Things have a way of coming a full circle. Mohamed Diab’s Clash , the earliest film I saw at this year’s Jio Mami 18th Mumbai Film Festival With Star, segues in rather well with the last: Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped . One is from Egypt, the other from India, but both are about recreating an overwhelming claustrophobia — political and personal — and bring alive the worst of our nightmares. Clash is about a group of Muslim Brotherhood members and pro-army supporters (as well as some non-aligned individuals) caught in the confines of a police van as protests and violence play out on the streets of Cairo. The van becomes a microcosm of the world outside: chaotic, out of control, cruel, but broken intermittently by glimpses of humour and humanity. Will people rise above their differences? Will sanity eventually prevail?
Trapped shows a man on the verge of losing sanity as he gets stuck in a flat in an unoccupied, desolate high-rise with no food, water, electricity or company. It’s an unusual survival drama. Who would think that you would need to go through such an endurance test in the thick of the urban jungle? That is, in a city with more people per square feet than perhaps anywhere else in the country. There are many ifs and buts to debate on in the film, but where Trapped succeeds is in making the audience also feel stuck like the protagonist (Rajkummar Rao setting a new acting benchmark for himself). The alienation and suffocation cuts too close to the bone, his desperation and anxiety become your own and the unexpected moments of humour break your own tension, as much as they are a relief in the overall narrative.
Films at a festival have a way of creating a larger pattern for the viewers. As you keep moving from one to the other, many thematic threads keep emerging, almost reflexively. Often, the realities on-screen strike a chord with or clash against the realities of your own world outside the theatre. No wonder there was an obvious irony in watching the political protests filmed in the wake of the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on-screen in Clash, while Mumbai outraged over the imposition of the “Rs. 5 crore penalty” against Hindi films for using Pakistani artistes.
A disruptive sensibility akin to Clash also underlines both Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Neruda is all about the poet Pablo Neruda crossing swords with the Chilean regime that has abandoned the Communist ideals. It’s about the defiant poetry Neruda writes in exile, and how it fires up the public and other artistes like Pablo Picasso, who rise up in his defence. Most of all, it is about the transforming power of art, how Neruda’s own works fire the artistic sensibilities of the “supporting actor” — the cop Oscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal — and turns his life upside down.
I, Daniel Blake is about the struggles of an ailing common man against the labyrinthine welfare bureaucracy to get that elusive ‘employment and support allowance’. All he asks for, through his dissent, is the benefits he deserves and his basic dignity as a citizen: to be treated like a man rather than a dog. Will he get that right, or won’t he?
Beyond politics, there is the theme of morality in all its complexity in Asghar Farhadi’s layered film, The Salesman. At one level, the film reminded me of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak , about a young couple moving into and not being able to deal with living in a flat in the red light area. Here, the couple moves into a flat whose previous tenant is rumoured to have been a prostitute. Things come to a head as a stranger unleashes violence against the woman, and soon enough, cracks start manifesting in the marriage. As the need for taking revenge starts overpowering the man, the viewer begins wondering who is right and who is in the wrong. Who decides on the rightful punishment for a crime? Can the victim also turn a criminal? And can a criminal get turned into a victim by circumstance?
The subtlety of Farhadi makes way for a metaphorical interpretation of insidious violence in Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song by Bhutanese monk and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu. Set in a primordial, elemental equivalent of the online world of anonymity, here people wear masks even while they sleep and their gender remains as hidden as their faces. Curiosity and desire give way to violence, and it’s the woman who is at the receiving end of it. But nothing gets as twisted, transgressive, disturbing, and strangely liberating and cathartic, as the narrative on rape in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle . And in no other film would you find the victim depicted so unsympathetically and as disconcertingly entitled and arrogant (riding on an astonishing performance by Isabelle Huppert). I am still processing it and trying to come to terms with it in my head.
Like Huppert, Sonia Braga is awe-inspiring as the last woman standing against the builder who wants to take over her apartment block, in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius . She gutsily refuses to sell her flat, and fights a threatening disease even as she stays the centre of her small family. Much like the unflappable matriarch played by Kirin Kiki in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After The Storm , who is admirable in being resolutely independent, but also a nurturing core, who takes the dysfunctionality of her family in her stride with a sense of humour gloriously intact.
If there were many good women, then there have been a few good men as well. Like Tschick, the kooky teenager of Russian descent in Fatih Akin’s Goodbye Berlin. He might steal to get by, may not get anything right, but is utterly loveable, someone who makes you laugh, and someone you care about.
Last, but definitely not the least, is Prakash ji , the eccentric projector mechanic in Amit Madhesiya and Shirley Abraham’s beautiful ode to a threatened species called the travelling cinema, in their documentary The Cinema Travellers.
A repository of history, memories and anecdotes, he is also the symbol of the end of an era, and of continuity and survival. He is never cynical, nor resigned, but warm, positive, hopeful. Just like the film.