The Mumbai International Film Festival has traditionally earned a great deal of respect among viewers and practitioners of cinema in the country. It was the first time that I attended the festival, and it was wonderful to observe that MIFF doesn’t merely limit its activities to the screening of films. The screenings were followed by elaborate discussions and the organizers had arranged for parallel avenues to facilitate discussion on various aspects of the cinematic art. Significantly, these events did not appear to be ‘ritualistic’, despite the festival’s status as a state-sponsored event. One would have to acknowledge the effort of Mr. V.S. Kundu, Director-General at Films Division, and also of the festival; he could often be found sitting with the members of the audience and participating in the discussions himself.
Regardless, for those who care, these qualities of the festival are common knowledge. This edition too featured a number of fascinating sessions (and the respective, accompanying films), but I would like to describe the one that interested me most, personally; a session entitled “Living Archive Project and Cinematic Friendships” curated by Dr. Nicole Wolf. Nicole is an academician who works extensively with moving images. She has been working with feminist Indian documentary filmmakers since 2002. She initiated the session with a workshop on “Cinematic Friendships and Political Fiction.” During the presentation, she spoke at length about an idea she calls ‘Cinematic Friendships.’ I will write about this later in the piece to accompany one of the films presented in the section. She also spoke at length about the prevalent feminist film practices in India, which have radically distinguished themselves from the euro-centric notion of documentary making. She made a special mention of Yugantar, the Indian-based film collective which produced four films between 1980 and 1983. She observed that Yugantar conceived novel methods by which to not merely make films, but also ensure a sustained participation of the eventual viewers themselves in their making. She cited one of their films, in which the filmmakers have long conversations with tobacco labourers which forms the basis of the script for the film as well as the shot division. Nicole concluded that this allowed the film making to become, ‘egalitarian, truly collaborative and the agency of women gels with the process of making.’
The second session of the festival opened with De Cietta Mannera (One way or Another), a 1974 film by Cuban film maker Sara Gomez. To cite Nicole again, the film is considered ‘a watershed moment in the Cuban feminist film history’. It was sad to learn of Sara Gomez’s death from an asthma attack during the final stages of the shooting of the film, due to which it remained incomplete.. The film is based on the experiment of a workers’ commune in Cuba during the 60s. It centers itself around the life of one of the members of this commune and how his social and personal selves interact with each other. One of the prominent features of the film was in its immense objectivity towards truth: the problems of a society undergoing transition are depicted without adopting a normalized, sanitised stand. This is a challenge the period and dynamics of socialist transition have remained a matter of intense debate among laymen and academicians. Taking sides is easier, but Gomez’s attempt constitutes the presentation of a circumstance in a state of fluidity with allthe inherent complexities that this may entail. It is due to this that she took recourse to the form of ‘documentary-fiction.’ Certain parts of the film were fictionalised to serve as a background to the events and parts captured on its documentary-surface, but the vice-versa too is also true. This sort of interplay of forms which are often perceived to be severed and divorced entirely from each other is reminiscent also of Mani Kaul’s Siddeshwari. This is intended in no way to draw a comparison between the two films – entirely different in nature and conceptualization as they are. To return to Nicole, she mentioned that the reason behind the inclusion of this particular film in the festival programme was to construct a ‘horizontal lineage’ between feminist film practices in India and other parts of the non-European world. If we look back, the 70s’ wwere conducive to bold experimentation in film-making practices all around the world. The onslaught of globalization and thereafter, of an easily marketable and as a result, homegenised filmmaking syntax was yet to arrive.
The next film presented in the session was Kya Hua Iss Shehar ko! (What happened to this city!) directed by feminist film maker Deepa Dhanraj. A 1986 film, it depicts the escalating communalisation of Old Hyderabad during the 80s. Old Hyderabad has historically been a place with sizeable populations of both Hindu and Muslims; but no historical record of communal strife. The film, through its lateral coverage of events like the Hindu rath yatras and the Muslim moharram processions, revealed how local politicians would often recontextualise these events as symbols of assertion, territorial control and general propaganda. Deepa’s film, set with the background of frequent curfew, also features a series of interviews of representatives from both the religious factions. Looking at it today, to quote Deepa Dhanraj, ‘one could sense what was to come in the 90s’.’ he long discussion that followed the screening of the film, Deepa talked about the danger inherent in the undertaking of such a project (with instances of an injury to her cinematographer, Navroz Contractor). She also revealed how people who were themselves a part of these strange processions, could relate to their own reality entirely differently when they became members of an audience for the film. when sat down and looked at the film could relate to it in an entirely different manner. Deepa talked of the struggle to exhibit her film in a non-digital era, with her team having to lug physical copies of the films from one location to another to ensure viewership.In the process, the only 16mm copy that remained with the director was not fit for screening anymore and the existing VHS copy became unwatchable due to a degradation in quality. The film was fated to live only in memories. It was only while researching at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art,Berlin that Nicole (who had already heard about the film from Deepa) chanced upon a 16mm copy of the film – in good condition, watchable, etc.. She then collaborated with Deepa to restore the filmdigitally to then re-release it in June 2013. It is here that Nicole evoked the term, ‘Cinematic Friendships’, in that how an archive in German became the place for the resurrection of a seemingly lost (dead) Indian film. It was just because the two could relate to each other in terms of their conceptualisation and complemented each other in intent. Following this, Nicolesuggested that other films produced by the collective Yugantar also be given a place in the archive.
Another film – which may more aptly be called ‘an essay film’- at the festival: Rangbhoomi by veteran Kamal Swaroop. The film borrows its title from a play written by Dadasaheb Phalke during his stay in Benaras. It was during the writing of this play that Phalke considered renouncing the film industry and crossing over to theatre. It is said that the play centered around Phalke’s own life. This essay film chronicles how Kamal Swaroop and his team went about researching Phalke’s stay and his activities in Benaras. The script of the play, manifest in a series of of monologues by Kamal Swaroop himself, provides a parallel narrative to the process of research. but the two seem to exist in some sort of harmony, acting as each other’s mysterious reinforcements. This has to be attributed to the mastery of Mr. Kamal Swaroop.