Barefoot Harsh Mander

Some 70mm moments

A still from Departures.  

The International Film Festival in Goa in November 2013 came alive with young audiences from across the country patiently standing in long lines to watch serious world cinema. They were the real stars of this festival. In many shows, disappointed audiences were turned away because every seat was taken. There is a new audience out there, ready for new ideas, new film grammar, and new reflective cinema. The time is long overdue for a publically financed network of art theatres in every city in the country. In my three days in Goa, I spent most time with the Soul of Asia segment, which introduced me to some fine films described in an earlier column. I recall here a few other films which remain with me even as the weeks pass after the festival. The best of these, from the same Soul segment, is a meditative exploration of death and the discovery of the joy of service. In the Japanese Departures, Director Yojiro Takita follows an out-of-work cello player, desperate to find any employment to survive. The young man answers an enigmatic advertisement from a funeral company, and finds that his work involves embalming and decorating corpses before they are buried. Gradually, he discovers an unexpected vocation in helping bereaved families cope with death, loss and regret.

Another reflective film, on the theme of loneliness, is the Dutch director Nanouk Leopold’s It’s All So Quiet. A middle-aged farmer lives alone in his dairy-farm with his bed-bound elderly father whom he tends diligently but without love, haunted by memories of childhood violence. As he perseveres with his daily routine of caring for his milch cattle, there are two other men he encounters regularly, one a milk collector who drives to the farm each day to pick up milk; and another, a very young farm hand who takes a room in the farmhouse. Each barely talks with the other, but there is throughout an undercurrent of unfulfilled emotional and sexual longing. The film adopts a minimalist narrative style, deploying few words and even less drama. But it evokes a lingering sense of solitude and isolation, which resonated deeply.

Adopting a diametrically opposite idiom of exuberant comic irony is Philippine director Jeffrey Jeturian’s Ekstra (Extra), an affectionate salute to the underdog. It follows one day in the life of a middle-aged woman extra, a bit player in television soap operas, after she is woken in the early hours of the morning one day to drive to a location shoot in the neighbouring countryside. The director subversively casts one of the Philippines’ best-loved actors, Vilma Santos, in the role of the extra. The viewer for once roots for the anonymous crowd — the farmer on the fields, the domestic help patiently waiting, and the guests in the background of a wedding — while the lead players strut and recite their lines. We watch the class system in the enormous gaps in food and lodging between stars and extras. The film mocks the hilarious script trajectories of the soap opera, and the vanity and fragile egos of its lead players. I often felt that if just the names were changed in the film’s script, it could have been located in India with no substantial changes.

There were many homage retrospectives as well, including of Czech director Jiri Menzel, whose entertaining but slight opera comedy Don Juans opened the festival.

However, the tribute which delighted me the most was the one to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an exceptional screen writer who passed away earlier this year. She was through all her adult life an acutely observant, unsentimental but sympathetic chronicler of the human condition. Her life spanned three continents, and she belonged to all, but also to none. A Polish Jew born in Germany in the 1930s, her father survived the Holocaust but took his own life when he discovered that almost his entire family was slaughtered. Ruth married a Parsi Indian architect Jhabvala, lived in and loved India until 1975. She moved to New York where until her death she collaborated with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant to write many memorable films.

This was a single-film tribute, and we owe Jhabvala’s memory a richer retrospective of all her films. In Goa I enjoyed watching Shakespeare Wallah with Ruth’s elder daughter, Renana Jhabvala, a senior social worker whose work in SEWA I have long admired, who the festival authorities had invited to pay tribute to her mother. As I watched the film 45 years after I first saw it, I found fitting that Ruth’s story was ultimately about impermanence and the inevitability of change. The poignancy of the doomed idealism of a British theatre company dedicated to introducing Indian audiences to Shakespeare, but for whom people have no time as tastes change and time moves forward inexorably, was heightened acutely for me as I watched an India of my childhood now long past.


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