Notes from the Kolkata International Film Festival

100 years of Bengali cinema, how to run (at) a masterclass, exploring middle-aged loneliness, and more

November 23, 2018 05:05 pm | Updated 05:09 pm IST

A film that overwhelms: A still from Sanjoy Nag’s ‘Yours Truly’

A film that overwhelms: A still from Sanjoy Nag’s ‘Yours Truly’

After a well-deserved Deepavali break, it was time for Kolkata, where the 24th edition of the International Film Festival began at the Netaji Indoor Stadium where a capacity crowd of 20,000 saved their most raucous cheers for Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. On stage with them were Iranian legend Majid Majidi, of whose oeuvre there was a retrospective of during the festival; a large delegation from the country in focus (Australia), including Moulin Rouge  editor Jill Bilcock, Garth Davis, whose Lion  was filmed partially in the city of joy, and actor and director Simon Baker; and of course, all the top Bengali cinema stars and legends like Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee.

The festival celebrated the centenary of Bengali cinema, and for this reason the inaugural film was Sunil Bannerjee’s 1967 classic Antony Firingee , starring Uttam Kumar and Tanuja, rather than a contemporary film. 

For me, the highlight of the festival was a masterclass delivered by Australian doyen Phillip Noyce, who also had a retrospective dedicated to him. Noyce refused to hold a standard masterclass where he spoke, and the audience listened. Instead, he began with an interactive experience where he drew the audience into a circle and made them run around the room. He then exhorted them to choose a partner, who had to close his or her eyes, and lead them around the festival’s central venue, the Nandan complex. This was to establish the very basis of cinema, according to Noyce: teamwork and trust. He also underscored the importance of music in cinema, using his masterly Rabbit-Proof Fence  (2002) as an example. 

And now on to the films. While it is difficult, not to mention unfair, to pick favourites from hundreds of great movies, I have to single out two. Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined , is, on the surface, a Singapore noir where the worlds of an insomniac cop and an equally insomniac migrant worker collide, not always necessarily in the physical plane. The film is much more than that and delves into the worlds of online gaming, the bond between migrant workers — in this case from China and Bangladesh — and becomes a meditation on the very nature of identity and country. The film has clinched awards, winning the Golden Leopard at Locarno and the Golden Star at El Gouna, amongst many others. 

I had missed the world première of Sanjoy Nag’s Yours Truly  at Busan as it was on one of those festival cusp moments. At its packed India première at Kolkata, the film overwhelmed me. Soni Razdan stars as a North Indian office worker in the Kolkata suburbs whose existence is humdrum, but she keeps it exciting with a relationship with the voice of a man who may or may not exist. Keeping matters exciting are her downstairs tenant Pankaj Tripathi and her feisty sister, Aahana Kumra. As a richly detailed study of middle-class existence, the film is a gem. As an exploration of middle-aged loneliness, it is a masterpiece, in the same league as Aparna Sen’s 36  Chowringhee Lane  (1981). 

Naman Ramachandran is a journalist and author of  Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, and tweets @namanrs 

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