Movies for everyone versus movies for a few. Notes from the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival

Why do people laugh in the movies? The obvious answer is that they find something funny, and mainstream cinema — even given that rarely do two people respond to a movie the same way — sometimes manages to work over audiences as one. We cry as one, we laugh as one. But what could be funny about a little boy who, while being bathed by his father, is wondering about an employee who was asked to leave the father’s dry-cleaning business?

Do people laugh because the kid asks this cutely, with little understanding of the adult happenings that led to this turn of events? Do they laugh because they welcome any opportunity for relief in the midst of a grim movie, such as this other scene where an older man advises a younger man to get far away from the problems surrounding the younger man’s ex? “Cut if off,” says the older man, making a scissoring motion in the air. The scene is dead serious. And yet, there the laughs were.

These are scenes from Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé (The Past), the first film I saw at this year’s Mumbai International Film Festival. The film, in many ways, takes off from where Farhadi’s earlier film, the masterful A Separation, left us. Le Passé begins with a separation (a man and woman on either side of a glass wall) and ends with a separation (a man and woman who may as well be on either side of a wall), and here too, we have a contentious couple and the central figure of an adolescent daughter, who’s begun to question things, do things.

This film, too, is an emotional procedural, in the sense that it’s a step-by-step investigation of emotions and the actions that result from these emotions. Here, too, we have a scene with the law, the prelude to divorce proceedings. The difference is that A Separation, for all its strife, was a gentler film, while Le Passé, at times, is imbued with the kind of cruelty we associate with Michael Haneke.

Leaving Le Passé, I felt it wasn’t as good as A Separation — a couple of contrivances left me cold — but that’s just because the bar set by the earlier film is so high. (It was one of the rare films that lived up to every word of its awesome buzz, and deserved every award it picked up.) The applause awarded to Farhadi, before and after the screening, was well-earned. Introducing the film, he spoke, rather unexpectedly, about the uniqueness of Indian cinema.

He praised the “new generation” filmmakers, but he sounded worried that our cinema would lose its uniqueness and become like American cinema. He implied that our cinema was some sort of great unifier, drawing people from “all classes,” whereas in other countries — he was probably referring to his home country, Iran — only a certain class of people watched movies. In other words, he was making the case that it isn’t altogether wrong for cinema to be homogenous.

Peter van Hoof, on the other hand, made a case for a very different kind of homogeneity. van Hoof is a programmer for the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, and he agreed to a quick interview when I ran into him at the lobby of the hotel we were staying in. His job is to get, for the festival, interesting films from South Asia, and he was here mainly to watch Indian films.

Last year, he said he chose Miss Lovely, Ship of Theseus, Celluloid Man, I.D. and Shanghai (he said that, in a festival of 200 films, there’s usually space for only four or five films from one country), and this year, the only film that’s excited him is the Punjabi drama Kissa, which features Irrfan Khan. When I asked what he looks for in a film, he said he “searches for the very few Indian films that communicate to international audiences, not Bollywood films but films that are closer in feel to the films from other parts of the world”. He was after the kind of Indian films that Farhadi appeared apprehensive about.

The next day, I met Bruce Beresford, the filmmaker best known for Driving Miss Daisy and the head of the international competition jury. With Farhadi and van Hoof expressing such different views about movies and audiences — “all classes” versus “niche viewers” — I wanted to know what someone who’s worked in the Hollywood system felt about this. He said, “If it’s a big commercial film, and if people are entertained by it, if they enjoy it, then I think it’s great.”

But he also said that the way a lot of these films are perceived has to do with the marketing. In other words, the marketing can decide whether a film is for “all audiences” or for “niche viewers,” and he drove home this point by saying how a film as small, as intimate as Driving Miss Daisy walked away with four Academy Awards (from nine nominations) and a worldwide box-office take of $ 150 million (in 1989-90; it was among the top 10 earners at the US box office.)

How did this film, the kind of film that a van Hoof might have picked for the Rotterdam festival, turn into the kind of film that attracted all classes of audiences? (Or to put it in Indian terms, how did this “class movie” morph into a “mass” hit?) Beresford told me that Warner Brothers, who had the distribution rights, didn’t even see the film. They decided to release it in just one art-house cinema in San Francisco.

Their big Christmas-time release was In Country, starring Bruce Willis. But when that film bombed (grossing a mere $3.5 million), Warner Brothers had nothing else for the holiday season, and they made a frantic call to Beresford, asking him if he could bring over a print of “that film with the black man and the old lady.” They saw it. They liked it. They marketed the hell out of it. “They made it a popular film,” Beresford said. “If In Country had become a hit, no one in the world would have seen Driving Miss Daisy.”

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