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A `Summer' and a `Day'

Ismail Merchant and Anita Desai ... artistic concerns

"TOO much literature, too little cinema," said the film scholar. "Abrupt, discontinuous," declared the film maker. These were some of the reactions to Neil LaBute's version of British novelist A.S. Byatt's "Possession", the closing film at the Locarno international film festival 2002.

Remember ut pictura poesis, a credo linking painting and poetry as sister arts? Look at cinema and literature and the term springs new meanings. If in the initial years the moving pictures depended on novels, today the written word cannot escape the influence of cinema's visual punch. Experiments in what is essentially the director's medium have not stopped the filming of written texts — from pulp fiction to classics. Nor have film makers been able to confine themselves to hacks for their scripts. (Hollywood studios had famous writers like Scott Fitzgerald on their payroll. Harold Pinter is celebrated as much for his plays as for screenplays). Wordiness is out, but cinema continues to strive to evoke the multivalenced depth of literature on the screen.

A new section at the Locarno film festival ("In Progress — Writers") centrestaged seven authors from different parts of the world. British playwright Arnold Wesker followed Greek novelist Petro Markaris who has scripted some of the epic films of auteur Theo Angelopoulos. India was the only country with two representatives in Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy. Moreover, the writers from Italy and Israel had strong Indian connections: Antonio Tabucchi's "Notturno Indiano" had been filmed by Alain Corneau, and Abraham Yehoshua's "The Return to India" had its film version by Menahem Golan screened at the festival.

The Indian authors charmed the audience with their elegance and eloquence. Arundhati Roy's account of the dam saga and nuclear tests in the subcontinent had a rousing effect. Anita Desai shared artistic concerns in scripting her book In Custody for Ismail Merchant's film "Muhafiz"; and how "tearing the pages and shaping them anew" for a different medium opened up new possibilities of expression "though both were narrative structures".

Contrary to the popular conception that the visual can leave more things unsaid than the verbal account, Desai explained that some things she had left undefined in her book were spelt out on the screen. Besides, "I had thought that actors were spoonfed by the director. I certainly did not imagine that actors could contribute so much through action, look and word. For example, in my book a character plays cards. But Ajay Sahni decided to play the tabla instead. That added another dimension as the drumming became integral to the film."

Two enthusiastically attended seminars were held in the same thoughtfully designed Spazio Cinema hall. One complemented "Indian Summer", a package of 30 films featured in the festival. An impressive array was assembled — Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi, Aruna Vasudev, Anita Desai, Om Puri, Ismail Merchant, scholar P.K. Nair, Adoor Gopalakrishnan ... Bollywood eulogies came from Karnad and Azmi, jeremiads from Om Puri and Derek Malcolm (The Guardian) about Indian cinema's lack of depth and substance; along with remarks about how a "Lagaan" or two paled before the countless flops churned out in the subcontinent. However, the seminar lacked focus and clarity.

In contrast, the round table on "Afghan Day" had unity of thought even through the stumbling articulation of some speakers. The event was "the culmination of seven months of adventure to bring to Europe a piece of Afghanistan". It began with a report of the rediscovery of the surviving prints in the Afghan film archives in Kabul. Though the Taliban had raided the archives and made a bonfire of over a thousand films, intrepid persons had risked their lives to hide whatever footage they could. Some of those prints bear the only testimony to pre-Taliban cultural life, to <243>ancient, pre-Islamic art, and to a society in which wearing the burqa by women was not the norm.

Forty such shorts and docufilms were part of the Locarno festival. I saw one which shook me with the images of the massive Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban.

The accessing of these films by the festival makes a story in itself, with faxes routed through India and Iran, mails through diplomatic personnel from four countries, even the delivery of notes by hand! Every screening at the festival was jam-packed, with long queues for the video films in the library.

The saga of a raped, ravaged, ransacked nation flamed forth in the descriptions of the panel of officials, journalists and film makers. Robert Fisk (correspondent of The Independent) recalled that anarchy was not synonymous with Afghanistan when he visited it in the 1970s, and later, how savvily the Afghans had hid their films behind fake walls with Islamic inscriptions on them. A film maker talked of bombs <243>dropping to kill two artistes during his shoot.

Doctor Alberto Cairo's harrowing account of the orthopaedic centres in Afghanistan for polio and landmine victims was punctuated with the earthy humour of the people he deals with. (He also explained that his relationship with cinema began with the Taliban regime. that was when his patients gave him their video cassettes for safe keeping — "Oh no, not art cinema, but pornography!") Nilofer Pazira (journalist, Afghan refugee in Canada, and lead actor in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Khandahar") recalled how Makhmalbaf was asked why he was making a film on so unimportant a subject as Afghanistan. "That was before September 11 of course!"

"I am fighting against the idea that there is a difference between cinema and the outside world," said festival director Irene Bignardi. Certainly some of those walls came tumbling down on "Afghan Day", leaving images to instigate some rethinking on rage, outrage and reconciliation.


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