In 1965 in Bombay, film critic Rashid Irani was battling a giant dilemma. Amidst the jitters of an upcoming college exam, a young Irani heard the announcement of a film festival in the city. Taking the risk, he attended the festival along with his friend, a film buff of equal calibre. But little did Irani know this was his foray into a life-long sojourn of film festivals, one that would take him across the country and acquaint him with the best of world cinema.
The film critic has attended innumerable festivals around India over the last five decades. But the memory of the first one still remains vivid. Irani recounts watching Tom Jones (1963), The Servant (1963) and Czechoslovakian film The Shop on Main Street (1965), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The festival also saw Irani witness his first film festival disappointment. “Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) was to be screened and they pulled it down without a reason and played some other film,” recalls Irani.
For Rafique Baghdadi, who won the National Award for Best Film Critic in 2008, film festivals have been more of a wholesome experience. Having attended his first film festival in Bombay in 1976, he has over the decades made numerous friends from across India and the globe and immersed himself in the culture of the city he travelled to, be it Bengaluru, Goa, Delhi or Kolkata. "People used to come from all over. We travelled to Delhi in the cold weather to attend a festival, and sat around with a glass of rum in that weather to discuss films after the festival,” reminisces Baghdadi.
Discovering new films
Two aspects of film festivals Irani finds most alluring are discovering new films and attending retrospectives of filmmakers. The film critic discovered celebrated filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Chantel Akerman, Manoel de Oliveira and Lav Diaz at various film festivals he attended over the years. “Sometimes they just happen by chance. For instance, the first Abbas Kiarostami film [I saw] was Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987). It was at a festival in Kerala somewhere in the ‘80s,” says Irani, who saw an Iranian feature film for the first time out of curiosity to hear the language. As far as retrospectives go, the film critic most fondly recalls watching the works of Charlie Chaplin at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Delhi in 1975.
To discover films and watch retrospectives, the three festivals Irani unfailingly attends every year are the Mumbai Film Festival, Pune International Film Festival and IFFI (now held in Goa). “I used to attend Bangalore, Kerala, Delhi and Calcutta as well before,” shares Irani, adding that the International Film Festival of Kerala was his favourite for around a decade. “But now the crowd there is unbearable and rowdy,” he says.
Baghdadi has, over the years, narrowed down his list to three festivals as well. He attended the Mumbai Film Festival, IFFI in Goa, and Bengaluru International Film Festival last year, and hopes to do the same this year too. When asked to pick his favourite festival of the lot, the film critic-cum-historian, says festivals can only be judged based on the movies they screen that year. “It’s like harvesting of wine. If you go to France, they’ll say the Bordeaux wasn’t so good this year,” he says.
Down memory lane
From starting out as starry-eyed film enthusiasts to becoming veteran festival attendees, both Irani and Baghdadi have picked up several memories along with the way. One that still evokes a sense of regret for Irani is his fleeting encounter with Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. “This was in 1979 at IFFI in Delhi. My friends and I gave this unheard Belgian film called Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) a shot,” recalls Irani.
According to Irani, a few minutes into the movie, people started walking out in large numbers. But for reasons unknown to him, the film critic stayed till the end. “The film turned out to be one my best discoveries,” says Irani. After the screening, Irani and his friends sat down with renowned Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros in a café for a chat. During the discussion, Irani was informed that the maker of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, Chantal Akerman was sitting on a corner table. “What a beautiful sight [she] was, sitting there all by herself, nursing a coffee,” recounts Irani, who immediately walked up to her. “I spoke to her for barely two minutes, because I was already part of a conversation on another table with Mészáros,” says Irani. He counts that as one of the biggest regrets of his life. “I would never forgive myself for not sitting there. It was the first and the last time I ever saw her,” he says.
For Baghdadi, spotting and interacting with filmmakers and actors has always been enriching, and often humourous. “I used to carry a camera with me,” he says, while recounting his encounter with prolific French actor and filmmaker Jeanne Moreau at a film festival in Delhi. “I asked Rashid, who was with me, to take a picture along with Moreau. He kept clicking, but couldn’t take a photograph. Moreau took the camera and tried to click but she couldn’t either. Finally, I opened the camera and realised there was no film in it,” laughs Baghdadi.
Travelling for movies
Despite travelling across India to attend international film festivals, Baghdadi and Irani have refrained from travelling to festivals abroad extensively. While Baghdadi has attended film festivals in London and Nantes, Irani has never been to a festival abroad. Both the veterans, however, strongly believe that films shown in festivals in India are equally eclectic as abroad.
“I have a theory; everything comes to he who waits. I waited over 20 to 30 years to see Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) and it was screened five years ago at the International film festival of Kerala. The film is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel and is rarely shown anywhere,” smiles Irani.
Seeing MAMI grow
As part of their cinematic obsession, the duo has seen MAMI grow from birth to its 18th edition. Both Irani and Baghdadi agree that during the initial years of the festival, a lot was left to be desired as far as programming was concerned. “A lot of their programming was undergoing changes and on the first day, if few of your films aren’t showing, it’s not a good sign,” warns Irani. “But when Srinivasan Narayan took over as festival director, the selection of films became far superior,” adds Baghdadi.
Being a member of the selection committee for MAMI, Irani is tight-lipped about his recommendations. However, he suggests that one must look out for documentaries and films in the international competition section. Baghdadi swears by documentaries as well, but plans to go to the festival with an open mind.
BOX: The retrospectives this year
Watching retrospectives at various film festivals has been a highlight for both Rashid Irani and Rafique Baghdadi across all film festivals. This edition of Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival will show the retrospectives of two stalwarts of cinema: filmmaker Bimal Roy and film archivist P.K. Nair.
Known for his realistic and thought-provoking cinema, Bengali filmmaker Bimal Roy’s three classics that will be screened include Bandini (1963), Udayer Pathey (1944) and Do Bigha Zameen (1953).
Celluloid Man (2012), a documentary on the life of film archivist and scholar P.K. Nair, will be screened as a tribute to him. Nair was the founder and director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in 1964, and played an instrumental role in archiving several Indian classics. Two of the films Nair restored — V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Maane (1937) and the Kannada film Ghatashraddha (1977) by Girish Kasaravalli — will be screened as well.