FRIDAY REVIEW

One for the audience

Deepa Mehta's

Deepa Mehta's "Bollywood Hollywood"... fascination for Indian films.  

THE HOLLYWOOD-Bollywood models have worn themselves out as evident from the increasing number of flops churned out year after year, both in the East and the West. Though some meaningful cinema is being made in the Third World countries, the realities of commerce and distribution make it impossible for most of us to view them.

A festival like the "Films From the South" (FFS) in Oslo, Norway (October 11-20), becomes a vital link between such alternative cinema and the audience. By providing a window to films from the three continents (Asia, Africa and Latin America), the event proved that film-makers in over 30 nations were trying to express the experiential realities in their different cultures in ways that strove to make them as interesting as possible, and stylistically different from the mainstream mould.

FFS grew out of the eagerness for films from far off places and cultures in a group of students at the Oslo University. It still retains that intimate quality, though the festival has seen a steady growth in ticket sales, the number of theatres, and films (113 from 30 nations in 2002). The audiences are almost wholly Scandinavians, except for the Iranian or Bollywood films, which draw immigrants from Asian countries.

The festival offers (wholehearted, not grudging) space for short films, with packages this year from India and Mexico. It spots fine documentaries, a genre often more trenchant than feature film for lancing themes tricky or troublesome.

"Whispering Sands"... award winner, full of poetic metaphor.

"Whispering Sands"... award winner, full of poetic metaphor.  

Last year, ``Jung'' (War), stunned Nordic viewers with the brutalities of daily life in Afghanistan, its impact all the greater for the festival coming soon after the 9/11 disaster.

This year, films on Ali Farka from Mali, the only African musician to win a Grammy, or the Zimbabwean singer, Oliver Mtukudzi, used the exciting rhythms of the ``Dark'' continent on a journey through the history of their nations.

There were rare opportunities to view Africa through its features. ``Maangamizi: the Ancient One'' evoked the ancestral spirits of Tanganyikan culture for the process of healing.

``Borders'' by debutant Mostefa Djadjam from Morocco, was a humour-laced take off on six Senegalese smuggling themselves across Africa for what they hope will be a better life in Europe. ``100 Days'' (Director: Nick Hughes), the first feature from Rwanda, framed tribal strife and genocide, but through a love story between Baptiste and Josette. "Red Satin" (Raja Amari, Tunisia) made strong feminist statements with belly dancing as the protagonist's means of cracking the conformist mould.

There were films like ``Hijack Stories" which merely transferred the action thriller to South Africa, some floundered in seeking new directions, (Public Toilets, Fruit Chan) and others couldn't get beyond feel good fantasy. However, even when they were poor in technology, or betrayed strained finances, most films avoided self-indulgence. Instead, you felt the urgency of a socio-political protest. ``Eliana Eliana" from Indonesia (Director: Riri Riza) was a good example. Spurning an arranged marriage, high-spirited Eliana leaves home for a difficult but independent life in Jakarta. The urban film moves through a series of confrontations between mother and daughter as they move across the city at night. The two women make a wonderful contrast as they go through anger, resentment and bewilderment to end on a note of tender understanding, of themselves and the society in which they must make their own separate ways. What the film lacked in craft it made up in concept.

"Eliana Eliana"... from Indonesia, sound in concept.

"Eliana Eliana"... from Indonesia, sound in concept.  

FFS offers a platform for parallel modes, but is not elitist, often including films later taken up for mainstream distribution in Norway. Since ``Lagaan," Indian masala films are being considered for this category, in Scandinavia as elsewhere in Europe. It was natural for FFS therefore to include an ``Indian Summer" section with the focus on Mani Ratnam (``Kannathil Muthamittal"/``Bombay"), along with Govind Nihalani's futuristic ``Deham" and Deepa Mehta's controversial ``Fire" and ``Earth."

The fascination for India was reflected in the special screenings of co-productions like Asif Kapadia's ``The Warrior" and Pan Nalin's ``Samsara." Both had breathtaking cinematography to present India as exotica: the land of deserts and mountains, of feudal warriors, mystic dreams, mysterious women and snow-circled monasteries.

In Deepa Mehta's rumbustious comedy, ``Bollywood Hollywood," the tangles get started when the mother refuses to allow the sister to marry until her elder brother is engaged to a girl of impeccable ``Indian" birth.

So the boy (Rahul Khanna) is forced to enlist a Spanish woman (Lisa Ray who rivals Aishwarya Roy in gorgeousness) to masquerade as his Indian fiancee. The Spanish maiden turns out to be a Punjabi, boy falls in love with girl, but is she a sati or a whore? The film was embarrassing. Not because it was unabashedly commercial, but because it was so tacky, a trite comedy that could not replicate the tang of the asli desi Mumbai product, either in acting, song sequence, lavish sets or the swinging rhythms of Bollywood. Nor could it convince you as a spoof, because the narrative took intermittent dives into lachrymose realism. The dialogue was lumpy and ponderous.

A telling fact at the Oslo festival 2002 was that the winners of the festival's three awards (the FFS Award, the Fipresci Prize and Audience Award) had one thing in common. They focussed on relationships between parent and child. ``The Son of the Bride" (Juan Jose Campanella, Argentina) won the audience vote with its depiction of the son's failure as a restaurateur, augmented by the mother's debilitation due to Alzheimer's disease.

Fipresci (Association of International Critics) winner, ``Whispering Sands" from Indonesia, wove subdued, poetic metaphors, surprising in a debut film. Nothing was explicit, not even the period in which the film is set. We deduce that it is a time of drought and political upheaval. Soldiers march past, stupefying in their casual cruelty. Young Daya escapes with her mother to live in penury. The father returns, his quips and folk tales a winsome contrast to the mother's dourness. But how can Daya's love for him survive the disillusionment of his selling her to the local merchant in a scene which terrifies you with its quietness — the father sitting in the van, waiting and watching on the vehicle's tiny mirror his daughter's shame... The film's feminism is oblique. All that director Nan Achnas has to do is to show the women working while the prodigal sits idling the hours away.

The camera's slow rhythms match the moods, capturing indigenous life of everyday, the folk traditions of masks and puppets, of herbs, home made poisons and remedies. The music was remarkable, piercing flutes blending with the soughing sands, gently, unobtrusively, painfully. The best thing about ``Whispering Sands" was that its understatement was not at the cost of clarity. On the contrary, it heightened the emotion, and created its own style.

``A realistic film with many unrealistic happenings, a linear work with moments out of time" would be the easiest description of the Venezuelan film,``A House with the View of the Sea," which bagged the FFS award. Director Alberto Arvelo gets wonderful performances from his cast of professionals as also amateurs from the remote villages on the Andes mountains where he shot his film. Based partly on a well-known novel, the story is about a peasant father who tries to do his best for his little motherless son. The even tenor of their stark lifestyle, and dreams of sailing on the ocean, are interrupted when the father stabs the land owner, in what he sees as an act of justice for having hurt and humiliated his son. ``I cannot be a coward, I must be able to look you in the eye," is the explanation he gives the son as he is handcuffed and dragged away. The narrative of 1948 draws its timeless magic from motifs that defy logic: a photographer who lives in his truck parked in the wilderness, the son building a boat with mast and sail in the middle of the field, a pair of boots, a seashell... The sepia tints create both distance and intimacy. The film celebrates the presence of the unusual where we least expect it, the strength of the human spirit, and the power of love without the least intrusion of sentimentality.

The FFS has developed a character of its own as a festival for audiences. It began with the aim of creating an awareness of distant cultures as part of global existence. In the years to come, it hopes to reach out to ethnic groups within the city, and drawing larger audiences for films made in parts of the world where daily life is riven with contradictions and threats, where each moment is intense, not only with fears and insecurities, but with dreams and hopes of a better life. Such conditions often infuse film making with freshness, which in turn may instil a new understanding in the viewer.

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