffrey Jeturian. Here was a work which took you walking through the streets of the city, introduced you to its people in flesh and blood, and showcased the evils of an omnipresent but banned betting game, with collectors to regulate it in underground channels. Feisty Amelita is one such jueteng kubrador; the film shows her unabashed by raids, threats, capture and crackdown. Gina Pareno's portrayal won her the Best Actress award at Cinefan. (Incidentally, the Best Actor award was withheld this year, as there were few films with male-centric themes!) She came on stage in a sari to claim it. The feature also won the Best Film Award, which Jeturian received deservedly. His film showed humour, fellow feeling, compassion, and an endearing cock-a-hoop spirit in the midst of squalor.

Iran's well-known woman director Tehmina Milani's film was an effervescent comedy. The maker of Fifth Reaction and Two Women had tossed plenty of farce and fluff into Ceasefire, which premiered at Cinefan. A handsome hero and a beautiful woman, both engineers, fall in love after squabbles at work. Their love grows along with one-upmanship drives, calamitous for conjugal harmony. After cracking, breaking and tearing kitchenware, bric-a-brac and designer clothes, they seek the psychiatrist's couch. Milani's spoof ridicules traditional views of macho male and meek female, while it draws support from a feminist mother-in-law. No award-winning material this, and yet it is valuable because it shows that women in Islamic countries with gender taboos can still laugh and use humour to pillory injustice.

Another award winner at the festival, Two Girls (Kutlug Ataman) from Turkey, was an intense film about rebellious teenagers unable to find footholds or support through traumatic years. Behiye's chauvinistic brother is jealous of her academic success and would like to stop her from getting a university education. The mother is too disturbed to be reliable. Leman's beautiful prostitute mother is too preoccupied with retaining clients to be a homemaker. Leman is desperate to find her father, is encouraged by Behiye, but allows sexual exploitation by rich boys. Suggestions of lesbianism add poignancy to this powerful, no-holds-barred document of despair. No cinematic masterpiece, but a moving experience.

The Indian competition brought a master's work, Girish Kasaravalli's Nayi Neralu, to compete with mostly younger film-makers. The award was wholly predictable. The film is a take-off on the Mahabharata motif of the dog following Yudhishtira up the mountain to paradise. The Pandava prince refuses to enter the heavens without his canine companion, symbolising one's deeds through life. The film speaks of a woman of 20 years' widowhood, who is suddenly confronted with a boy of her daughter's age, believed to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Irony abounds in the tale where the boy is accepted as the son of her in-laws, but not as her husband. Cohabiting with him brings more miseries. Nothing is black or white in Kasaravalli's story. Ambiguity is his forte, as is his compassion for the downtrodden, the waif, or the stray, in this case for the women of three generations and the enigmatic `reborn' son.

Cinefan had an unusual focus on Buddhism to celebrate the 2550th anniversary of the teacher supreme. The films came from Switzerland, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Germany and Bhutan. Franz Osten's 1925 classic The Light of Asia was in this section, its surviving footage restored by the National Film Archives. Eager cineastes got a chance to see Himansu Rai and Seeta Devi, India's earliest stars. Conrad Rooks' Siddhartha brought whiffs of nostalgia for the young, trim, handsome Shashi Kapoor and slender Simi on the screen. Both actors graced the closing ceremony, Kapoor charm intact but too corpulent for herohood, the lady in white as svelte as ever, and were greeted with standing ovations.

A quiet film from war-gashed Vietnam Gone, gone, forever Gone (Ho Quang Minh) began with a concubine of the abdicating emperor entering a monastery. She eventually leads it, but not before the nation is torn in two, even as wars continue to scorch the land. She offers help to the helpless, guides her nuns in ahimsa, and dreams of uniting her brothers divided by the partition of her motherland. There is little violence, romance or humour in this slow, soft-spoken film. One scene says it all: American soldiers surprise the nuns seated before candle flames. War cries and threats cannot disturb their still meditation. The soldiers fall silent and retreat. Nothing is said, but the visual encapsulates a whole philosophy.

The opening film Valley of Flowers by Pan Nalin, who also served as a jury member at Cinefan, had breathtaking mountainscapes as in his earlier Samsara. "How can a film influenced by Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou represent independent Indian cinema?" asked a testy foreign critic. "Derivative," sniffed another. "Bad," scoffed a third. The closing film Offside had Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi turning a football match in Teheran into a cry for women's rights. This satirical comedy shows girls (banned from entering the stadium), caught while trying to sneak past the guards, penned in an enclosure, and taken to the vice squad in the evening. Panahi does not make villains of the guards. By making them warm-hearted fools he cocks a more forceful snook at the establishment.

What of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the best auteurs of Iran, an Indophile who predicted the Afghan situation much ahead of time in films like 'The Cyclist and Khandahar? In The Scream of Ants an Iranian couple travel in India in search of the perfect man. Despite some witty dialogues and fine photography the film was a bizarre kaleidoscope of incongruous images. The man's encounter with the Indian prostitute was a yawn. And why was he kissing the sacred bull (mercifully bronze, not real)? The woman stands in the Ganga against a soundscape of Sanskrit shlokas, as naked sadhus slip in around her for their ritual dip. A German monk explains India to the rapt foreigners. The camera dwells on the burning limbs of the dead until you smell the stench. Even when the eye pans on the poor naked wretches huddled in open spaces and railway stations, it has more voyeurism than compassion. Such visuals testified to ignorance, and what is worse, a tourist's half baked absorption of ritual and myth.

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