mumbai film festival

The Mumbai Film Festival began as a modest affair, though with the sponsorship of Fox’s Star network and telecom giant Reliance Jio in recent years, it’s exploded into a prestigious destination for cinema the world over. This year, the festival’s 20th, saw both premieres of Indian art-house films as well as arrivals of various 2018 festival darlings — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, you name it — but what separates the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI for short, after parent organization Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) from most festivals with such a vast selection is affordability.

For just 500 rupees — or $6.90 at the time of writing — the festival affords week-long access to over 200 films from the world over. I personally met folks who had travelled from all corners of the country (some, even internationally) to watch heavy-hitters like Roma, Border, Diamantino and Burning, films that may not otherwise see theatrical release in all parts of the world. It feels celebratory, too; given that the lineup is spread across half a dozen locations within a 12-mile radius, MAMI essentially becomes a city-wide affair. Cinema ought to be for everyone, not just folks who can afford skyrocketing ticket prices or the latest streaming service, and in that vein MAMI succeeds.

However, the story of this year’s festival wasn’t just its 20th anniversary or the reduced cost of access, but rather, the festival’s commitment to India’s chapter of the #MeToo movement, which began to see numerous abusers and harassers called to be removed from positions of power in early October. With the festival set to begin on October 25, the folks at MAMI had decisions to make.

In a near-unprecedented move, the fest responded to recent allegations of sexual misconduct by pulling five films from its lineup: Kadhak starring accused actor Rajat Kapoor; Chintu Ka Birthday made by recently-dissolved comedy troupe All India Bakchod after their mishandling of abuse allegations; Queen produced by Anurag Kashyap’s similarly dissolved Phantom Films for mishandlings of allegations against director Vikas Bahl; Awake produced by Kashyap’s Phantom co-founder Vikramaditya Motwane; and Binnu Ka Sapna produced by Terribly Tiny Tales, whose founder Chintan Ruperal was accused of abuse by several women. All were dropped in the days and weeks leading up to the festival.

Shortly thereafter, filmmakers themselves began to follow suit, as Kannada-language film Balakempa (or The Bangle Seller), which had been racking up festival awards and nominations since 2017, was withdrawn so producers could investigate allegations made against its director, Ere Gowda. Through action (and eventually, through written statements), the Mumbai Film Festival had unquestionably thrown its support behind women coming forward.

Of course, the loss of these films did little to dull the shine of the final lineup, which boasted an embarrassment of riches in its Indian, French, International, Retrospective, midnight “After Dark” and children’s “Half-Ticket” selections, not to mention talks with filmmakers like Sean Baker, Darren Aronofsky and Lucrecia Martel. Everything from Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing (her follow-up to India’s 2019 Oscar submission Village Rockstars) to Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Thai refugee drama Manta Ray to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You made waves during MAMI week until it closed with Steve McQueen’s Widows, with countless festival attendees waking up bright and early to make their online selections at 8:00 AM, or lining up for hours for stand-by entry once films inevitably sold out.

Granted, increased access makes for a bit of a chaotic affair (attendance this year was a record-breaking 13,000!), but the passion on display was unquestionable, and the lack of government film censorship (which applies only to public releases, not festivals) meant a refreshing widening of available content. Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built featured an expected number of walkouts, but that something so unapologetically violent played in Mumbai at all feels like a blessing. 

I could spend hours talking about the films that played at MAMI this year. Thankfully, I managed to cover the likes of Cold War, Non-Fiction, Wildlife, Shoplifters, 3 Faces, High-Life, The Wild Pear Tree and Ash is Purest White at the New York Film Festival, which provides a little breathing room to discuss a handful of works that may not have otherwise received the spotlight. So, without further ado, here are 5 highlights from the 20th Mumbai Film Festival.

1. Climax (Gaspar Noé)

France, English/French

An intoxicating, adrenaline-fueled descent into Hell, Climax isn’t just the latest Gaspar Noé film, but perhaps the most Gaspar Noé film as well. It’s societal destruction told through dance, bringing down the narrow wall between violence and performance art and sending its two dozen or so perfomers down a rabbit-hole of LSD-infused aggression, insecurity and sexual impulse; pure id turned to carefully constructed (yet free-flowing) character drama. Even at a mere 86 minutes, it packs in a world of garish, neon-washed hedonism, playing out in the form of long-takes as its unique characters reach the end of their inevitable collision courses. If society is truly at a tipping point, this is the most unsettling, most alluring depiction of the end of the world. (Full Review)

2. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard)

Switzerland, French

Even at 87 years of age, Jean-Luc Gard remains one our most transgressive filmmakers. What his 1960 film Breathless was to the neatly constructed American studio-zeitgeist, The Image Book is to the chaotic age of New Media. More abstract video essay than straightforward narrative, Godard laments the inability of the modern moving picture to accurately reflect the violence of the 21st century, an era defined by America’s war on the Middle East and by images that we have total manipulative control of. In response, he twists and contorts images of violence until they begin to feel violent themselves, un-writing the rules of cinematic language he helped pen in the first place before proceeding to tell a story through some new form of unsettling visual lingua franca that we aren’t quite ready for. (Full Review)

3. MA•AMA (Dominic Sangma)

China/India, Garo

Beginning with a poetic dream sequence in which the aged Philip Sangma (played by the director’s father) fails to find his long-departed wife amongst a sea of silent women, MA•AMA immediately scales back upon its return to the real world, approaching Philip through a neo-realist lens as he embarks on one final spiritual quest before his passing. He seeks religious guidance to answer a nagging question about the after-life: when he dies, and if he’s re-united with his wife, will she look the same as she did when she died? Or would she have aged like he has? A story about regret and embracing death with open arms (in which the director plays a version of himself desperate to re-create the memories of a mother he never knew), MA•AMA is one of the most haunting and unique films to come out of India in recent memory, and Dominic Sangma is the closest thing the nation has to Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

4. Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu)

Kenya, English/Swahili

The most poignant moment in Rafiki comes in late in the film, in the form of two queer strangers sitting side-by-side, commiserating in silence as their scars do all the talking. Banned in Kenya due to its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law,” it’s a film whose very existence feels dangerous (anyone in possession of it might be jailed) and yet, it’s a joyous, defiant rebuke that justifies the need for its own presence in the culture at large. A love story between the daughters of two political opponents (Samantha Mugatsia’s boyish Kena and Sheila Munyiva’s otherworldly, rainbow-haired Ziki), Rafiki is African queer cinema at its bravest, washing its entire palette in soft and comforting pink as the pair fall in love, before whipping back to the harsh realities of queerness in Kenya, from mob violence to the structures that grant it permission. And yet, it proves to be one of the rare films of its ilk that post-scripts realistic atrocities with a promise of a life fully lived, even after the trauma.

5. Supa Modo (Likarion Wainaina)

Kenya, English/Sheng/Swahili

In a just world, Rafiki might have been Kenya’s submission to the 2019 Oscars, though the film sent in its stead is still worth talking about. In Supa Modo, brilliant child actress Stycie Waweru is tasked with playing Jo, a terminally ill girl living out her last days pretending to be a superhero. Her mother Kathryn (Marianne Nungo), a midwife who brings life into their township, shoulders the harsh reality of Jo’s impending passing, while Jo’s sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia) fights to deal with the bitterness of loss by giving in to Jo’s fantasies, convincing her neighbors to play out elaborates scenarios in which Jo saves the day. Neither woman is necessarily wrong — the camera is playful as it follows Jo on her adventures, yet suitably still when her illness takes hold — but where Likarion Wainaina’s debut especially succeeds is in capturing the struggle to find balance and makes sense of unspeakable tragedy, as the forces of denial and acceptance continue to collide.

Supa Modo is a delicate film, one that even manages to be joyful at times. As part of the festival’s Half-Ticket selection (along with the likes of Ponyo and A Wrinkle in Time), the film was contextualized for the largely child audience in attendance with the requisite tenderness. Not only as a film with heavy subject matter, mind you, but as art by and about a culture and people often looked down upon; anti-blackness, after all, is globally pervasive. When the film was introduced to the kids in the audience, the moderator’s approach was to connect the dots between the multitude of languages spoken on screen and the many tongues one tends to hear in India, thus opening the door for children present to connect more readily to different cultures, priming future cinema-goers for the world outside their walls.

***

At this point in our collective history, standing on the side of justice and preparing future generations to be more open, more loving and more accepting is the best that curators of art and culture can hope to do. In that vein, the Mumbai Film Festival is beyond exemplary. The hashtag used in relation to the fest is #JioMAMI, which, while a branding effort on behalf of Reliance Jio, also translates to “Long live MAMI.” The sentiment is hard not to endorse.

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